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hospitality

Features, Musings

NEVER HAVE YOU HAD A CATASTROPHIC SHIFT LIKE THIS

April 24, 2020

By Jabriel Donohue

We are weeks, it’s hard to tell how many, into the COVID-19 stay-at-home order in Seattle. My pour-over coffee skills have improved. I’m listening to albums I haven’t heard in years. I’m writing a book. I’m smoking too much blessedly legal weed. I’m taking this stretch of forced unemployment in the most White-Guy-From-Seattle way possible. As a fresh mug of coffee finishes steeping, I reach out to an old friend of mine who works in local tech. We talk about how he, already a work-from-home employee before this started, hasn’t experienced a big lifestyle change in the face of COVID-19. Sure, he can’t go out to the bars or enjoy his favorite restaurants but really? Not a catastrophic shift.

The bar I manage looked desolate with all the liquor taken off the shelf. We locked it up and walked out of the building. The hotel where we’re located wrapped their own front doors in chains and went home too. I’d been watching this virus spread in China since January, when we were still unaware that it had already reached Seattle. Like many of my generation I have a mild obsession with doomsday scenarios and what I saw out of China was not generating what felt like the proper anxiety on our shores.

Now here I was two months later, helping to close my place of business and the source of income for nearly fifty people. Meanwhile, Donald Trump was holding press conferences saying we had this thing licked. The incongruity was staggering.

I make an offhand statement to my friend on the phone, one echoed among many of my colleagues, that this is laying bare the unsustainable nature of our modern restaurant business. “I expect when they start to open stuff again, restaurants will run at half capacity.” he says, and I feel a rage well up inside me.
I’m not mad at him. My anger is at the entire collapsing system. We can’t, I tell him, run restaurants at half capacity. That is not how restaurants today work. You don’t have to be full every day to break-even, but you also can’t be at half-or-less capacity every day either; especially after incurring the costs of closing and reopening. It would be suicide and not even a slow one. In the local news I see that another couple of restaurants have decided to close their doors for good.

In our last days of business several of our employees came to me in the hope that I might have some answers for them. I’ve been in the restaurant industry in some capacity or another for almost sixteen years. I have seen some shit. They were right to think that I had a better idea of what is coming than they did. But I didn’t. I don’t. I told them to file for unemployment as quickly as possible and to stock up on staple foods at the grocery store; to not blow too much on beer. I tried to sound authoritative. I told them to call me for anything. That in the worst-case scenario I could drive to them; then a piston seized in my truck’s engine on my way home.

I’m trying to explain the struggle within the struggle to my buddy and to his credit he’s being as receptive as he can but the whole conversation is underlining just how fundamentally disconnected our nation’s workforce is as whole. Every successful restaurateur from Danny Meyer to Tom Douglas to the guy who owns the brasserie down the street have just had their businesses collapse underneath them in the span of weeks. Insurance companies are refusing to cover losses, citing virus provisions they quietly added after SARS. Unemployment Insurance, for many, is woefully inadequate. The practice of under-reporting or not-reporting tips, a common if foolish practice in the restaurant industry, means that many unemployment checks are practically nonexistent no matter how badly they are needed. “COVID-19,” I tell my friend, “is going to change the restaurant industry forever.”

To understand this, you need to understand some rudimentary restaurant economics. The restaurant industry is a high cash flow business model. That means much of the money that comes in through our doors goes right back out those doors almost immediately. If we do well over the course of a month, we’ll have money left over as profit. If we don’t do well, we’ll be dipping into our reserves. A well-resourced and managed restaurant will have six to nine months of reserves in case something like a market downturn or an emergency event saw you operating at a moderate loss for a couple months. A less well-resourced establishment might only have three months in the bank. In my experience, the actual majority have even less than that. There are no restaurants that have a model for having zero revenue, even for a short period.

In management a big part of our job is controlling the restaurant or bar’s costs. We typically do this by using margin guidelines. That you should only spend 20% of what you sell for liquor, wine and beer, is an example of a common cost control. That you should only spend 30% of what you make in total on labor is another example. There are ways to make it more complicated (and hopefully more profitable) but for the most part when all is said and done the majority of restaurants hope to make 5%-10% in profit at the end of the fiscal year. For decades, before the bar and restaurant explosion of the late aughts, when drinking fine cocktails and eating inventive meals went from an aspirational hobby to a national fad, this was all you needed to be successful.

Working as a bartender or server in this environment was simple. You essentially ran your life as an independent contractor. Job interviews may have been full of bullshit artists who claimed to make the best drinks you’d ever tasted but if you made a name for yourself in town as a skilled, reliable and mostly sober bartender you’d never go without work. And because nearly everybody paid minimum wage plus tips there was rarely an incentive to stay in one place. The exception came if you were looking for a job that offered higher minimum wages or health insurance. Those jobs could almost exclusively, only be found only at fancy hotels where you were competing with most of the city for the gig. And if you wanted things like sick pay, a reliable schedule, a dedicated group of coworkers and any recognition for your hard work beyond your wage and a pat on the back, you were better off trying your chops at the Laugh Factory.

This was the national standard of food and beverage operations for a very long time. The kind of business done, encouraged and lobbied for by the National Restaurant Association and adhered to by nearly every establishment in the country. Under this standard a national lack of worker protections and investment in employees continued with few exceptions for so long that the lack became institutional. The new gig workers of America, rideshare and app-based delivery drivers are experiencing the same thing right now.

The model began to change as America fell back in love with restaurants and bars. Every major city and many minor ones were growing exciting restaurant cultures. As competition grew, bar and restaurant owners began to place renewed value on things like employee retention. Wages increased and worker protections began to be mandated in at least some cities. And as health insurance took a gasping, sputtering, woefully insufficient step towards universal coverage, so did the costs of operation. But while the obvious answer to rising operation costs would have been to raise prices until these things were affordable, the unrestricted nature of competition kept prices down. Meanwhile costs of living were on the rise.

To make matters worse, as new waves of investors, developers and aspirational businesspeople packed our cities with more and more first-time concepts, they began strangling established, well run operations with a glut of new openings. The hype of five new “must try” establishments a week devastated regular business while diluting the available pool of experienced workers until it seemed the only requirement to be a bar manager was owning a stack of cocktail books and having a year or two of experience changing kegs. Many places would open and shutter within the same quarter, but the damage they did to the economy of food and beverage operations in their cities was severe and lasting.

We are a creative people by nature, restaurant people, and we take pride in it. So, if the cost of labor doubles we find ways to make it work. If we’re paying the highest liquor tax in the country for the privilege of serving the people of Seattle, we make it work. If we’re losing good cooks to construction jobs as opportunistic developers turn our cities into lands of cranes, we find ways to be competitive employers. I’ve worked with multiple restaurants in Seattle to institute insurance for full time staff. I have learned to manage my staffing levels to account for last minute absences without using on-call shifts. I have used almost every tool in the kit, myself included, to outwork, outsmart and outlast the prevailing conditions of the industry. I have also gone home so tired that all I could do is sit in a chair and whimper as my partner helped me take my boots off my swollen feet on more occasions than either of us care to count. But there is a limit to what bootstrapping can accomplish without aid from legislation. When the cost of living has risen so high in a city that your average bartender cannot afford a one bedroom apartment without spending half their income on rent, that is not the fault of bars and restaurants, nor can their owners be expected to enact the solution from thin air. My tool kit does not contain a torque wrench that can be used on local and federal tax codes.

Those of us in the upper levels of management and our owners have had a clear picture of this for a while now. We know things need to change. Surely none of us have settled yet on exactly how they should change. I am in favor of aggressive solutions such as doing away with tips and hourly pay for as many employees as possible, perhaps entirely. There is no logical reason that anybody’s wage should be tied to the inexpert opinion and mood of a person they are required to serve. But this step, which a month ago would have been dangerously controversial now seems positively tepid. The truth is that we must go much further.

I want to train my floor staff to work multiple positions which they will rotate through in order to expand their skills and knowledge while reducing boredom and repetitive stress injuries. I want to pay each employee a salary based on their experience and contribution, rather than the role they perform. I want to see “bar keeper” as a career again. I want to do away with the idea that serving food is something you do to get through college or grad school. I want our general economic structure, even more than our general population to recognize that great food and great drinks are a service rather than an entitlement. I believe this is a viable possibility, but I also know it will require a reimagining of our state and national corporate tax structures in order to be possible. I believe job-providing businesses should receive tax credits based on the number of full-time, living wage workers they employ. I believe that we need a legal definition of a living wage. I propose that definition should be based on cost of living calculations done by the Economic Policy Institute and managed on a county-to-county basis. I believe that the living wage definition should assume single income, two-person, two-child homes so we can begin to get away from what Elizabeth Warren defined as the “Two-Income Trap”. A city where one-bedroom apartments cost $1,500 should mandate that employers pay a $100,000 a year wage to its employees. If that wage seems outrageous to you, I agree, but so does that rent.

I believe that if you want to employ a large number of people who can reliably pay their bills, seek healthcare without fear and contribute to the modern economy without suffering by it, our country should make it easier rather than harder for you to do so. And if you operate a publicly traded company, be it in tech, manufacturing, hospitality or anything else, every one of your stakeholders should be a shareholder and stakeholders should by law always make up a majority voting bloc of the company’s interests. The bevy of labor lawsuits against CKE Restaurants (Carl’s Jr, Hardee’s) and the over 13,000 child labor law violations for which Chipotle restaurants were just fined for , while their CEO’s continue to pocket staggering payouts should be proof of that need.

If these seem like extreme suggestions to you, it is only because of how far to the opposite side we have become inured in this country. In the 1950’s, during the boom which would make the United States the world’s foremost economic power, a CEO at a company made twenty times what their typical worker took home. That’s a lot of money, and a fine incentive for the rat race and economic growth if you want it. The fact that the modern CEO makes 120 times their average worker’s salary has nothing to do with value or incentive and everything to do with avarice. The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare how appallingly inadequate our modern economy has become at serving the citizens of the United States, ostensibly the people whom it exists to support. We need bold, perhaps terrifying reforms to bring ourselves back to a place of sanity and some modicum of equality.

I will tell you this much, though: After watching nearly every one of my colleagues lose their job or close their business with no certainty of reopening them, we aren’t going to allow ourselves to be this vulnerable again. Most of us, owners, chefs, managers, on down the line aren’t going to continue to operate in an environment where we watch companies like Boeing commit corporate malfeasance only to receive an apparently endless supply of bail outs. We aren’t going to watch companies like Amazon use financial loopholes that they wrote on their own behalf to continue to avoid paying taxes. Not if it means that our bars, restaurants and our employees, bellwethers of our city’s successes and chips in every bidding war for new corporate headquarters, are the first to have the rug pulled out from under them each time our government or our banks engage in a new round of intolerable negligence and criminal mismanagement.

The rule used to be that you don’t talk politics at the bar. I believe that has kept us out of the conversation for too long. Bars and restaurants used to be places of community discussion. They were forces in their neighborhoods, their cities and their states. And if you think when this is all over, we’re just going to open the doors back up and tell Sam to play it without having our say, you are out of your f**king minds.

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Features

A PASSION FOR PINEAPPLES

July 11, 2013

Once a symbol of wealth and hospitality, the time has come to restore the pineapple to its former glory
By Dean Callan, Monkey Shoulder Global Brand Ambassador

Dean Callan pineapple Dunmore.jpg

Here’s a question for all the bartenders, bar owners, mixologists and cocktail consumers about to descend upon New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail – why don’t we see many pineapples in bars and on cocktail menus anymore? This once prized tropical fruit seems to have disappeared from view. But why is that?

This is a question that has been on my mind for some time now and one that will be answered on the opening day of this year’s Tales of the Cocktail festivities (www.talesofthecocktail.com/events/the-pineapple-a-symbol-of-hospitality/) at our seminar.

We need to restore the pineapple to its former glory. This mission, which we can discuss heartily on Wednesday, can be traced back to a trip I took to New York a few years ago. In search of cocktails, a friend and I had stumbled across Cienfuegos, a wonderfully quirky Cuban rum joint in New York’s East Village.

From an outstanding cocktail list (www.cienfuegosny.com/Cienfuegos.html), I chose the Isle of Manhattan Fizz, a rum and gin punch with coconut, lime, soda and one of my all-time favourite cocktail ingredients – pineapple.

This delicious combination got me wondering why we don’t see many pineapples in bars these days. How did this tropical fruit, once considered a symbol of wealth and hospitality, become so neglected by bartenders?

Not long after that drink was finished pineapples were once again on the topic of conversation – this time with my good friend, Jake Burger (www.talesofthecocktail.com/personality/jake-burger/). Jake shares my passion for pineapples – this is the bartender who created the infamous ‘Penis Enlarger’ cocktail, his take on the classic pineapple-inspired Piña Colada.

The seeds of our Tales of the Cocktail presentation were sown that night as Continue Reading…

Features

RESPONSIBILITY – ORDER UP AND A SHOT ACROSS THE BAR

January 13, 2011

Hospitality, straight up, no chaser
By John Henry

Photo by Francesco Tonelli

As the year turns, this long standing brand builder on the street feels a certain responsibility to dispense with the usual turn of the year resolution nonsense. Let’s stick to the facts, data and trends as I see them emerging from the ground up. And may I serve you with humble insights and invite impassioned dialogue along the way.

Resolve that people will drink this year. But why, how and where? Perhaps it is our true social responsibility to make every drink and every customer at our bar a special one. Then, at just the right time, send them off their merry way.

We are about to enter a golden age of hospitality in our bar business. And one of individual and professional development and responsibility, I feel. It’s more about the drinker than the drink. Alas the magic is in making them both one in our midst.

Especially in this age of flash and social media there is no substitute for the magical bartender who remembers our name, and perhaps even our drink order, months down the road since we last approached his or her bar. One who makes a drink we like, fast, and with a smile. This is the timeless exchange of our business. If you want to experience it in person, pay a periodic visit to Doug Quinn over at PJ Clarke’s on 3rd Avenue. Though I certainly encourage you to stop by more often.

We have learned trade skills from bar maestros in London and Tokyo and elsewhere. But we still need to master the American craft of giving back warmth and the smile. And keep giving. The patron is the king or queen. It is a responsibility of the true bar professional, I feel, to keep that throne inviting. I promise more on this in future 2011 dispatches from the street as I feel it will be one of the central themes of the craft spirit and bar renaissance.

But, responsibility was a word thrown around much and tacked on often in the latter part of last year, both from major liquor corporations and in local grass roots community efforts. With the optimism of a new decade, let’s look at some shining efforts first.

A gentleman named Sean Combs from the Bronx (aka P Diddy) and his associated vodka brand Ciroc (www.ciroc.com) led a campaign with pre-paid ATM cards and MTA rides home on New Year’s Eve in NYC. The same type of Safe Rides program was put into place by the Ciroc teams in Las Vegas, as well.

Staff from a Hudson Valley New York Funeral Home, TJ McGowan Sons (www.tjmcgowansonsfh.com) , commissioned one of their vans to take folks away from the wheel and safely home citing the mantra of their own recently expanded Safe Drive program, “Let us drive you home now rather than later”. Bagels and water were offered. Continue Reading…

Features

THE FISHERMEN WILL BE FINE

July 19, 2010

Preserve New Orleans, Tip Big, Help The Dedicated Army Of Hospitality Industry Employees
By Danny Valdez

The fishermen will be fine. There is an immense source of money going to them, if not now, in the future. I love the passion people have in helping out the region, and especially New Orleans. I just think that the effort needs some redirecting. I won’t bore you to death with all of the details on the horrible repercussions of “the Deepwater Horizon.” You have all been bludgeoned to death with all of the details because of our overly connected society. Which on a side note, I and tons of ADD kids love by the way.

We are overlooking something very important. There is a small but dedicated army of waiters/bartenders/cooks/etc who sell the fish coming from the gulf. We cannot forget them. We found out the hard way that the talent pool in the city is hard to replenish in all facets. I know that the service industry has always been, to some, a way to bridge their life’s choices. Whether transitioning from college or jobs or making extra money while they chase their dreams. To others this is and always will be their lives. They live and breathe to serve people. Unfortunately there isn’t much money in it for the most part. Terms like “nest egg” or “savings” don’t become second nature until later in their careers. To most they learn it too late.

In the immediate aftermath of the spill, I went to work and saw this horrible look in the eyes of my coworkers. I moonlight at a popular New Orleans restaurant for brunch. Nothing fancy, just mostly a bunch of career waiters who get off on making people smile by sharing tradition. Unfortunately most of them don’t make much money at all. The look I saw was horrible because it was a look of a person who has lost one too many times. Everyone had the same look. It was a look of uncertainty. As a city and as a community we were just starting to get our “swagger” back.

To some of us the “big reset” back in 2005 was a way to fight and start anew. To others it was a long fight that brought nothing but pain and hardship. To the career waiters/cooks/bartenders it meant working harder and longer for less money. The city’s people had been beaten one too many times and that’s what this is about. Health insurance is prohibitively expensive. Homeowner’s insurance is raised every year. It has become harder for the army in “black and whites” to make a living. Those who couldn’t keep fighting the fight have left. The jaded and clueless still pepper the industry. But for every person who fits those descriptions, there are ten who care and will remain.

I think instead of raising money for fishermen, we should start raising money for the service industry. If you think of unemployment and collecting “food stamps” as a relief, I think you have wasted your time by reading this far. I wrote a book years ago titled,”The City of Lost Dreams.” It was a celebration of our different culture in New Orleans. Not of the obvious, but of the lives of the “black and whites” and handling the velvet rope. About the decadent youthful lifestyle which once was. It was about living paycheck to paycheck yet living the life of celebrity. To some it hasn’t changed much. Except the money is less, rents have tripled and the atmosphere has become a touch more gloomy. Although this extreme makes up a small portion of our workforce, it is a perfect example of how our city gives us a chance to live life to its fullest.

We can’t make people more responsible. Part of what this city offers is an escape from the real structured world. There is still money and success to be had. Love and hate is still an option. I don’t want to change any of it. I would just like to have more help for those who have chosen this profession.

So here’s a call to help preserve what we call New Orleans. Without the people weaving magical tales/food/etc there would be no soul. I speak not for the wealthy, even though some always find a way to get a cut, but for the working classes of all ages behind the curtain. Let’s keep the skilled working and city smiling. In a corrupt city where tourism is the only industry, we need to help maintain the morale. Tip big and trust me, the fishermen will be fine.

Features

SERVICE WITHOUT A SMIRK

April 24, 2010

The Importance of Good Service in the Restaurant & Bar Business

By Patrick O’Neill

Photo courtesy of Ritz-Carlton

Customers love your food and drinks. Your atmosphere is inviting. Your prices are decent. So why aren’t people breaking down your doors every night? And why don’t you see more familiar faces at the tables or bar?

Duh! Maybe your service leaves a lot to be desired? Many restaurateurs and bar managers inexplicably forget the first rule of the business: great service lures customers and bad service scares them away.

Ming Tsai, chef/owner of Blue Ginger (www.ming.com) in Boston and host of the TV show “Simply Ming,” estimates that at least 70 percent of a great dining experience is due to the service, “As a chef, it’s hard to admit. Food is extremely important, of course, but you can have the most delicious food on the planet and if the service is inattentive or arrogant, it won’t matter. Those people won’t be coming back.”

Photo by Anthony Trieuli

“Service comes into play long before the customer arrives,” says Ming. “The person taking phone reservations sets the tone three weeks ahead. Continue Reading…