I don’t think there’s anything inherent about the restaurant industry that makes it more worthy of death than any other industry.
I don’t know if I like that. There’s a conflation there of a safety net with employment—and with precarious employment, at that. It’s sort of like saying that because we don’t have socialized mental-health care in this country, that prisons and jails are the closest things we have to that, and so if we close down prisons and jails, we’re leaving these folks no option but to be on the street. I’m not equating restaurant work to being in prison, but I think the biggest issue with employment in general—anywhere in the world, but especially in the U.S.—is lack of choice. The existence of precarious jobs is not the same as security. On the face of it, that perspective sounds like an excuse to keep an industry going that’s problematic. It sounds terrible. It’s like somebody saying, “Stay in this marriage, even though you are suffering terribly. Stay in it for your children.”
How many people in this crowd are asymptomatic? Worse, how many know they’re sick, and are “hiding their zombie-bite?”
I will say that with most of my work, I’m always a little circumspect. So even though the sentiment has always been “let it die,” I had never said those exact words. And it wasn’t like I was super comfortable saying it! I have people who I care about who are part of that industry. So, in a way, the essay is euphemistic—only because I know it’s not going to happen, I know the restaurant industry is not going to actually die, so I have the space to be very forceful.
But it wasn’t just an essay about letting things die, it’s also about what can rise from the rubble. There is something better on the other side.
I don’t think we should save anything that causes pain and destruction. I want to be clear that I’m only talking about the pain and destruction that restaurants cause. I don’t think they cause pain and destruction to the exclusion of everything else. They do contribute value.
“Don’t sit trapped in a box full of strangers pumping who-knows-what out of their lungs into the communal breathing air! Come to our open patio, where you can always lots of get fresh air and sunlight. Remain 6’ away from people... and whatever they’re spreading.”
I fully expect them to use the coronavirus crisis as reason to reduce compensation and benefits for their workers
This is very hard on a lot of working families but we have to survive or there is no company.
You’re doing the people a favor if you get them furloughed first, because you have them first to unemployment line after the severance that you give them. It’s a trick that I’ve learned many years ago.
Still, fixing the restaurant industry isn’t just about fixing restaurants themselves. Even if you make individual workplaces more fair, you can’t remake the industry, or at least not fully, without massive changes to the systems that it operates in and around, like agriculture, real estate, and health care. “Because most people running restaurants aren’t the owners of that real estate, they can’t dictate the cost of running a business,” she explained. Commercial rents in the Bay Area are among the highest in the country, with Curbed SF reporting in 2019 that retail rental sites that year posted “record increases in average prices almost every month, breaking all-time high records not just once but several times.” (Just last week, a restaurant an hour north of the city closed after 46 years because its landlord hit it with a staggering 300 percent rent increase.)
And owners have long relied on exploitation, not just of their servers making $2.13 an hour (the national tipped minimum wage) or of undocumented back-of-house workers, but also, at a distance, of the agricultural workers growing and processing the food served on their tables, from farms to meat and poultry plants. Any attempt to “fix” restaurants must also include a fight for fair wages, reliable benefits, safe conditions, and workplace democracy for workers in the industries that restaurants rely on, not just the workers placing the fried chicken sandwich on the table. Unfortunately, Wey said, “a lot of people have a difficult time imagining a system that doesn’t exploit people.” (Just look at how take-out customers are tipping horribly during the pandemic.)
EL: Because you're right, anybody who really starts seriously reviewing somebody who's desperately trying to stay in business by offering takeout and delivery really deserves to be ex-communicated from the restaurant critic association.
PW: Right. So as a journalist, you could say this is available, you know which The Times has been doing. Florence Fabricant’s been rounding and finding some interesting stuff here, people doing lobster dinners here. So you can certainly do that. This is available. This is an option that you might choose to avail yourself of. But to sort of, I don’t know… to do a thumbs up or thumbs down, forget it. And then the other part of the job is in good times is to not just say, "This is good, this is garbage," but it's to take things and put them in context a little bit. And sometimes it means understanding what the chef is up to. Understanding how is northern Thai cuisine being presented in this restaurant that's different from the restaurant across the street. And none of that really applies now, nobody needs you to you know help them understand the meaning of a restaurant right now.
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