The outpouring of community support for local restaurants has been nothing short of amazing. So many people have found their own way to help so many of our local restaurants. To see such a strong community help in so many ways is heartwarming and gives me hope for the changes that must come.
The restaurant industry has been sick for many years now. This current crisis has only shown that the cupboards have been bare for a long time. The race to the bottom to offer the cheapest prices for the best meal has led us to this place. From fast food chains to fine dining establishments, the true cost of what it takes to create your meal has been kept from you, the dining public. As restaurants, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Out of fear of losing guests, every restaurant tries to offer you more and more -- many times to its detriment. Not only has the cost of all our products (produce, beef, chicken, fish, butter) gone up dramatically in the past 10 years, but the cost of doing business (insurance, credit card fees, payroll, rent) has gone up as well. Restaurants have more or less absorbed these costs without you seeing a reflective increase in the prices. The restaurant business model has always been one of volume. We need as many people as possible to come through the door in order to stay afloat. The squeeze from all sides pushes the number of guests we need up all the time. So every restaurant falls all over itself to get as many people in the door as possible. Many times at the cost to its employees and even guests.
In our industry the word “value” is used a lot. "How do we offer the most value to our guests?” is the question we ask every day. At some point the answer might be changing expectations and/or increasing prices. The model of having restaurants buzzing with bars filled to capacity is not something we will see again soon.
As a business owner, I never expect anyone to help us make money. Our margins and costs are not anyone’s concern. We are in the hospitality business, and our goal is to provide a remarkable experience for every guest we see. Many of us got into this business because of the joy it brings us to bring others joy. In order to continue to do that, we have to change.
When you ask someone about a restaurant, you often hear, “It was good, but expensive.” The interaction at a restaurant is so very unique. We go to a place where we ask someone else to cook, pour, deliver food and clean up after us. People bring us food and drink until we say so. It is an amazing production and we all play our parts. Only at the end do we see how much it all costs as the bill comes. As high as this bill might be, this cost is not accurate. The number of people who were underpaid along the way to bring that meal would break your heart if you knew.
These are not sour grapes. We face an uncertain future, but we do so with hope, excitement and passion. We have been given an opportunity to make positive, sustainable change in the world we operate in.
What do we need from you, the dining public? We need patience and understanding as we reinvent business models, meet a changing landscape of restrictions and find ways to create a better work experience for all our employees. We need you to continue to support your local restaurants as we navigate what is to come. The “old days” are gone. Our only hope is to make the future better for our workers, guests and the community as a whole. We will need to change, and we will need your support as we do. We hope you are as excited to see us in the restaurant as we are you.
Jason Miller is an owner of The Wine Kitchen, which has locations in Leesburg and Frederick, Maryland.