As it became clear, my first reaction was to go into cheerleader mode: pick up the pompoms and shout that this big industry must be bailed out at all costs. To enter into the reveries of my favorite dishes: the moo krob at Singburi, the cannoli of pork fat at Quality Wines, the breathtaking platter of blood sausage and fermented shrimp paste at Phở Thúy Tây. But something about it makes me feel uncomfortable, as if I am nourished by nostalgia for a world that never really existed.
The pandemic offers us the opportunity to highlight the less visible areas of the catering ecosystem. There are the owners, whose rents are so exorbitant that many downtown restaurants are struggling to break even. Developers who use restaurants as magnets to lure the “right kind” of people to gentrification areas, transforming swathes of our cities into pseudo-public spaces of charming restaurants, distancing working-class Londoners from their houses. Public relations companies that guarantee that only establishments that can afford their services receive media coverage. Private equity funds that turn restaurants into short-term investments, relentlessly reduce costs (and ultimately quality) and fuel the notion that the only way to make a profit is to grow quickly . It is no coincidence that those who claim the most bailouts are the ones who have reaped the most rewards from this multi-billion dollar industry that makes money for a relatively small number of people.
Covid-19 also showed us that the industry is on even more fragile ground than we thought: tight cash flow, high overheads and addiction to tourism were all pointing in a dark direction before the lockout. The number of bankrupt restaurants was increasing, and the high number of openings masked the fact that most restaurant owners did not see their business model as sustainable. It’s no secret that the industry makes profits just because it relies on cheap labor, especially migrants and people of color, and, according to chef Thom Eagle, ” a philosophy that works above personal and social needs ”.
As greedy consumers, we have to accept some responsibility. Likewise, applauding the nurses illuminates the uncomfortable questions about their perceived value before this crisis, fueling uncritically the demand for more and more restaurants at cheaper prices has masked the value of this work in our daily lives. Not all fish need to be ike jime and mailed from Cornwall, or every Fosse Meadows corn fed chicken, but we have to accept that fish and meat have to be more expensive at all levels if those behind the scenes have a chance to get paid a living wage.
As for the restaurants themselves, Chef Asma Khan tells me that the biggest problem is organizing. “After that,” she said, “our priority should be to create a strong union that is the voice of workers, not owners and investors.” Pressure groups such as Jonathan Downey’s Hospitality Union, made up of restaurant owners and industry leaders, are doing vital work to lobby for vacation vacations and debt moratoria while trying not to frighten nervous owners by saying “rent strike”. But this combats a problem caused by capitalism crawling on its own terms. Now is the time to start having honest conversations about food prices and supply chains, high rents and civic space, about restaurants – or at least those who are covered – who really benefit.
Our modern era has been partly defined by the rise and democratization of the restaurant. 70 years ago, almost half of British households never ate and restaurants were the preserve of the wealthy. Today, if you live in London, it is possible to eat out or order in a taste of almost the whole world. A side effect of this is that we have moved away from where the food comes from and the work involved in making it. But restaurants can now play a new role in restoring balance.
Vaughn Tan, a UCL professor whose next book examines how successful restaurants are adapting, believes that this crisis will force the industry to “fundamentally rethink what it even means to be a restaurant”. Some have turned to selling products from their suppliers directly to consumers, a positive development that will put good products in the hands of more people and help inform customers, and perhaps some critics, about the exact reasons why their turbot is so expensive. Many will now have to develop new business models that complement meals at home – a model that immigrant-run restaurants, from kosher deli meats at Golders Green to Cypriot takeaways in north London, are already familiar with. Over the next few months, the most adaptable restaurants will find their own solutions to the crisis that emphasize community and simplicity. The possibilities are both terrifying and exhilarating.
We are in unfamiliar waters: the industry has never seen this before, and all signs point to the likelihood that restaurants as we know them will not return for some time. To move forward, we need to start by looking at what we would like to save to the industry, giving space to the things that feed us and our communities, and rejecting what we believe does not deserve to survive. After all, the real danger facing the restaurant industry is not annihilation – the danger is that it will return as before.