Living up to hype and pressure is taxing. The world of food is not what it was ten years ago or even five. In today’s culture, what was once just an excellent place to eat can blow up, courtesy of an article, a rating, or a television show appearance. Food tourism is a thing, celebrity chefs are beloved, and a solid Yelp rating can transform fortunes. These are not—usually—bad things. Who doesn’t like making cash and earning recognition for the very thing they’ve centered their life around?
When a spot that was never designed to handle a constant line out the door and around the building gets that busy, things change. And sometimes, those changes throw wrenches into what was once a smooth process, and they leave people scrambling to keep up with customer demand.
Growth can be problematic
It doesn’t matter what kind of kitchen you’re running—intense and immediate growth can be problematic. Ask some of the Michelin starred chefs who’ve said “thanks, but no thanks” and given back their rating. These folks wanted to avoid the phalanx of people descending on their restaurants, many of which were designed as smaller, intimate places with excellent table service and food quality, not turn and burn operations.
In the past, a Michelin star was once the ultimate status symbol. If your restaurant was awarded even one star, everything would change. Foodies would come in droves and bring their wallets with them. But, there’s a new generation of chefs not interested. Instead, they want to make their version of the best food possible, without the extra hype.
Food nerds have noticed a trend with the Michelin star: French chef Sébastien Bras asked to not even be considered, and Swedish cook Magnus Nilsson closed his two-starred restaurant Fäviken. Icon Marco Pierre White has been vocal about the rating and what it can do to someone’s ego; the star also affects how some people look at the business of making food.
If you want perspective on a good meal, there are now a lot more options; the lure of the fine-dining crowd has taken a different direction. People who care about food are checking out who’s making noise; they’re watching shows on the Food Network and the Travel Channel, Netflix, and even PBS. Then there are the food critics, the magazines, and the blogs.
In today’s foodie world, everything is up for grabs, including any rating. But more and more people care about the mom and pop joints and the holes in the wall, along with food trucks and stalls that have been crushing at their specialties.
One of the biggest things about getting that vaulted designation as a “must stop” establishment is that the pressure to maintain that level of excellence never stops, and it grinds people into dust. What comes with that level of busyness is that it’s no longer about the food. It’s about the perception of quality, along with the guest experience compared against the expectations set by what the guest has seen or read.
What happens if someone loses their stars? What if Bourdain was wrong, and this place sucks? What does that culturally signify? A lot of people aren’t mentally prepared for that kind of drop off, which can poison the business. Fortunately, in the age of social media, this doesn’t matter as much as it used to. Plenty of folks don’t pay attention to any ratings other than those given by their peers.
What about the hype effect?
A show like Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives or Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations or his later Parts Unknown can raise a business’ profile. There are a lot of fans out there that trust these folks as tastemakers offering insight into places they need to try. Small businesses can transform overnight if the food is actually really good, people talk, and keep coming back.
When Guy Fieri comes to a restaurant, nothing is the same afterward. Getting a spot on the Food Network stalwart’s show is no small feat. Fieri’s frosted tip team scours the places in towns across America, and it’s widely accepted that if Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives features a restaurant, there will be a 200% increase in business. That’s a ton. And then there are the reruns, which makes these restaurants tourist destinations. (The Food Network always re-airs “Triple D,” so those one-time spikes happen over and over again.)
The pressure is on
That 200% increase can haunt kitchens. The hours get longer, and there’s always more demand to keep up. Whether it’s a star, an Eater profile, or David Chang that put you on television, people in both the front of your house and in the kitchen can burn out. Depression, alcohol, and drug abuse become the norm, and then come the rampant staff shortages, a lack of prep time thanks to increased volume, and raised stress across the board.
Young chefs face pressure to succeed immediately. If they burn out, they might leave the kitchen and never come back. The same goes for bussers, dishwashers, servers, and bartenders. Everyone likes making money, but at what point does it become problematic?
Don’t turn a blind eye to burn out
A lot of restaurants fail. In fact, most do. If your spot gets the opportunity to be showcased in front of a lot of people, resulting in bigger crowds and longer wait times, it can be a blessing. But that also means you need to take care of your staff if you expect them to handle those bigger crowds well.
People need work/life balance, and they also need realistic hours. No one can pump out fourteen-hour days for weeks without time to recoup. Burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis, but it affects everything from the top to the bottom of an organization. Be aware of the signs:
- Cynical, impatient attitudes
- People looking like zombies and working like them, too
- Drug and alcohol abuse
Don’t let the good fortune of having a great place become an albatross around your neck. Set expectations, but realize you might be working people too hard to keep up the image of a perfectly running machine.
Get people help
There’s a national labor shortage across the board right now. We get it. But, if you’re trying to keep hiring to make things run smoother, definitely keep your finger on the pulse of the gig economy and on-demand staffing. There are companies ready to get you those extra sets of hands you need. (Like us.) From bussing to meal prep to washing dishes, there are a lot of folks out there looking to make some extra money. Plus, if your spot is crushing right now, they’d love to have your name on their resume to show they can handle the volume.
If you concentrate on maintaining a workplace that understands people need a break and to get off their feet, you’re ahead of the game. Do your best, take care of your people, and love the opportunities in front of you.
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