Normal Never Was

What the future of the restaurant industry may look like

I’ve been incessantly reading, scrolling and pondering my life and future during the last few months or so, as many of us have. COVID-19 has caused the majority of the world to come to a halt, while front line workers put their lives at risk to look after us when we’re sick, make sure we have access to food and other necessities, and frantically search for a vaccine. 

I’ve thought a lot about not only what my future will look like when this is over, but what the world will be like. What will the economy be like? How will businesses recover? How will small businesses recover? What will be the new normal?

“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was never normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”

Sonya Renee Taylor

This quote struck a chord with me for a few reasons. Never in my lifetime or even my parents’ lifetimes, has the world experienced something like this. The complete pause of non-essential services, and yes, even war, has offered us a chance to reset and restart. So, that really begs the question— “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”

Although I can’t speak to how every business, government, economy or community is going to come out of this, or how they should come out of this, I feel the need to touch on the changes that will and should occur in the restaurant industry— my bread and butter for over ten years. I’m passionate about my job, the people I work with and the regulars I’ve met over the years and I believe my voice is one that should be heard.

One of the biggest changes that I think will most likely occur is an increase in menu prices. This will have to happen to make up for the restaurants’ income lost during the halt in business, and will need to continue into the future so that restaurants can support local food suppliers and pay staff fairly. Most restaurants put a lot of time and effort into curating their food and drink menus, so the prices not only reflect the cost of the product, but the cost of the labour required to produce what you order.

We should be choosing to support local businesses over big box companies as much as possible right now. The work that goes into building a relationship with local farmers, producers and other small businesses in our community is important and should be valued by dining clientele. Choosing local will reduce the impact on our environment (less travel, less carbon emissions) and will put money back into our economy which will only strengthen it.

The increase in menu prices will also allow staff to be paid fairly. Going back to the pay structure which we initially had where staff were paid below minimum wage to compensate for the bulk of their earnings coming from tips (AKA, you), just won’t cut it. The restaurant industry and ones similar to it may experience a very slow increase in business once social distancing rules are lifted. The majority of our community has been facing financial losses, so dining out, not to mention tipping generously, probably won’t happen as frequently as it once did. In order for staff to go back to making a livable wage, their base wage should be higher than it was previously. *Note: the topic of tipping and whether it should be eradicated or not is a heated one and one that I shall leave for another time.*. Also, once businesses can re-open, there will most likely be social distancing measures put into place within restaurants, so the number of patrons which they are used to accommodating will be much less. This means that not all original staff may be able to be re-hired, and shifts will be fewer.

Finally, once business starts to become profitable again, there needs to be changes made to staff benefits. Of all the restaurants I’ve worked for, only one has made extended health benefits available to full-time staff. Other restaurants offered these benefits only to their managers. Working in a restaurant is not only incredibly hard on your body physically, but mentally. Long hours on your feet and often being verbally harassed by customers is the norm. Many people in this industry suffer from depression, anxiety and alcoholism. This is not okay. It’s especially not okay when a lot of people in this industry are well educated and choose this as their career, yet aren’t compensated fairly, and to top it all off aren’t offered benefits to allow them access to essential services like dental check ups, prescription medications and counselling. So, if this wasn’t evident enough already, benefits should be made available to all full-time staff in every restaurant.

It will take a long time for our world to heal financially, physically, mentally and emotionally from this, but people will come back around. When I went to school for makeup in my early 20’s, one of the things we learned about in the history of cosmetics, was that during the Great Depression, lipstick sales actually increased, coining the term, “The Lipstick Effect”. Even now, when money is tight for so many, with all of the job cuts and layoffs, people are still ordering food.

At the end of the day, dining in a restaurant really is a luxury; one that many of us are starting to realize we did far too often, and probably took for granted. Maybe when this is all over, you’ll go right back to your previous dining habits, but I know for myself, this time has caused me to realize how much money I’m saving by staying in, and just how much I actually enjoy it. Going out to eat will become a thing I do for special occasions, and at that time, I will be more than okay to spend the extra money because it’s an experience. Just like “The Lipstick Effect,” people will always consume what makes them feel good— food and the dining experience is one of those things.