Common Foodsense: C-List Prediction, Including End of Kitchen Boyhood
It’s my favorite time of the year: the month when C-list pundits dust off their crystal balls and begin to gaze through the cracked exteriors, hunting for any clues about the future that they can dress up and sell. They’ll make predictions in every possible sphere of endeavor, both human (Fox News will hire its first transgender anchor!) and nonhuman (a three-legged Corgi will take Westminster by storm!). Most of these forecasts will be vapid, many of them silly, and a bare sprinkling of them insightful and on point. Or at least that’s my prediction. Pretty safe. I should stop now.
However, like most people who are paid to know a little bit about a thin slice of the universe, I participate in this exercise with unconcealed glee. I’ve long ago ceased to think that the world is waiting for my opinion—putting me on the C-list would be grade inflation—but each December I get to throw it at people anyway. It’s a dream of heaven.
And in general, I’ve confined myself to food trends, but if I have to talk about Local Seafood or Healthy Snacking one more time, I’m going to eat a pack of cigarettes and barf. Honestly, does anyone really want a healthy snack? You might be able to sell them to concerned, thoughtful parents, but only surly 8-year-olds will put them in their mouths, and only under duress. And when those concerned thoughtful backs are turned, the healthy snack will be ejected into a hand and sent quickly under the table to the dog. Or behind the banquette cushion, if it’s in your restaurant. Is it worth the risk to put it on your menu?
So let’s talk about fundamentals, instead. The foodservice industry is being whipsawed right now by a number of powerful forces, some of which are of our own making, and some of which have blown up seemingly from nowhere. There has been, however, a fair amount of seismic rumbling, so some of this stuff should not have been a surprise. These rumbles are still going on, of course, and they provide a pleasant bit of background music for our discussion of next year’s industry trends.
The overarching trend—the metatrend; the master concessionaire of next year’s trends—is sustainability. No, I’m not talking about composting your old Shoes for Crews, I’m talking about: How the hell do I sustain a business when I’m paying my servers 15 bucks an hour?
It’s a broad category, “sustainability,” with many subtrends within it. Pay is only one; and it has for years been so crappy for line workers that, in Minneapolis, it is now going to receive treatments worse than the disease. We will see some places move to “service compris” and others will mechanize, but none will be unaffected. And as we craft responses to this and make plans to try to survive the treatment, let’s not forget how it started: a revolt of underpaid fast-food workers that captured popular sentiment, and metastasized into something immune to reason. But they were, ahem, underpaid; and the restaurant industry’s long antipathy to movement in the minimum wage left no one listening when it tried to make a case for tip credit.
Before moving on to the next trend, some advice: Involve your staff in whatever solution you choose. Don’t be afraid to show them P&Ls; they’re involved in it more than ever. I’d show them the entire financials if they wanted to see them, including the servers’ hourly average tips and how much inventory we keep in the cooler and the SAC&WAC when we opened and downtown entertainment tax and why $15 an hour isn’t $15 an hour. If they still thought it was easy, I’d work out an employee-ownership legacy plan, and give them my address in Palm Springs so they can write and tell me how it all works out.
The next trend of 2018 should be obvious: sexual harassment. Yes, I know it’s not new, but neither are healthy snacks. What’s new is that now we have to do something about it.
We have a long and storied history of freewheeling sexual attitudes in our business, and while the walk-in will never gain the clichéd status of the casting couch (too cold), some antiquated assumptions about gender roles are still part of the culture. Cooks are allowed to flirt outrageously. Servers are free to tell them to go to hell, or to flirt back, but are not allowed to take true offense. Cooks are boys, and are therefore exempt from decorum. Servers are girls, and therefore meant to be flirted with.
And everybody talks smut. At my first job in San Francisco, I can remember Tullio taking a moment out of a busy prep schedule to build a sculpture out of a zucchini, a pair of melons and some parsley, and leaving it where all the servers had to pass by it on the way into the kitchen. Annie came in from the dining room, glanced at it and said "Oh, is Tullio on today?"
I’m inclined to defend Tullio; he never harassed anyone individually, and his artistic endeavors were understood as an aesthetic statement rather than a form of intimidation. But again, culture: that restaurant had very little turnover, everybody knew everybody, and the culture had strict behavioral rules which we all followed—but obscene sculptures were not considered a problem. If we’d had a new person once in a while, I’d guess it would have been.
On the icky end of the teeter-totter, I worked in a restaurant many years ago where a couple of the cooks told me that they couldn’t figure out why the new waitress was upset to be put in the ice machine. At that same place, the manager occasionally told a new hire that sex was a requirement for having been given a job. Droit de seigneur, restaurant style. Next year’s trend will be the beginning of the end of this sort of thing, whether we take it upon ourselves or lawyers do it for us. Healthy snack, anyone?
Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the foodservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of FoodSense restaurant consultants. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-236-6463.