I’d bet that most other small business owners will tell you the same thing: as much as you own your business, your business also owns you. I’ve known it since we opened, and I discovered the first thing you discover as a starry-eyed small business owner- despite the fact that you get to choose who you hire, you don’t get to choose the pool you’re picking from.
Feast has been historically quite fortunate in that, until the pandemic, even with the transitory nature of restaurant folk, we had people who stayed here for fourteen, eighteen, even twenty-plus years. And having a tight-knit group like this fostered more like-minded people- food and wine nerds and people who understand that dining is an experience. The pandemic, for really all of humanity, was a drubbing, but we held it together for a good long stretch. Then the attrition began- people reevaluated their lives, and reacted accordingly: some left the industry. Some took higher-level jobs elsewhere to replace others who’d left the industry. Some retired. Some tired of working under additional stress, and some tired of working with people who didn’t handle well the prospect of working under additional stress. And some had little choice.
Now, nine months after we had to stop serving on Sundays to maintain what sanity was left among our little skeleton crew, and four months after reopening on Sundays for dinner only, we again find ourselves constrained to limit our hours. Yes, we’ve hired a couple of people, but they’re people with varying degrees of experience, and I’ve watched some of our colleagues deal with it too: some restaurants can no longer offer lunch service, some have closed additional days, and some have found themselves stretched so thinly that one or two cooks calling in sick has forced them to limit how many guests they can serve, or to shut down for an evening with well over a hundred reservations on the books.
Yes, I suppose that, technically, we can say we’ve made it through the pandemic- Feast, of course, but the restaurant industry writ large- but I’d also say that none of us have made through wondering how long we’ll be able to keep at this. A shakeup this big doesn’t mean we just muddle through the difficult period and life returns to normal- it means that despite what reinventing we’ve been up to for three years now, there’s still a lot of reinventing to be done. I’ve seen articles about restaurants who now only serve prix fixe meals so that they can know exactly what food they’ll go through on a given night. I’ve heard of restaurants trying a subscription model, and restaurants who’ve turned themselves into ghost kitchens, making food solely for delivery. Restaurants have become small grocers, or they’ve staffed themselves with kiosks and robot bussers. But whatever we’ve all done to adapt, we’re still at it. For me, the big frustration is that what staff we have, while it’s still peppered with people who love food and drink and hospitality, is now also composed of people who’d be content to work at a chain, heating up food that came from cans and freezer bags, and who’d quite possibly prefer it. We have people who come from backgrounds that pit the kitchen against the waitstaff, and people who, when confronted with an error, a misstep in service or an overcooked piece of fish, shrug and acknowledge the mistake with no indication that they care, or that they care to fix it or learn from it.
We had a couple of new people come in this past week to work a shift and see whether they’d be a good fit, and while we could have hired them- they were, after all, warm bodies- they gave every indication that they’d cause a further shift in the culture here away from what we’ve worked over twenty years to build. So for now, I’m choosing to maintain what I can by declining the people who’ve walked in from a culture I don’t agree with. I may as well have bought the damned robots. That choice not to hire them, in turn, means a renewed moratorium on Sundays, a renewed effort to find the people who feel the way that this core group of people feels about food and drink and hospitality, and a renewed chin-scratching about what Feast needs to look like to continue to be a place we’re proud to have built. And to remain open.
I’m certainly hoping we can get back to Sundays- we’re giving up a huge chunk of our revenue by shutting them back down- but if we keep going down this current path, it won’t be long before I throw in the towel altogether. For now, I’ll need to keep my towel, thank you very much.
If we kept ourselves open on Sundays, for example, we wouldn’t be able to do some of the other things that are important to us, like the benefit dinner for Sister Jose Women’s Center that I mentioned a while back,
which sold out before we even posted it, and which therefore, we’ll be repeating in April. See that link above to learn about both dinners.
We’ll also keep at the wine tastings, so you can join us this Saturday for Italia oscura, a tasting of some of the less familiar varietals of Italy
And with any luck, we’ll maintain what we can of the culture of Feast: a kitchen crew and dining room crew that work together and treat each other with politeness and respect; a staff who cares about our guests’ experience; and an acceptance of responsibility. And, assuming the universe is inclined to let us, an eventual rebuilding of a staff and a restaurant that we can all be excited about.
Thanks for your patience with us while we keep trying to find out what a normal restaurant looks like.