It’s important to understand this idea is not ours but one launched 10 years ago by a musician and community activist. We are just borrowing it to help this industry perhaps find a beacon of hope, a mantra or simply a goal that can be part of the revolution we so desperately need in this business. If you will grant me the luxury of a long post, read on…..
Most if not all people get into the restaurant business because they are passionate about aspects of it, cooking food, serving guests and all the instant gratifications that come with all the ups and downs of this business. Few get into it for the money and truth be told even fewer make a lot of money doing it. Cape Cod is no different except we see the bulk of our livelihood happen in 120 days out of the year. We know that the restaurant industry is essential to the economic health of Cape Cod – engaging more people than nearly every other employer outside of government. And, we know that restaurants provide people with the opportunity to become entrepreneurs – a dream that exists in so many of us. Without restaurants, as the past two years has proven– society just seems incomplete.
Labor issues have been at the top of the list for decades: low pay, no benefits, unpredictable schedules, 12-hour shifts, and difficulty finding and retaining good employees when these issues persist. Low profitability, vendor challenges, rising cost of goods, cumbersome regulations, high rents, expensive marketing, and ebbs and flows of business volume have collectively made this enticing business to enter – nearly impossible to maintain. The pandemic exacerbated these issues, made the stress level for some untenable and for others the death of lifelong business ownership dreams.
To repeat. Restaurant owners and staff are human beings. They are students, singles, moms and dads, grandparents, widowers, divorcees, sons and daughters. Some may be novices. Some may be seasoned professionals. All, I assure you, are sacrificing time with their loved ones to serve yours. (While assumptions can often prove unfounded, I’ve always believed that a person’s character can be judged by how they treat their waiter and animals, mostly dogs.) Like everyone else, they are tackling the complexities of life, while attempting to scrape together a modest living in an unforgiving, often cutthroat industry.
Our family has been in the hospitality industry for almost 100 years, my great uncle was a chef at the Waldorf Astoria in the early 1930’s the rest as they say is history. In my nearly 34 years in this business I have realized and taught that restaurants are laboratories designed to test people to the point of failure, so don’t worry, fail, fail fast and fail often and then pick yourself up and start again. A mantra that resonates after experiencing the past 2 years. Which is why the last 20 years my only true requirement for any young person working for me is..effort. Ask my staff and you might get an eye roll but they have heard that thousands of time…seriously thousands. Along with my usual suspects commitment, focus, self reflection and discipline.
So..what should be part of our thinking right now? What can we do to prepare for a brighter future in the restaurant business? What can we do NOW to set the stage for future success? Here are some thoughts:
We (restaurants) cannot continue to expect to find and retain competent, dedicated, passionate employees as long as our current labor model is accepted and used. A livable wage is something that talented, hard-working people deserve. Basic benefits of reasonable healthcare, paid vacation, and paid sick time are the standard in nearly every other industry and must become the standard in ours. More reasonable hours (realizing that peaks in business require extra effort) should be a goal.
This does not infer that all restaurant work should be necessarily based on a 40-hour workweek, or that 8-hour shifts should always apply, but it should still be a model that we are moving closer to. Two days off per week (with some exceptions) is reasonable and helps employees find some balance in their lives. These are not excessive goals – this is a standard that we have ignored for far too long. To fail to do this will simply perpetuate the labor challenges that plagued us before the virus.
Sorry, folks, but websites such as Trip Advisor, Yelp, Google Reviews, and just about any other online rating travesty, really is democracy for the reckless. Gather a bunch of privileged, self-inflated amateur critics in a global forum and you’re destined to end up with little more than a ham-fisted, semi-literate slush pile of hyperbolic accusations, inaccurate representations and ill-informed opinions.
How could I possibly cast such a cynical, sweeping statement? Because I’m a chef. And chefs, I assure you, read customer reviews. We read customer reviews and they sometimes break our arrogant, narcissistic hearts.
Which leads me to my point of this dissertation. Our campaign I hope will be picked up by other Cape Cod hospitality businesses. It stems from 2012 and a rapper named Nipsey Hustle. If you are unfamiliar with his music (assuming not every follower of ours listens to rap music) he was a true innovator when it came to his vision and investment in his neighborhood in South Los Angeles, the gang infested area of Crenshaw. The concept was Proud to Pay and simply put it was a message meant for his fans to rally in support of his work which in turn he reinvested in his neighborhood by buying commercial properties and offering young entrepreneurs an opportunity to start a business they wouldn’t otherwise have access to, well paying jobs to support families and access to affordable medical insurance.
The quote is as follows:
We as a business would like to slightly modify this concept but keep its true purpose. Our campaign is also Proud to Pay as we are proud to pay our employees a living wage. We are proud to pay and offer 401K, medical benefits and bonuses. The other side of this is what we ask customers everywhere. We ask that if you agree with us and want to support businesses that do the same, you too are proud to pay and it’s your way of telling us..don’t change but be the change.
As a friend once told me, don’t talk about it..be about it.