Welcome to Year in Eater 2020, Eater’s annual ritual of eulogizing the past 12 months. In 2020’s final days, Eater NY will be posting questions about New York City’s restaurant scene in the past year, with answers from food writers, photographers, chefs, restaurateurs, entrepreneurs, and even a few local legislators who helped to support the industry through this enormously difficult year. Now, we ask: Where do you think the restaurant industry should go next as it rebuilds?
Gary He, writer and photographer, author of Astrolabe newsletter: I’m sure you’ll get some really woke answers for this one, but someone should really figure out a way to create a delivery platform that doesn’t take 30% of sales.
Nikita Richardson, senior staff editor, NYT Food: I think the restaurant industry needs to reassert its value. I’ve spoken to so many chefs who say, they’re basically selling food for much less than its worth and living paycheck-to-paycheck. This year has demonstrated that it’s not sustainable. It doesn’t allow for anyone to create a rainy day (or rainy year) fund and when things go sideways, the bottom falls out swiftly and suddenly. I also think it’s time to double, hell quadruple, down on one fair wage. Enough of this two-tier system.
Kat Kinsman, senior editor, Food & Wine: There must be a new model that doesn’t rely on worker exploitation, and where this can actually provide a living wage and be a sustainable career. I think that will have to be based in some sort of diner education campaign so people actually understand the economics behind their meal, see the value of the labor it takes to get that food to their plate, and be willing to pay a little more. I know that’s a tough thing to ask in an economic climate like this, but we can’t continue in a model where people who work in restaurants can’t afford to feed themselves or their families, and where a GoFund Me is the only safety net for someone in a medical crisis.
Keith Powers, NYC council member: Restaurants need relief, and as we continue to push for federal support, we should be looking at a variety of ways to help on the local level — including incentives for long-term affordable leases, a temporary suspension of the Commercial Rent Tax, and eliminating unnecessary fines and fees. At the same time, we need to protect restaurant workers, delivery workers, and all involved in the restaurant industry.
Clay Williams, food photographer and co-founder of Black Food Folks: If a year from now the industry has gone back to business as usual and restaurant workers don’t have livable wages, benefits, and protections, all of these ’Save Restaurants’ campaigns will have been bullshit.
Alan Sytsma, editor, Grub Street: My fear is that certain behavior is so ingrained in the industry that, as restaurants reopen, there will simply be a return to the way things were. In reality, I think it will be up to diners to support those businesses that have taken stock of the restaurant world’s many existing problems, and have taken actionable steps to correct them.
Jackie Wang, project manager at NYC non-profit Welcome to Chinatown: We need to realize that the monetary value we place on food service is not equivalent to its societal and economic value. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as raising prices. The industry should look to policy, local and national leaders to create a better support system.
Brad Hoylman, New York state senator: I hope all the new “fast casual” businesses can survive the lack of midtown office workers, an area I represent. No matter what you think of the food, they employ a lot of people. I’m hopeful with 20 million square feet of empty office space we’ll be able to remake that part of Manhattan with more affordable housing and new business opportunities for the industry. I carry legislation called Save Our Storefronts that would implement a model for rent based on a commercial tenant’s sales.
Connie Chung, chef and co-owner of Milu: I want to believe that this has shown more people how fragile the restaurant business is. Margins are so tight and when something like this happens, it’s very difficult to continue on. The only way I would see this really changing is if people are willing to pay more for the food they get when they dine out/get take out/delivery. Then this could, in theory, allow restaurants to have more of a buffer should disaster strike again, but more importantly, pay their employees a better living wage as well.
Eric Adams, Brooklyn Borough President and mayoral candidate: As the restaurant industry recovers from the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, I would love to see more establishments like BKLYN Blend, a Black-owned business in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant that serves healthy, affordable food to local residents. We should use this period as an opportunity to pivot away from the old paradigm of restaurants serving processed foods and fast food establishments predominating in low-income Black and Brown communities, and move toward more local ownership with healthy, locally-sourced options.
JJ Johnson, chef and founder, Fieldtrip: I think a lot will change and it probably should not come back the same way. We should be looking at tip wages, sales tax — all the things we’ve complained about as an industry and using this reset as a way to address those things and come back bigger and stronger.
Melissa McCart, editor of Heated and former Eater NY editor: Dump predatory delivery apps.
Chris Crowley, writer, Grub Street: Some of what needs to happen is glaringly obvious, but aren’t just about the restaurant industry. You have the tipped minimum wage, you have tips, you have a federal minimum wage that’s way too low. My brother Matt, a chef, didn’t have health insurance until he was 30-years-old. People work in these really stressful, physically demanding jobs, and have no access to therapy, they can’t get health insurance. Healthcare needs to stop being tied to your employer. Paying people more fairly and providing them healthcare will give some power back to people, too, who work at places where it often doesn’t feel like you have any power. I felt that working in restaurants. I’m a white guy. It obviously only gets worse for people who come from marginalized communities, or who are discriminated against because of race, their gender, or because they’re queer.