This shall be my last Year in Review article for Restaurant World, as the magazine stops its presses forever. With the closing of the last restaurant in the world — a small mom-and-pop pizza joint in Newark — there’s no need for restaurant reviewers anymore. Oh, sure, we could have broadened our appeal to cover Dumpster Diving, but there’s no integrity in that. So rather than compromise, we’re selling off the assets to buy one last homemade gourmet meal for the crew, and then all go our separate ways, remembering the glory days with warm nostalgic brandy glaze of fondness.
Looking back on The Decade That Was with 20/20 hindsight, it seems so self-evident now that the demise of brick-and-mortar restaurants was foredoomed by the arrival of the soup kitchens. The restaurants initially sneered at these small, slick fly-by-night operations that sprang up everywhere in the wake of the economic meltdown; after all, homeless people didn’t even know how to make reservations. What possible threat could they be to well-established five-star houses of epicure? If only we had realized that we were looking at a revolution.
For as unemployment rose, the soup kitchens rebranded themselves to appeal to the young hip crowd. Ambient music and free wifi complemented the traditional free-food offerings, and suddenly a generation of young people were taking to the streets chanting “Food Wants to Be Free” and extolling the unstoppable power of the handout economy. The chill that went through the restaurant boardrooms could have congealed a mint jelly. Overnight, restaurants — with their large staffs of professional cooks, knowledgeable wait staff, and polite cloakroom attendants — looked like doddering dinosaurs from a bygone era.
Trying desperately to capitalize on the soup kitchen trend in order to recoup some of its plunging revenue, the restaurant industry opened up its own line of soup kitchens around the country, in direct competition with the upstarts. And how people did flock to them! Publications like Restaurant World declared a new Golden Era of Restaurants as the number of visits rose to all-time highs. All the quality food and service of expensive restaurants and none of the costs? What could possibly go wrong?
Well, of course the idea was that, once people got a taste of all that delicious free food at the soup kitchen, they’d be willing to pay for it by going to the restaurants down the street. And advertisers promised them even more money by offering to install donation boxes in restaurant foyers, so that patrons could drop in a dime or a quarter and get a free advertisement to read while they were waiting to be seated.
The strategy smacked of genius and the restaurant owners awaited the gold rush, as the lines outside the restaurants’ soup kitchens stretched for blocks and the so-called “charity” soup kitchens (and their uncouth clientele) disappeared forever. The bean counters were delighted with these numbers, and predicted that the next quarter would finally turn a profit.
But for some reason, that promised next quarter never came. In order to meet the demand for free quality food, the restaurants shipped ever more of their prime rib, their lobsters thermidor, and their caviar to the soup kitchens, but gradually ran out of money to buy more. World-class chefs were no longer willing to work for soup-kitchen stock (the paper variety at first, then eventually the broth), especially after their pensions were raided by the restaurants in order to — yes — buy more food.
Desperate to find out what had gone wrong, the restaurant industry commissioned polls, surveys, and focus groups to plumb the mystery of the consumer mind. They were stunned by the results. Almost everyone surveyed, it turned out, preferred not to pay for food if they didn’t have to. Food, the restaurants finally had to admit, really did want to be free.
From then on, Restaurant World magazine read like a death watch on the industry — hundreds, then thousands, of restaurant closures a week, shutting down their once-popular soup kitchens in their wake. Some of the laid-off waiters tried to keep their old employers’ soup kitchens open, but they quickly exhausted the stockpiles of ramen and rice that they had hoped would tide them over while waiting on foundation grants so they could once again buy steak and Chilean sea bass.
In the meantime, desperate to find new sources of free food to replace those that had disappeared, city people turned to ever more home-grown methods. Many fled to farms and ranches in search of free meals, only to learn that making food is a long, complicated, and dirt-prone process. The photo of the gaunt young hipster following a cow around with a fork and knife still haunts us all — worthy of a Pulitzer, if they were still giving out Pulitzers.
So finally, overwhelmed by the gloom of the Last Decade of Restaurants, and plagued by a growling stomach, I must close out my last column in this final issue of this esteemed publication. I take with me nothing but fond memories, and this drum of newsprint, which I can probably boil down into a nice stew.
Categorised as: Life the Universe and Everything
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