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How the Restaurant Industry Should Rebuild After 2020, According to D.C. Experts

What food writers, bloggers, and industry pros think needs to change in the service industry

Servers wearing face masks and black gloves prepare to drop off plates in a converted lot at Lauriol Plaza
Restaurant workers who already struggle to make a living have faced steep challenges in 2020.
Rey Lopez/Eater D.C.

Following an Eater tradition, we asked a group of restaurant critics, journalists, bloggers, and — as a new twist this year — a couple industry pros to weigh in on the year in food. Their answers to an annual “Year in Eater” survey will be revealed in several posts this week. Next up, the dining experts weigh in on how they think the restaurant industry should change and rebuild after a devastating 2020.

Simone Jacobson, co-owner of Thamee: At first, I was viscerally upset by Tunde Wey’s “Case for Letting the Restaurant Industry Die,” and I called him to give him an earful about it. That was early on in our “new normal,” and we were all grieving the loss of the places we built and loved with no way to know just how long this devastation would last, or how many amazing gems would be gone on the other side of it. We still don’t really know how this all plays out, but the more time passes, the more I think Tunde isn’t all wrong. The romantic idealism of a new industry where people get a livable wage, access to quality health care, and a path towards ownership of some kind, career growth, or both, that’s exciting and worthy of devoting our collective energy to creating. But, will we all be exhausted, jaded, and stressed from having to build the plane as we fly it during this crisis? I think that’s the part we have yet to understand. It will take some major forces in the industry coming together, getting organized, and sharing a vision to accomplish this, and we also have to acknowledge that systemic changes are required way beyond restaurants. That’s the conundrum we’re in; how can restaurants attempt to do this massive social reformation unless the larger society is ready to shift, too?

Paola Velez, executive pastry chef for Maydan, Compass Rose, and La Bodega: I think restructuring how it views staff is the first step. When people feel valued, they work more efficiently, positively, and create beautiful things. Be kind. This industry is hard enough.

Tim Carman, Washington Post food columnist: So much needs to be rethought and changed: Landlords/developers need to stop looking at restaurants as cash cows. They need to set reasonable rates so that all parties can succeed. Restaurant owners, in turn, need to rethink tipping and how it impacts servers, creates income disparities between their own employees, and promotes bad behavior in the dining room. Diners need to stop acting like food is cheap and be willing to pay the full price of what it costs to serve a high-quality restaurant meal.

Anela Malik, Feed the Malik blogger: Rebuilding should seek to step away from the traditions of underpaid labor, harassment, and exploitation that have long underpinned the industry. I hope that 2020 has demonstrated that new standards and benchmarks are necessary to create equitable and safe workplaces.

Lenore Adkins, freelance food writer: I for one don’t mind paying more for meals if it means restaurant workers can get health insurance, paid time off and a raise. They have also been on the front lines of the pandemic and deserve some respect. Mechanisms also need to be in place to report and address all forms of employee abuse.

Jessica Sidman, Washingtonian food editor: I hope the public will gain a permanent appreciation for the work that goes into restaurants behind the scenes. The pandemic has brought more mainstream attention to how many workers are living paycheck to paycheck and don’t have health insurance. When things go back to “normal,” I hope diners will still appreciate the costs associated with a living wage and sourcing locally, continue to tip well, and just be kind in general.

Raman Santra, Barred in DC blogger: I think it should continue to be extremely upfront with customers on how (from both owners and staff) that, for the most part, this is their livelihood and profession which provides a great service and key feature to cities but operates at lower margins. I think people may think it’s gauche to talk about money, but customers feel invested in these places and want to know how they can support.

Tom Sietsema, Washington Post food critic: I see hopeful changes already, not just in the restaurant world, where immigrant and BIPOC chefs and others are getting well-deserved attention, but in the food media, which is adding important new voices and different perspectives to the conversation.

Takera Gholson, Flights and Foods blogger: It would be great if more restaurants were able to offer delivery, and those that currently offer delivery had the ability to expand the radius.

Gabe Hiatt, Eater D.C. editor: I would like to see restaurant workers earn a living wage. Adding automatic gratuities seems like the best way to remedy that right now while legislators and the business community grapple over how to alter — or move beyond — a tipping system rooted in racism, sexism, and classism. The dining public is going to have to accept that they’ve been underpaying for years. Rooting out harassment and racial inequity in the hospitality industry will have to come from a wholesale cultural evolution in the United States, but restaurants that set up systems for training and reporting protocols are at least being proactive. Landlords and developers who expect to maintain the level of rents they’re accustomed to are going to have to yank their heads out of the sand, too.

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