Happy New Year! I know it’s a holiday and I don’t typically post on these days, but hey, it’s Friday. What’s Friday without a Foodie Friday post? This post, written right after what I think was our last visit to a restaurant for a long time in mid-March, talks about what businesses need to think about when the s%$t hits the fan. If anything, I underestimated how much of that was about to go down, but the lesson remains the same. Originally called “Last Night’s Lesson,” it’s a great way to end/start the year.
It’s Foodie Friday. We went out for a bite last night to one of the places that’s in the usual rotation. On most Thursday nights the bar is crowded and there’s often a wait to grab a table. Last night we pretty much had the bar to ourselves and there were tables available without any delay.
My buddy Tina the bartender said that business wasn’t great and I think we all know it’s due to the fear of the coronavirus. It’s hard to keep a safe distance from folks in a crowded bar or when tables are close together. While you expect your servers and cooks to have clean hands, it’s not a great time to find out otherwise. Apparently, my little microcosm isn’t much different from what’s been going on around the country and, I suspect, around the world.
What a number of food businesses (this one included) are doing is a great lesson for those of us in other businesses with respect to how to behave when the proverbial pandemic hits the fan. I’ve seen Facebook posts and received several emails from places I patronize and most of them have the same message. First, they aren’t minimizing the situation with any kind of casual joking (“Hey! Come on out and play! It’s just a little flu!”). Second, they all talk about both their normal cleaning process as well as the enhanced measures they’re taking during the crisis. This includes more frequent cleaning using higher-strength disinfectants and retraining of staff.
It’s the big guys too. Starbucks, which markets itself as a gathering spot (not something we’re being encouraged to do these days) has actually taken to limiting seating, spacing seats further apart, and even closed a store temporarily after a worker fell ill. The message is loud and clear: we place our customers and their health above the short-term profit hit we’ll take. Well, duh, people. Dead customers don’t buy things, so helping to prevent the spread of this virus is smart business no matter the cost.
Some places have amped up their delivery service. I’ve heard of other places that will bring your food to the curb so you don’t have to get out of your car if they don’t deliver. Who knows – maybe those services will become a normal part of their business going forward – we all know how delivery services’ menu of menus has grown over the last year or so. Acknowledging that not everyone is comfortable or able to go out for dinner at this time and not attempting to persuade them otherwise is being supportive and adult. That’s what any of our businesses need to be.
We overtipped last night (50%). Why? These are our friends and they might be hurting for the next month or so. If you get out, do the same. Buy a gift card at your favorite place, restaurant or otherwise, and use it down the road when you go back. We’re all in this together, right?
I’m sad, this Foodie Friday. If you’ve hung around the screed for a while, you know that Friday used to be the day when I’d traipse down to my local and quaff an adult beverage or two to celebrate the end of the week. I’ve written about the place before, and while I still patronize it via takeout food, sitting at the bar with the other regulars is not an option for the foreseeable future. Thanks, COVID.
You are probably aware that pubs take their name from the public houses that first appeared in the late 17th century, and was used to differentiate private houses from those which were, quite literally, open to the public as ‘alehouses’, ‘taverns’, and ‘inns’. Much earlier, the Romans established tabernae in Britain, alehouses along their network of roads. Yes, that’s where the word “tavern” comes from.
Here’s the thing. Those alehouses weren’t just places where people went to get drunk. They were meeting places where people could socially congregate, share gossip, and arrange mutual help within their communities. Until last March, that’s exactly the role that my local served as well.
Now before you ask me if I’ve ever heard of Facebook or Next Door, hear me out. I want to make a point that applies to the business world as well. Ask yourself if your social media interactions with your friends and family are as satisfying as Facetiming or Zooming. Probably not. Then ask yourself if those video-based interactions are as good as sitting in the same room or on the next bar stool with a friend. I highly doubt it.
What’s been lost during this pandemic, an economic crisis that has decimated the restaurant industry, is not just jobs. It’s our ability to do what pubs, and by extension, restaurants, were in part created to do: socially congregate, meet new people, have a laugh or a cry with a friend who you can hug. Every business has suffered that loss to a certain extent. Whether it’s customers, suppliers, or staff, I’m pretty sure none of them are coming to an in-person holiday party this year (at least I hope not).
So the real question isn’t how will the bars and restaurants that survive this get back to that happy in-person social place once this is over. The real question is how will your business?
I’m sure we’re all happy to have arrived at Foodie Friday. What a week! In my local paper this week was a story about the local food critic retiring. He’s 65 and has been writing his reviews for 25 years. There were a number of things in his farewell column that I think are relevant no matter what business you’re in and I’d like to share them with you.
“When I sit down for a meal, I’ve always wanted them to succeed,” Cox said. “If you’re not excited about it, I don’t know why you’d be a restaurant critic.”
Some folks might think that the word “critic” implies someone who is negative. In fact, a critic is a professional who communicates an assessment and an opinion of various forms of creative works, according to Wikipedia. Managers are critics too. We evaluate our team members’ work and job performance as part of our responsibilities. Unfortunately, many of us seem to forget what the above quote says. We need to want them to succeed and to be excited about that success. I’ve worked with managers who hardly ever had a good word to say about their staff, and when they did have something nice to say it was usually a reflection on their excellent management skills and not on their team’s talent.
It’s been fun reading this guy’s reviews. Like many of my North Carolina neighbors, he’s very plain-spoken and without pretense, not exactly the vibe I used to get from the food critics in NYC. He’d invest as much energy in a review of a local mom and pop place as he did in the reviews of James Beard-nominated chefs (yes, we have quite a few here in the Triangle). That’s an important thing too. Not every project is fascinating. In fact, most of the time, we’re doing rather mundane, repetitive work. Was working in TV fascinating? Yes. Was pulling together sales packages and ratings data? Not after the first 10 times it wasn’t. To be successful, we have to treat our pet projects and the drudge work as equals. And lose the attitude, folks. You’re not your job so don’t confuse who you are with what you do. As many folks have found out the hard way of late, the title, salary, perks, and status can be gone in a hurry.
Think about what being a food or other kind of critic entails. It’s not enough to be a subject matter expert. You can know everything there is to know about food or wine or film or art. That’s not enough. You have to be able to formulate coherent opinions based on that knowledge and express them in written form. That’s where I think many business people fail. They’re smart, they have great ideas, but they can’t express them to others clearly and cogently in writing.
I suppose all critics are critical – it’s their job, right? But critical thinking – analyzing facts to form an opinion – doesn’t mean negative thinking. A good thing to keep in mind!