Restaurants Aren’t What They Used to Be (and That’s a Good Thing)

Like so many other chefs, I was drawn to the restaurant business because it is exciting. I ignored its dysfunction and accepted that I’d forgo higher education, financial stability and holidays with family in order to share my craft with others.

All it took was a pandemic, an enormous wave of inflation and an impossibly tight job market to force me and many others to burrow to the very core of what a restaurant does for its guests, workers and community and redefine it from the ground up.

This is the silver lining of the pandemic and the never-ending economic uncertainty that has ensued: More places are finally figuring out how to make this business an actual business.

The start of my story is a typical one. I gleefully started skipping school to work in kitchens at 15, then shipped off to New York to experience all kinds of “character building” abuse, and by my early 30s, I had made it in San Francisco as an executive chef … which meant 80-hour workweeks while barely scraping by.

I eventually struck out on my own, deciding to play it safe by opening a restaurant with a normal business model. And as is usually the case, normal sucked. Our 80 seats were full every night, employing great folks and serving great food and cocktails — and sweating our $11,000 rent and roughly $90,000 payroll each month. Structurally, our mission to price affordably had landed us in the death zone: full service yet unable to charge fine-dining prices. The anxiety was weapons grade.

The standard model for a business almost all of us engage with regularly, the one we frequently post our own reviews about, has barely worked for a majority of the more than 12 million people it employs. The restaurant industry accounts for some 4 percent of the G.D.P. in the United States but has been stuck in a deeply flawed business model with sadly outdated practices. The pandemic only brought this reality to the center of the plate and made it something we couldn’t push aside anymore.

Yet I find deep meaning and purpose in the work in a way I can’t quite put my finger on, something to do with providing for other human beings.

Then it was March 2020. I was sitting at the redwood table I’d recently finished staining for my barely year-old restaurant, digesting the news that the night’s party of 18 had just canceled. Something called Covid-19 was causing our bookings to disappear. It was also emptying grocery shelves; a friend asked to buy three flats of eggs. Right next to me sat a stack of invoices.

My egg friend also desperately needed paper towels, since evidently grocery stores were out of those, too. I took his order, took this as a sign and flipped our space into a general store. It took off, we even hired people, and that stack of bills was soon paid, which felt like a triumph. But after five chaotic months of repackaging bulk food, the supply chain adjusted, shelves at traditional grocers refilled, and the floor fell out from underneath us again, only more so. On Aug. 11, 2020, almost the same day Congress decided it would go on recess without any agreement for additional small business aid, I made the gut-wrenching decision to close, adding me and my staff to the country’s devastating unemployment statistics.

I needed to find some work or to create some, and I remembered a crazy idea I had years ago while driving back home to Iowa. My mind was deep in “I’m so frustrated with the miserable economics of my chosen profession” territory as I passed a used R.V. lot. I chuckled and thought, “Maybe you should just open a tiny private dining room.”

I chuckled again nervously as I recalled it. Then I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and scraped together $18,000 to buy a 1989 Volkswagen camper I found on Craigslist.

I renamed the van SuperStella and rebuilt her with a surprisingly luxurious (yes, really) dining room for four. For 11 months starting in November 2020, SuperStella served two Covid-safe seatings a night in a private lot that had a commanding view of the Bay Bridge and its twinkling lights. For a check that ranged from $88 to $165 a person, diners enjoyed a glamping-themed menu of things like whole grilled trout with nasturtium butter poured from a thermos and a fat slice of grilled milk bread with salted maple butter shaved over it for dessert. I was the waiter, sommelier and cook. Not only did I get tons of vitamin D (for once) and bring joy to some lockdown-fatigued diners, but thanks to the fact that I had low to no overhead, I was also making a comfortable living for the first time in my career.

Was SuperStella a restaurant? Technically, no: I’d navigated some regulatory gray area by designating it as catering and the private lot as a venue. It would be only temporary, since operating longer would have been a case study in navigating bureaucracy. (No, thanks.) But I was emboldened to believe that whatever I did next could and would make money. All I had to do was throw out the definition of how a restaurant normally works and start over from scratch.

Fast-forward to today. Most days, you’ll find me at my new pasta shop in a residential neighborhood on the west side of San Francisco, where we’ve rethought pretty much everything in order to create a sustainable business model.

Standard restaurant logic dictates that your dining room be as big as possible, but we cut ours in half (to just 35 seats) so the business has an additional leg to stand on: a retail shop that is open all day selling freshly made pastas, sauces and high-end pantry items, all of it prepared and curated for people to make easy dinners at home.

Our consistent retail traffic balances most seasonal ups and downs; when young diners are at Burning Man, families still swing by to grab bucatini and olive oil. Granted, a minuscule dining room means no massive Friday night sales, but that’s a welcome trade-off for better consistency throughout the week, and that consistency gives us the freedom to operate with less complexity and fewer moving parts.

Our restaurant is walk-in only, so we don’t pay an online reservation platform or lose money on no-shows. Our tiny menu is efficient and minimizes waste. Our product, pasta, is affordable enough to keep profit margins sufficient even during inflationary periods. Most important, guests order at the front door with the host before being pointed to their (fully set) table, which eliminates 15 minutes of profit-killing dead time at the beginning of each meal.

It’s becoming common for us to do more than four turns on a table at night. The faster we turn tables, the stronger our sales are. The more we do with less, the better our margins are. Better margins enable us to price more competitively and pass on our savings at a time when everyone is feeling the squeeze; almost all of our pastas are under $20. Our staff is paid competitively, and even I am taking home a regular, decent paycheck, something that happened only occasionally before.

Admittedly, not everyone is into how we do things. We’ve had … incidents. People have railed about our small (totally fine and indestructible!) wineglasses on Yelp and occasionally complain we’re overpriced (which would happen even if we paid people to eat here). Once in a while, someone will voice a big opinion about our service charge, which is 15 percent of the pretax bill. This is a step toward moving away completely from the outdated practice of tipping and will eventually, hopefully, evolve into an all-in pricing model that factors employees’ wages into the menu prices.

Most diners come around. Some don’t. We do play Nirvana a little loud.

You might have noticed more top-rated restaurants have summoned the nerve to charge you reservation fees or for entire meals up front and more prix fixe dinners instead of the be-everything-to-everyone menus we’ve gotten so used to. You’ll probably see some offbeat service models.

Embrace it, because a lot of this stuff is working for us and will work for you.

Some experiments — such as QR code menus in formal settings — may need to fade back to wherever they came from. And hopefully, the best parts will work their way through, just as farm to table did; even my hometown in Iowa has an excellent version.

Resetting expectations is messy work, definitely not glamorous or Instagrammable. But it’s part of the next phase for restaurants — a sector that grew from carrying a stigma as transitory, low-prestige work to becoming lauded and respected over time. If chefs, servers and diners all play our part in this next chapter, that troubled industry will play a more crucial role as a load-bearing pillar of our culture and economy.

Anthony Strong is the chef and owner of Pasta Supply Co.

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