Vittles 4.6 - The Restaurant 'Industry'

Ditch the “Industry”, Save the Restaurant, by Pamela Brunton

Evolution or revolution? This dichotomy always seemed to provide the framework for discussions I would have at work before the pandemic — sometimes about Brexit, or the Labour Party, or even about food writing and restaurants — with me generally being on the revolution, '“burn it to the ground” side and my boss cautioning evolution and reform. Both of us of course agreed that something needed to change, but we would differ over whether meaningful change was imaginable within the current framework or whether that framework needed to go entirely.

All these debates have seemed hypothetical until this year, but recently the possibilities have shifted and the realm of what is imaginable has expanded — whether it is defunding or even abolishing police forces, or just the pure, unadulterated glee of dumping racist monuments into Bristol harbour. Unfortunately the realm of what is imaginably bad has expanded too. Personally, my view — one that has been compounded since the election — is that you should expect things to stay the same or get worse, but still write as if they wont. This has been my policy with writing about restaurants during the pandemic. We all know the structural problems, we all know the barriers to change make it seem like an unassailable assault course, but why not imagine a better world and plot how to get there? We need solutions, both real and utopian.

Today’s newsletter by Pamela Brunton, the chef and co-owner of the restaurant Inver on Scotland’s west coast, proposes real and very much imaginable solutions but ones that seem utopian given the incompetency and limitations of our current government. Pamela argues that the capitalist framework bequeathed to us by Adam Smith has left us with a warped sense of what is important, something I’ve felt when I’ve seen restaurant figures talk about their net worth to the economy, as if that was the most important thing they contribute. Even the words ‘restaurant industry’ have made me feel queasy. And yet when some have talked about their social worth it feels hollow, as if they’re suddenly using the cloak of ‘community’ to mask that profit-motive is and has always been their driving factor, and that the consolidation of their power and status within the industry means more to them than saving jobs.

Ultimately talk of ‘industry’ groups every restaurant in with every other and this is not correct. There are plenty of restaurants, particularly in London, which could disappear overnight and not be missed or mourned by anyone. Perhaps too many of them. There are others which perform vital services for their community whilst remaining businesses that have to make profit to survive. Out of all of Pamela’s solutions it’s still the most utopian one that speaks to me the most: save restaurants and ditch the industry. Maybe we have differing visions of what that looks like, or how to get there, but still, wouldn’t that be something to aim for?

Ditch the “Industry”, Save the Restaurant, by Pamela Brunton

What do you really miss about restaurants? 

Are you thinking about the food; the breath of toasted wheat from fresh broken bread, or the smoke whispering round sizzling lamb chops? Me too. I also miss my work: that steadying repetition of familiar tasks, the pleasure in practising a craft. I miss all the people; the affirmation of working among a team for a common goal and the joy of sharing the things we have made with the restaurant’s guests, our customers. Like a leaking bag of semolina our bank account is trickling out, but it’s not the ping of a cash register I’m yearning for. 

Businesses measure profit much like governments prioritise GDP (Gross Domestic Profit). Both assume that with financial success will come all the things that we actually need: like health, security, human connection and opportunity. In a restaurant, we talk about ‘turnover’ and ‘profit margin’ as measures of our success, as if our businesses were simply microcosms of the country’s capitalist economy.

GDP is a measurement of a country’s “output”, first articulated by Scottish economist (and the “Father of Capitalism”) Adam Smith during the Enlightenment in 1776. With GDP Smith expanded the measure of a country’s wealth from simply its gold and silver stores to include all the products of its nascent industries, which these days means everything from primary production (like farming, or energy) through manufacture to service industries, including restaurants. Countries are ranked by their GDP: governments panic when it drops through two quarters of the year, meaning your country is entering a recession and all those policy briefs your civil servant army stacked like sandbags are letting in water.

Like profit, GDP says nothing about the nature of the work that created the output. GDP can put a value on illegal drug consumption, but can’t capture the worth of unpaid care in the home. Profit says nothing about whether my employees went home satisfied and happy, or ragged with anxiety and exhaustion. My restaurant could output freezer-to-fryer chicken with dramatically reduced staff costs and increase our profit. But let’s say that chicken is raised wing-to-wing in a tight-packed feather-mat barn, fed antibiotics and growth hormones, then breaded with monoculture wheat, and fried in GM rapeseed oil that was drenched in glyphosphate - a potential carcinogen. The chicken farm is on land that was once forest, and those wild animals have now been squeezed closer to human habitation. The fried chicken is fed to a population that is already smothered by diet-related ill health and the chicken factory workers start to feel ill. Or we could employ the staff on zero-hours contracts, or pay them a salary that accounts for a fraction of the hours that they actually work. Perhaps we could expand our take-away chicken offer using delivery drivers who themselves are afforded no employment rights?

There are costs to this meal that aren’t paid for by the restaurant serving it. The environment and wildlife, the communities around the wheat fields and the chicken farm, the chickens, my staff, the factory workers, the delivery drivers, and the NHS (and the citizen taxpayers who fund the health service), eventually pay those fees instead. How we got to that output matters as much as what we produce. 

The beauty of great restaurants is that they can be a seamless collaboration between all of a restaurant’s family: business owners, both small and large, customers, cooks and wait staff, suppliers, producers and farmers. They’re like a show where the script is re-written every service, a twice-daily edible exhibition of tradition, travel, craft and skills, a way to tell stories of ourselves to each other using flavour and texture, music, decor and scenery. The food and the drink are not the end product of our days, more passed parcels connecting a landscape to those people who husband it, who bring us their salads, beetroots and apples, farm milk, venison and oysters. Through the prism of our imaginations, they hand that land to you, customer, guest. The best restaurants happen where directors, actors and backstage crew are all immersed in their craft.

At Inver, we buy good ingredients from nearby farms and gardens, from Kate and Fi, Duncan, Julie and Alastair, who often join us in the dining room. From the dining room you can look out the window and watch chefs picking the wild herbs, or our neighbour Robin carrying a battered yellow bucket of gleaming mackerel from the loch. We share the village hall, the Post Office and the weather with our suppliers. In food networks where you know the people growing your food as people, not catalogue entries, you feel like a human being. Trust and well-being circulate with the small gifts of coffee and glasses of wine, the favours returned, the names on the menus. The reciprocity in these close relationships build and bind community. The lines between work and life are blurred. These things are what our business gives us, our staff and community, in the ledger entry where profit should be. 

Adam Smith may have fathered capitalism but no parent knows crib-side what havoc or joy his child will wreak. The theory on which our modern capitalist structures were founded was written some 250 years ago, before the Industrial Revolution’s environmental and human debt could be recognised. In 1776 It looked like the natural world had unlimited resources to feed the factories, and no-one knew what all that unleashed carbon was doing to the climate. Diet-related ill health was then mainly a want of nutrients, not too many of the wrong ones. We know now that the planet can’t handle more and more; industry can’t output “goods” forever.

Recent decades have seen efforts to account for the cost of ‘externalities’; the cost to human health done by smoking cigarettes, for instance, is now factored into the rising price of a pack of fags. Farming subsidies have shifted from encouraging farmers to produce more and cheaper food, to recognising the benefits of well-managed, wildlife-rich countryside. But supermarkets still purchase whole supply chains to beat down the cost of the bag on the shelf and multinational fast food chains have economies of scale that small independents can’t compete with. The price of food is warped beyond recognition; “free” trade is not free from influence or cost. The field on which we restaurateurs play is uneven, skewed by interference in the food system that favours some players more than others.

Smith was also a moral philosopher. His whole economic treatise was justified by his belief that happiness is the sole end of government, and that happiness is achieved when, “all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level”. Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon recently committed Scotland to building a Wellbeing Economy. In a TED talk last year she described Scotland’s alliance with two other woman-led nations, Iceland and New Zealand, and mooted criteria for measuring what that new economy would provide for its citizens. This National Performance Framework measures features of our lives not captured in GDP but essential for a fair and happy society, like health, or the way people feel about their jobs and their home. What we choose to measure matters. What we measure is what we see; and what we see, we can choose, control, reward or avoid. 

Restaurants can have a role in society’s well being, but the things we bring to the table are not all in the budget. A performance framework for restaurants and food businesses would illuminate the sector’s real costs and benefits, and allow the government to reward and incentivise a richer array of social aims. Tax breaks (reduced VAT contributions, say) for businesses who buy from independent local suppliers, therefore distributing money more equitably. Or similar breaks for those who buy organic ingredients, so the environmental cost of producing the food does not have to be picked up elsewhere.

Perhaps Arts Councils could distribute grants to restaurants who use traditional craft ingredients, and use them to interpret the country’s food heritage or future. Local development agencies could support immigrant communities to access ingredients important to their food culture but grown nearby. Such grants could encourage immigrants to build businesses that share traditional skills from elsewhere and foster links with budding chefs and restaurateurs in their locale, meanwhile bridging communities. Maybe a rent cap on restaurant buildings in urban or rural locations that need them? Fair employers - by which I mean those who pay decent wages without huge disparity between the owner's or manager’s salary and their kitchen assistant’s - could benefit from reduced employee tax. Craft skills training attracts financial aid in colleges; why not in kitchens and dining rooms? This doesn’t mean that restaurants shouldn’t pursue profit. But it does mean that a business whose sole goal is to make profit at any cost wouldn't be rewarded more highly than those who are pursuing social good. And social good is where the government steps in. Right? 

When you come to our restaurant — any restaurant — we hand you a price list. But beyond the menu, there’s a way of valuing all the other things we offer too. The word ‘restaurant’ comes from the French for “restorative”, a name originally applied to bowls of soup rather than a place for serving them. Restaurants have the utensils for rebuilding a food culture that serves us all. In this re-enlightenment, we need to clear the smoke, illuminate the darker corners of how the food industry and its restaurants work, and allow all of us citizen-customers to properly choose where our money is spent. This is meaningful democratic choice, and it’s not currently on anyone’s menu. 

Pamela Brunton is the chef and co-owner of Inver, an award-winning restaurant in the wilds of Argyll. Previous to this she studied food policy and has campaigned for reform in the food and farming industry. Pamela was paid for this newsletter.

The illustration is by Ada Jusic, who specialises in illustrations with a political or social context. You can find more of her illustrations at Ada was paid for her work.

If you have been enjoying Vittles, then you can contribute to its upkeep by subscribing via Patreon, which ensures all contributors are paid. All new donations made this month have been set aside for Black writers and illustrators to ensure a living wage for their contributions.