Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Restaurants In Crisis

The last couple weeks have been difficult for me, as I now find myself out of a job. I wasn’t fired and didn’t quit. I work as a cook in restaurants and the place I worked at was sold, putting the entire staff out of work. So now I need a new job. What is interesting is that I did expect something like this to happen sooner or later. In fact I thought the restaurant might actually fail rather than get sold. So I suppose it is a good thing for the owner, but that doesn’t make a difference for the rest of us.

How did I know that this would happen? When you work in a restaurant, certain things become obvious. Lack of customers during much of the week and too many slow weekends are glaring problems but there are other signs that are more subtle. Before I mention them I would like to acknowledge that the book Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain has greatly influenced my perspective on this issue (very well written and I very highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys cooking or eating out). He has worked in many doomed restaurants and went into great detail in describing the signs of a failing restaurant. There are some things only an employee will notice but there are signs that will be evident to the diner as well. Obviously, if the restaurant is not full, particularly between 7 and 9, the prime dining hours, that is a bad sign. Staff going home long before closing time is often a sign of trouble - the extra employees were there in the hopes of there being more customers but now they are being cut to save money. On a related note, if you see more staff than customers, BAD SIGN. While the next indication did not apply to my restaurant, if you see a menu that has way too many items and seems to cater to all tastes and culinary styles, this is a sign of desperation. Another clue would be sudden changes in price structure, usually in the downward direction. The employees will notice more, such as economising on ingredients, equipment going unrepaired (BIG red flag and very noticeable at my workplace), staffing cuts, and other things.

Usually it is poor quality of food that drags down a restaurant, but that did not apply to my workplace; I was fairly proud of the food we served. I think the biggest problem in this particular case was location. This was an upscale bistro, located in a somewhat trendy neighbourhood, but one populated mainly by students and young families. This means the rent is rather high and the locals aren’t likely to frequent the restaurant on a very regular basis. The restaurant had no space to set up a patio in the summertime, a greatly desired feature of restaurants in Montreal, where I am living. This meant the usual busy time for restaurants, summer, was not as busy as it should be and the rest of the time business was quite unpredictable. These, together with other factors, contributed to the demise of the restaurant.

Still, this closure is symptomatic of the plight of other Montreal area restaurants in the past few years. Especially since the recession took hold, a lot of restaurants have closed, including a number of restaurants that had been viable for years. The problem is that, although Montreal is a dining-out city, the recession hit Montreal with less severity than the US, but still pretty bad. In addition the city has been slower to recover than many other places in Canada, some of which are now well on the way to recovery. With more people still out of work and budgets of the employed still squeezed, pricy restaurants are seen as a dispensable luxury and people are instead opting to eat at cheap, casual eateries (like chains, cafes, pizzerias, etc.). Last year’s temporary loss of the Formula 1 Grand Prix auto race was an additional blow to many downtown restaurants, when coupled with the lousy economy and a rainy summer. While things look better this summer, I’m not sure the fine dining culture in Montreal will fully recover. This may seem somewhat depressing, but there is still plenty of work out there and I expect to have another job before too long.

In closing, I would like to point out that there have been additional benefits to losing this job. I was trying to find a better job for a while now but was limited in what I could apply for and what jobs I could accept because of my work schedule, roadblocks that are now removed. I have more time to be more proactive in my job search and seek out opportunities that might have been overlooked. Separately, the extra free time generated from not having a job has given me the time to get this blog started and built up to the point where I will be able to maintain it when I have work again.

Extra Note: Anthony Bourdain’s books, beginning with Kitchen Confidential, have also been an influence in the creation of this blog. In his books, Bourdain displays a very vivid yet sophisticated writing style which I greatly admire. His book at first scared me away from cooking as a profession, then drew me towards it. Now I have more of his books, including travelogues, articles and even a novel, which have inspired me to combine food and writing. Expect to see more food-related writing here in the future.

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