By Robin Garr
We lament a lot about all the restaurants we love that have closed during the pandemic. Heck, we lament a lot about all the restaurants we love that have closed before that, probably all the way back to the days when Louisville was just a growing river port town.
But we all know that the pandemic has made things worse. The loss of Decca, Harvest and Rye changed the face of the Nulu district forever. No, those spaces won’t stand vacant for long. But the look and feel of the neighborhood is changing, and that involves more than just new names on the signs out front.
Consider: Decca’s replacement is Lou Lou on Market. Rye’s replacement is the Olé Group’s Guacamole. To be perfectly clear, I’m not bashing those places. Good for them for stepping up. But neither Lou Lou (which bills its fare as “Southern food incorporating influences from New Orleans and Italy”) or Guacamole (“authentic Mexican cuisine with a modern twist”) attains either the price point or the creative spirit of their predecessors.
A worrisome trend
Suddenly there’s a worrisome trend: Some of the city’s fancier restaurants – our top tables – are disappearing, leaving behind vacant spaces or more modest successors.
The Brown Hotel’s English Grill and the Seelbach’s Oakroom are both closed for now, while the hotels’ more basic breakfast and lunch spaces remain open. Harvest’s space remains vacant, and so does the longtime home of Lilly’s Bistro.
Louisville is no outlier. Similar trends shadow the national and even the global scenes. This may be most notable in the well publicized plan to close Noma in Copenhagen. Arguably one of the world’s top restaurants, Noma is also among its most expensive, at $500 for a meal of 20 tiny courses, often ending with, um, reindeer-blood caramels.
In a recent New York Times story headlined “Dining Is Going Out of Fashion. As an Ex-Chef, I’m Relieved,” Noma’s chef René Redzepi told writer and former chef Genevieve Yam that “running a fine dining establishment at the highest level was financially and emotionally unsustainable. This seems to be realizing something most restaurant staffers have known all along: The business model that allows the world’s most exclusive restaurants to thrive was never viable.”
Despite our fierce pride in the local dining scene, few of us would claim that we have now, or have ever had, a restaurant at the level of Noma, or even at the level of top-tier eateries in Paris, London, or America’s coastal metropolises. But we’re good, and we know it. And if the kind of fancy, creative dining rooms that have made us proud do start going out of fashion here, it’s going to hurt.
Here’s where it gets murky: There’s a closer connection that one might think between Noma’s closing and the staffing issues that seem to be afflicting restaurant service around the world.
Some of her unnamed chef contacts, Times writer Yam disclosed, “found it laughable that Noma would rather close than figure out a solution to paying their staff equitably, while others were convinced that Redzepi wanted out before his reputation was tarnished by the ‘dirty little secret,’ as one person put it, that his restaurant had been run on a huge amount of free labor [unpaid interns] for most its life.”
Do pay and benefits drive worker shortage?
Not many restaurants – and none in Louisville, as far as I know – make their budget by relying on a staff of unpaid interns. But there’s little doubt that the current and ongoing restaurant labor shortage is driven by dissatisfaction with worker pay and benefits.
Thinking about my own restaurant visits since the pandemic – and comparing them with reports from many friends – it has become almost standard to enter a restaurant and find only one server handling every table. This is a practice that almost guarantees delays and customer frustration. So why is it happening?
Initially, the rather unlikely conventional wisdom was that laid-off servers weren’t coming back because the Covid-forced break had given them time to reflect on, and be soured by, server pay, lack of benefits, and daily pain. Now, though, I’m starting to sense another issue: As some restaurateurs begin offering higher pay and basic benefits to lure staff, they try to make the numbers work by using fewer but better-paid staff. Given the frustration I’m seeing, I wonder if this is a winning longer-term strategy.
Meanwhile, pulled by labor issues in one direction, restaurants face inexorably rising food prices in the other. If you’ve moaned at your grocery bill lately, imagine the pain for an executive chef trying to feed 80 diners during the dinner rush, pay servers and kitchen staff a higher wage, and, oh yeah, end up with a few bucks in their pocket at the end of the month.
Bumpy road likely to continue
It’s no surprise that, as Nation’s Restaurant News reported in its report on a National Restaurant Association survey earlier this month, “Restaurant operators expect a continued bumpy road in 2023.”
Much of the pain, the survey revealed, came to nobody’s surprise in food and labor costs. Food costs were called a significant challenge by 92%, while 89% said the same for labor costs. Coffee and egg costs alone fired a 30% jump in breakfast inflation last year.
On the labor side, survey responses showed a 4% increase in restaurant wages and salaries and a 5% hike in benefits overall. “These are the most significant line items for restaurants, accounting for about 33 cents of every dollar in sales.”
The stark result, according to this report, was an 8.5% increase in menu prices nationally. Fully 87% of restaurants reported that they increased menu prices last year.
In spite of it all, the restaurant association observed, consumers so far remain willing to spend money at restaurants despite higher menu prices.
Our town has prized its restaurants since the 19th century, and we’ve faced challenges before. Neither of these things seems likely to stop.