Jordan Heath-Rawlings: While you sit on the patio, or inside if you’re brave enough, there’s a lot more going into your favourite dish at your favourite restaurant than you’ve ever considered, especially right now. Even before the pandemic, most restaurants survived on a razor thin profit margin, which meant keeping costs low everywhere they possibly could. And basically, since forever, that has included wages. Ask anyone who’s ever worked as a line cook or a server. The pay is low. You rely on tips, the work is hard. And then a pandemic struck and for those still working, the work got even harder. So is it any surprise that this spring, as restaurants open first their patios and then indoor dining, that after more than a year of finding something else to do, roughly one out of every four restaurant workers just never came back? The reason for that depends on who you ask. So how has the power balance in the hospitality industry turned. As restaurants and bars hopefully build back up, will wages and conditions finally improve? I mean, that sounds good, right? Even if the cost is passed along to the consumer.
The future of restaurants is evolving right before our eyes. So what does it look like?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Corey Mintz is a food reporter and the author of the forthcoming book, ‘The Next Supper: The End of Restaurants As We Knew Them and What Comes After?’ Hey, Corey.
Corey Mintz: Hello, Jordan.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Can we maybe start, you’ve been a food reporter for a long time. Maybe start before the pandemic. Can you describe the general conditions in the restaurant industry and how much patrons really knew or cared about those conditions?
Corey Mintz: Sure. Let’s take a step back, because I think it’s a really important element to introduce to the discussion when we’re talking about how the pandemic has shaken up, well, any field to say what was the foundation of this environment like before? And for the book, I began at pre-pandemic, and then it was probably halfway through when everything about restaurants change. So I really had to ask those questions in real time. And honestly, the industry is just struggling with the same issues it was before. It’s just that everything has been accelerated. For example, the staffing shortage that we are now hearing about widely now is something that I have been talking with people and reporting about since 2015. It was steadily increasing over the years, and we were seeing larger, larger signs about what a problem this was. But people in the industry were unwilling to do anything about it. They kept expecting the course to correct somehow, until as of recently, they found 25% of people are never returning to the industry. The issue, I think that a lot of people are becoming more and more aware of, the third party delivery apps that take an untenable percentage from restaurants, typically 30% from restaurants that probably, in good cases, subsist on 50% of profit margins.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Corey Mintz: That was a bad deal pre-pandemic, and pre-pandemic restaurants were being told on a five year timeline, you’re going to need to transition to off-premises dining being the majority of your revenue, and you’re going to have to streamline for that and figure that out. Well suddenly, people had to figure that out within a matter of weeks of March 2020. So there were all sorts of issues, and that’s just from an economic perspective, the issues of all the abuse and exploitation that happens in kitchens based on gender, race, psychological manipulation, economic manipulation. All of those things were a problem, and they essentially have come to a boil in the last year. And now we’re at a moment where the industry is realizing it has to make some changes or they won’t be able to continue their businesses.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It’s fascinating to hear from you that staffing shortages have been a long standing thing, because I think a lot of casual restaurant goers are people who just follow it when it pops up in the news. I feel like this is something brand new that’s happening since restaurants have begun to reopen as COVID cases have gone down. But that’s not the case.
Corey Mintz: No, absolutely not. I mean, by way of as an example of your first question, I write this periodic feature where I break down the restaurant costs for a particular restaurant dish. I’ll explain, you know, how much the cost of the lettuce is versus how much the cost of the rent. And again and again, for years, you just get people going. Oh, I never even thought of any of that. Like, it doesn’t occur to people that people, that restaurants where they assume, well, I know how much chicken cost doesn’t occur to people that restaurants have to pay $10,000 of rent. So how people are treated behind the scenes, of course, people don’t know.
Jumping in a time machine, let’s go back to 2015. And when I first started sensing that there was some kind of lack of workable candidates for kitchens, I was in a restaurant and I was working on a story. And the chef asked me, Corey, do you know anybody looking for work? I’m really having a hard time finding cooks. And I said, what do you pay? And he said, you know, I think we’re pretty good. We start people at $120 or $125 a day. I said on $125? Well, $150 if they have some serious experience. And I said, I’ve been working, this was at a time where I was doing a column where I would work in a different restaurant kitchen every week and said, I’ve been in your kitchen. Is it people come in at noon and they leave at midnight and he said, yeah. And I said, well, that breaks down to about, like, $10 an hour.
Over the year, that year, I started hearing this from more and more people. Do you know anybody? Every time I interviewed a restaurateur or a chef they say, do you know any cooks? And I could see that disconnect. And I started to write about labour at the time and what people are paid and how they’re compensated and how they’re treated. And there seemed to be just a massive disconnect between chefs, the sort of culture personality chefs who attract cooks and their inability to attract people anymore for wages that weren’t getting any better, for work that was staying just as hard. And I started to hear more and more about people who would schedule interviews, and then people just wouldn’t show up for the interviews. They schedule 20 interviews and two people would show up, or they hire one person and then they quit after one shift or just ghost after one shift. And the sort of power imbalance was really eroding from just a few years earlier, where chefs felt like, I think in the post pandemic boom of dining, where they really had the pick of the litter, where they were really attracting all these people. And there was a big boom in cooking schools as well. And they had so many bodies and suddenly they didn’t. And it was getting worse and worse until there was definitely a labour, I guess I wouldn’t call it crisis, but everyone was sort of having the same issue. But again and again saying, well, I can’t pay people more because I have to raise prices. And that’s unthinkable because everyone always already thinks that restaurant food is too expensive, it’s inconceivable to raise prices. And that is exactly what’s happened. Every restaurateur I’ve spoken with in the last month or two tells me that they have finally started raising prices.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Is that the start of what will end up becoming the shift that you’ve been reporting on? I’m trying to get a sense of what dominoes were waiting to fall.
Corey Mintz: Well, the supply and demand is part of that domino. I think that at the beginning of the pandemic, the standard story was a restaurant owner, you know, texts, calls, bulk emails, all their staff to say, don’t worry, we’ll survive this because they think they’re going to be close for a few weeks.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Corey Mintz: And then within a week or two, realizing it’s going to be months or what ends up being over a year, they lay everybody off. And they say, We’re very sorry. We want to try to help people. But ultimately you can’t keep 100 people on the payroll when you’re going down to 10% of your revenue doing take out, which you’ve never done before. I talked to someone the other day. They said they have three restaurants in Vancouver, 120 staff. They went down to a staff of five just to get take out food out the door. They’re now back up to full staff in because they’ve addressed a lot of these issues. But that was the story of a lot of restaurants. And then over the past year, I think a lot of restaurants made the assumption that workers are going to be desperate for employment once this year finally wraps up. Once it’s possible for people to go back to work, power will shift back in their favour. And that’s not what happened.
You’ve got all sorts of theorizing for why people are not going back to work. I don’t see any mystery. You’ve got people who are leaving the industry in droves before this happened, and then this made work even more precarious and dangerous. And a lot of people got a break for the first time their lives just to do something else. Certainly there’s a percentage of thinkers from, say, fast food chain franchise operators who want to tell you people are lazy and they’re getting a government hand out so they don’t want to go back to work. But in my experience, I think that’s a small percentage of people and nobody has the long term plan of being on unemployment forever. They just, you know, after years of being sort of trapped within the system, they had a pause and a lot of them said, I don’t want to go back. And many of them, on day one, got other jobs, went back to College and University, spent more time with their family and realized maybe there’s a better way to live my life. I think it’s remarkable that 75% of the industry staff is returning. That actually surprises me how positive that is.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’d love to hear you elaborate more on what you’re hearing from cooks and servers about what it’s like to work in a restaurant in the middle of this, because all I see is diners refusing to wear masks or protests at the door. I can’t imagine health and safety regulations have gotten any more fun in those really tight closed kitchens.
Corey Mintz: Sure.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: If it was a tough job before this, it must be tougher now.
Corey Mintz: Yeah, I think so. I mean, it’s certainly a mixed bag, right. And the industry is not a monolith. In the book, I try to tackle that by breaking the chapters down into let’s talk about the chef driven restaurants. Let’s talk about the fast food restaurants. Let’s talk about the chain restaurants, the immigrant family run restaurants because they all are very different socioeconomical rules that cover the all, and even within that, it’s fairly idiosyncratic. But most people I talk to, the ones who have kept working over the year. The common things that I hear from them are, first of all, whether they are cooks or servers or managers. If they’ve stuck it out, it’s because they really love something about the work, and they love serving people. I’m like this, too. I’m no longer a Cook, but just as a father and a husband, I love putting food on the table. It makes me very happy. I remember talking to a Cook who was managing a kitchen pizza place in Hamilton. He said early in the pandemic, when people have been kind of hunkered down for six weeks, or two months and hadn’t really left the house, to come in just to pick up a pizza for takeaway. You know, you could see, like them kind of reaching for that life raft of familiarity with the cultural existence that they had pre pandemic. It’s very powerful, and it felt very good to be providing that for people.
So I think a lot of the people that have kept cooking and serving, packing food and meal kits and takeout boxes over the last year, they’ve done it because I know it’s a little cliche, but that’s their love language. That’s how they communicate compassion and affection for other people in addition to their work. Certainly I’ve heard the same horror stories about the anti maskers and the complainers. Anyone who tells me those stories also clarifies it’s a minority of customers, it’s maybe three to five percent of customers who come in and do that, and they want to let me know, hey, the majority of people coming in, they’re so respectful, they’re so appreciative, they’re there to have a good time. The rules are simple, like they put on a mask to go to the bathroom, and they follow them. But that small minority, it’s not a minority of in terms of how much it impacts them.
You know, we have put often minimum wage workers, people under a lot of pressure already to perform in the position of having to interpret and enforce public health regulation or in the absence of public health regulation, to enforce a private company’s health regulation because it’s of a higher standard, than whatever the province you live in is, and that takes a toll. If you make a hundred pizzas for 99 really nice people, but one person comes in, refuses to wear masks, calls you names, spits on you. I mean, it’s not one of your emotional bandwidth that takes up, that ruins your day and makes you question, Why do I do this? Not only to upset me, but now I’m worried about my health and the health of the people in my home. So that’s just been one more brick in the wall for a lot of people going, Is this worth it to me anymore?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And so without the 25% of cooks and servers that are just not coming back, do conditions meaningfully change?
Corey Mintz: That’s what’s so fascinating. I think a number of things happen. You’ve got wages going up, you’ve got the size of menus going down, and you’ve got more automation within the restaurant space. So I think one of the things that’s happened over the last year that has actually been win win for both restaurants and customers is the digital ordering, not just in delivering takeout orders, but when you go into the restaurant, whether you’re on the patio or in the dining room, ordering and paying through a tablet or your phone, which is one restaurant, restaurateur put it to me, the pain points of the restaurant dining experience are ordering and paying you know, nobody wants to wait when they’re hungry for the server to come over and when they’re done, nobody wants to wait for the check. And same thing for the restaurant. They want to turn over tables don’t want to be quick, and this is really beneficial to both parties. I mean, it was introduced for hygiene reasons, right.
But it’s been a nice boom, and it’s enabled both diners and restaurateurs to have just a quicker experience, which for restaurants that really need to turn tables over, that’s huge. If you can cut down the time of a seating by 10% or 20%, that can mean a lot to the bottom line. So I think, without a doubt, that’s going to stick around. Plus all the various restaurateurs that have switched to take out and deliver, your quick services, just part of their not just their business model, but part of thinking for future businesses. So what are the other things we had? We had wages.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Menus. The size of menus I’m interested in, because this is something that a lot of people hang their hats on, right. Is to bring a big family out to eat and everybody can choose what they want.
Corey Mintz: Yeah, I remember I was interviewing Fred Morin. It’s one of the co owners of Joe Beef in Montreal. And this was two or three years ago, and I was always hammering at every restaurateur about, like, how are we going to pay people better, treat them better? What do you see is the way forward? In his perspective, and I think this is borne out by another conversation I had with an economics professor in France, and both of them sort of presented this perspective of your typical French restaurant has two people in the kitchen and two people in the front and a menu of ten items on it. And as a result of that, you can compensate these people fairly. They don’t have an overburdensome workload, which is what happens in high end restaurants. And what is the cause of exploitations. Like a typical your fancy $200 tasting menu restaurant, they give everyone in the kitchen a prep list every day that you need 12 hours to get done. And I think Morin’s argument was like, have a shorter menu, fewer options, not be something for everyone approach, but something for the neighbourhood. And if people don’t like it, they can go to another little restaurant out of the neighbourhood.
But as a result, people can work reasonable hours and they can focus on doing a shorter collection of things really well. The way to do that for the chef driven restaurant is letting go of the ego that demands that everything be made in house, from the pickles to the bread to the cheese and saying, actually, if we can’t do it better than anyone else, why wouldn’t we buy some of our products from someone else? And let go of the pridefulness that comes with that. And I think we started to see that happening not just in little fancy chef restaurants, but at a larger scale in Ontario, when wages started going up just because the minimum wage raise a few years ago, what was it, 2018, maybe. But when we had the wage go up to, I think, $14 an hour, I saw a lot of restaurateurs say I’m going to take my 35 menu item and tighten it down to 21 or something like that. You still having something for vegans, still having something for gluten free people, not sort of getting rid of that sense of inclusivity in the restaurant menu planning, but not needing to have the Cheesecake Factory approach, where you’ve got 169 items on the menu to make sure that no matter who on Earth walks through the door that their favourite dish is there, because that is that is unsustainable.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So what do these shifts do to the viability of the industry? I think you mentioned it at the beginning of our chat. I think we talked about it last time you were on the show. The razor thin profit margins that these restaurants are operating under. Will these shifts slim that margin down even more, and if so, do just fewer restaurants make it?
Corey Mintz: I don’t think we’ll have the answer to that for a while, but I think you can start to watch the behaviour of restaurateurs, the behaviour of diners over the next year. I think a lot of analysts, I spoke with an analyst, industry analyst a couple of weeks ago who said we do these surveys of diners and we survey 100,000 people at a time, and I can’t tell you with any certainty what’s going to happen. But anecdotally I can tell you that the restaurateurs that I’ve spoken with recently all say yes, I’ve had to start offering a higher wage, and part of that is going to be reflected in higher menu prices. That’s why I say we’re going to see what consumers think of this in some restaurants where they manage prices by every year, calculating what percentage are we going to raise them on? Or there are certain items that we’re going to just higher, lower? Where do we think there’s sort of more plasticity or comfort from the diners perspective? But if you’re going to jump things up 20%, people will notice. And the question is, will the value of that be communicated to them?
I had a boss years ago in a restaurant who told me, at the time I was a Cook and I was thinking of opening a deli, and I wanted to only serve really good meat and everything. And he said, Corey, never assume that your customers appreciate the value of what you’re serving unless you communicate to them. So I think the responsibility is going to be for restaurateurs who are making this really big shift, to communicate to diners, Hey, if you notice that $18 dish is $23 now, we want you to know here’s how we pay staff. Here’s how we distribute tips, our people have dental benefits, whatever it is that you’re doing, the reason that you’re doing it, if they find value in that, and if they can afford to, that’s a big factor. They’ll support you. And if you don’t communicate it, people will feel taken advantage of. But either way, the cost of everything is going up. We’re talking about we’re talking purely about wages, but as every restaurateur is quick to tell me, the cost of food is going up. The cost of rent took a little dip this year, but that’s just a blip. It’s going to keep going back up in the future. So all across the board, they need to raise prices to accommodate for their increased costs, and customers just have to bear the brunt of it. Will it result of them dining out less? I guess we’re going to find out.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, that was going to be my last question is, what should casual diners hear? And I’m not speaking of foodies who eat out four or five times a week, but people who miss restaurants during the pandemic and are happy that they’re open again. What can they do to make sure that the restaurants, of course, but also the people who work in them, are sustainable?
Corey Mintz: Well, the diners’ patronage is what makes the restaurant stainable. I mean, that any restaurant needs to be full in order to stay in business and make money. I think that we as diners, if we care about how people are treated, we should not feel shy about having a conversation with the restaurant about that. But I think we’re so weird about talking about money, like it’s so forbidden in our culture to ask someone how much they make or what they pay people, even though it’s my job, I sort of have to force myself to do it.
An interview, ask people what do you start Cooks at and what does that go up to? But, you know, restaurants will and have found other revenue sources over the last year because they had to, and a lot of them are going to hold on to those other streams. The ones that I talked to, we’re talking about not just take out delivery, but the retail and the meal kits and stuff. A lot of the restaurants I’ve spoken to, they had to ditch those things once dine-in service resumed because they just don’t have space. They don’t have storage space in the kitchen and the walk in and the dry pantry area to hold on to all that stuff. It isn’t a matter of whether or not they like to keep doing it. They’re just just enough time or space to do it. But the ones still doing it are doing it not just because they have the space, but also because it forms a deeper connection with the customers. It makes them more of their community. As part of what we’ve seen in the restaurants that have survived. Not only are they ingenuitive and willing to try new things, but also they were the ones that had a deep bond with their communities and made themselves even more so. For example, a place to go to get a loaf of bread. That day, when you went to the supermarket, you found that the lineup was all around the door. So I think once you have that bond with diners, making those conversations part of your relationship, moving forward about, like, hey, what does this distance need to survive? We need to bring people in on Monday nights. We cannot be a Thursday to Saturday business that’s empty three nights a week.
And maybe that means finally approaching another third rail of dining, which is dynamic pricing, the same methods used by Airlines and hotels and car rentals, where the price goes up based on demand or down based on demand, right? It’s cheaper to fly on Wednesday that it is on a Saturday. We all accept that from an airline. And yet it’s pretty, it’s a pretty hot button idea in restaurants. I only know one restaurant that’s tried it, but it’s perfectly reasonable, not as a measure to increase revenue by gouging people on the weekend, but as an incentive to disperse not only your customers but your staff over a seven day period so that you’re not sitting dormant three days a week. Sustainability is that people really reconsidering a lot of those ideas and what a restaurant means.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It’ll be fascinating to see what happens in the next couple of years. I can’t wait to read your book. Corey, thank you for your time today.
Corey Mintz: You won’t have to wait much longer. It’ll be out November 16th.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Corey Mintz, as he mentioned author of, ‘The Next Supper: The End of Restaurants As We Knew Them and What Comes After?’, you can preorder it right now. You can purchase it on November 16th. That was The Big Story. For more from us head to thebigstorypodcast.ca, check out our amazing new web player. It looks so spiffy. Give it a listen. You can also find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. And of course, you can email us, thebigstorypodcast, that is all one word, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. We’re in your favourite podcast players, too. We are also in your smart speakers. Just ask them to play The Big Story Podcast.
Stefanie Phillips is the lead producer of The Big Story. Ryan Clarke and Joseph Fish are our associate producers. And I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. Thanks so much for listening. Have a great weekend. We’ll talk Monday.
Back to top of page