One step forward, two steps back, then one sideways, and maybe another diagonal

Dear Feastlings,

I don’t know anyone personally who regards the Great Resignation as all that great, or least no one who’s mentioned it to me. Mostly, when I talk about it with anyone, we collectively shake our heads in disbelief. People continue to leave not the restaurant industry alone- I just talked with a mortgage broker friend who said that when she finishes what deal she has in the works right now, she’s retiring, and I know there’s been dramatic turnover everywhere, from my fellow restaurateurs’ places to my dentist’s office to my lawyer guests’ steady new rotation of legal aides. It’s weird out there, and it promises to remain weird.

The industry I know about, though, is restaurants, and I can’t say the Great Resignation has been a great help to us, but it’s never been exactly a cake walk. Thirty-something years ago, I overheard a chef of some regional notoriety who was in town from Santa Fe remark in a particularly ugly combination of racism, cynicism and accuracy, that “white boys are ruining the restaurant business.” He was patently offensive, but the point he was making was this: As people from a more privileged socioeconomic class decided they wanted to try their hand at tasting sauces and sniffing soup and swirling wines in their glasses- what they’d long perceived the restaurant industry to be as people who’d only ever experienced it as guests- suddenly having privileged people refusing to work long hours on their feet in hot, high-stress kitchens for a pittance but insistent on carving out a spot for themselves in the industry, the people who *had* been doing so their entire careers starting realizing they were entitled to more as well.

So it started getting pricier to own or operate a restaurant, and pricier to eat in one. With the wave of cooking programs, the celebritization of chefs, and the idolatry of sommeliers, farmers and procurers of exotic ingredients, another wave of cost and accompanying price increased washed over us all, and now comes another wave, a whitecap swelling with wage increases, labor shortages, and surges in the cost of ingredients while the likelihood of their arrival at the back door diminishes daily.

Running a restaurant is part tightrope walker and part small-time real estate investor: there’s a cautious balance, especially in light of all the cost increases, first of all- if you price your dishes too low, you can’t cover your costs, but if you price them too high, people stop coming in. And then those who come in choose what they’ll spend. If each table were priced like a hotel room, there’d be some fluctuation, sure, but you could count on some sort of a reliable price. But now imagine that your hotel room may generate sales of an iced tea, a glass of water and a sandwich split between two people, or it may generate sales of a $150 bottle of wine, appetizers, entrees and desserts. That’s all well and good, and one subsidizes the other, but it’s just as likely that the table with the split sandwich and the iced tea will remain occupied as long as the other one, or longer. Hard to run a hotel where the guest chooses what they’ll spend and how long they’ll occupy the space that you need to be able to offer someone else who’ll cover your costs.

Combine it all and you have a formula for insomniac episodes, crippling debt and desperate hopes for a good busy season, which may or may not find you staffed up enough to handle the business you’ve been praying for.

So now we’re at a new crossroads, and while I’m sure that the chef who made that repugnant comment is long retired, it looks like the white boys he was complaining about are leaving the industry some thirty-five years later when they find that it’s not what it looked like on TV. I night argue that the mark they’re leaving on the industry is a good one: a rising tide lifts all ships, and all that. People at the low end of the wage scale are inching toward the middle of it, which can’t be bad for humanity. But people who dine out are discovering that a restaurant who doesn’t cover its costs also doesn’t survive, so keep that in mind as you notice that your appetizers cost what your entree did twenty years ago, and decide whether it’s worth it to you to see all ships lifted, and whether it’s worth a few extra dollars to you to enjoy a special meal out, and if not, where you want to see the cut in quality to keep your pricing where you need it to be- would you rather have poorer ingredients, smaller portions, factory-farm meats and wines? Poorer service? mediocre food? The market will determine all of that, and I hope when it’s all said and done that we’ll be around- I feel relatively confident that with 21 years under our belt, we’ll still be around for a bit longer- but that the places I like, be they restaurant or retail, inventive or reliably simple will be be around as well. I know not many of us have the extra cash in our pockets that we did three years ago, but when I find myself with a few extra dollars, I intend to invest it in my friends and neighbors and community.

With another diatribe off my chest, I’m happy now to give you what you wanted when you opened this email- the how-to of joining us for today’s wine tasting a couple of hours hence.

The terroir speaks

It’s not raining hard enough to keep you away if you’d rather join us for it in person, but if you prefer to tune in from home, here’s the link and info for today’s tasting, a short exploration into terroir, that curious influence that place has on wine:

Topic: Terroir and wine
Time: Aug 20, 2022 02:00 PM Arizona

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 833 0034 2312
Passcode: 578374

I’ll also mention that, as of last night, we still had a seat or three available at the wine dinner we’ll put together when Jerry Seps comes to town and brings with him the Zinfandels of Storybook Mountain Vineyard, on September 1st. You can’t reserve a seat online, but you can call us at (520) 326-9363 and we’re happy to pencil you in.

Storybook Mountain Vineyards dinner with Jerry Seps

Time to stamp this e-envelope and get this letter on its way- I’m sending it before noon, as promised, but I know that you may not all get this for half an hour or so- apologies to those who got nervous thinking I’d forgotten about it. See you soon.


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