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  • Writer's pictureJ.S. Kohout

What Are We Doing Here?

Updated: Apr 2

I'm trying to create a restaurant I can put in my pocket and take with me wherever I go. A more literal "moveable feast" unbound by the more conventional aspects of the restaurant industry. I want to explore new and unusual ideas in food with as many people as possible.

I want to use this experiment to make the restaurant better or at least healthier.

What is the key to this?

Restaurants aren't real.

In terms of physical space, a restaurant can burn down, change locations, or franchise out.

The menu can (and does) change. The menu's ingredients constantly change due to weather, supply chains, technology, and breeding. Recipes then adjust based on these evolving ingredients.

Even the personnel have a sort of seasonality. The average length of employment for restaurant staff is one month and 26 days. A jar of pickles might work at a restaurant longer than the Chef.

But, because of all this flexibility, all you have to do to start a restaurant is announce that it exists. Then feed someone.

With that, welcome to Aftermath.

I've tried doing this, or something like this, many times. You can check out some past failures here and here. But failure is how you eventually succeed, right?

The first half-baked idea that can be traced to "Aftermath" came circa 2015.

While working at a high-end restaurant, I started talking with a co-worker at the service pass about how I imagined Chefs would soon be forced to function more like musicians.

I envisioned Chefs publishing a cookbook or having a TV show, then go on tour to promote it. Maybe even with a backup "band" of acolytes. Or better yet, perhaps it would be a Chef's collective. A supergroup. They'd travel and do events in a string of cities. It'd be an ecosystem of pop-ups, supper clubs, and "dining as live entertainment" venues.

This idea trades on the fact that people are already willing to pay a premium for the combo of proximity to fame and fancy food. With this "dinner as a show" model, theoretically, more money could be redirected into creating the food instead of all the other nonsense of a traditional restaurant.

Because, even in 2015, traditional restaurants seemed doomed.

Restaurants have a high failure rate (though not as bad as people think). One culprit is the absurdly high investment needed to start. You pick a cuisine and a concept. Then you pitch it to investors using the myth that opening a restaurant is like "throwing a party." Someone bites, and the process begins.

But as soon as it starts, money starts to bleed out. Restaurants rarely open "on time." There are permits, construction, employment, and finance delays. These delays mean that the money you've already spent to start the thing is now costing you more.

Before making a dime, a restaurant can be millions of dollars in debt.

Earning then becomes the primary drive. Profit margins are "ideally" around 15%. But that's only the ideal, and the number usually hovers around 10%. Restaurants are Rube Goldberg machines with many points of potential failure. If your hood stops working or a prep cook breaks an arm, that might mean hundreds or thousands of dollars lost.

Because of this, most restaurants are backed by people and organizations with deep pockets. They can afford steep initial losses. They're in it for the long haul.

But not too long.

When you put so much money into something, it stops serving you. You begin to serve it. The numbers are too big. Recouping the investment becomes the primary goal.

This usually means that even if the restaurant is a financial success, they're now destined to fail in many other ways. The biggest issue is that one of the easiest ways to make up a money shortage is by squeezing as much as possible out of labor.

Applebees is considered successful. It positions itself as quick, convenient, tasty, and affordable. Fine. But what do their methods cost their employees, customers, and the larger economy? Unless the job provides enough income and peace of mind to cover food, housing, and complete peace of mind for all their vendors and employees, I'd argue that its existence is a net drain on society.

It's not a real success. It's a spreadsheet illusion that takes advantage of the public good and harms more than it helps.

I've seen that even famous chefs aren't making that much money off their boutique, high-end restaurants. They're selling cookbooks, making television appearances, and leveraging fame. That's not necessarily bad, but it doesn't improve their food or restaurants.

Eating food has many excellent and positive functions for people and society, but the current food hospitality system is not usually one of them.

Let's talk about tips and wages.

Within the restaurant, the people who show up for a 12-hour shift rarely make more than those working eight hours or less. We can argue the value of different kinds of labor all day. I've been on both sides of this coin, and both are demanding and complex jobs. But the pay discrepancy is absurdly unbalanced, and I'd argue that the pay discrepancies ultimately hurt the business and the industry as a whole.

Advocacy groups for the "restaurant industry" often proclaim that the business can't survive without our current tips and wages system. I'd argue that if this is the only way to run a successful restaurant, then perhaps more restaurants should close.

When I waited tables, I made more per hour than the Chef, the managers, the kitchen staff, and the bartenders. The only people who made more money than me were the servers who worked fewer hours on better nights.

Let's recap.

Restaurants are a business of frequent failure. They operate in an inefficient system full of waste. They often can't (or won't) reasonably support the people who use them, resulting in a complicated and unbalanced pay system.

The other point here is that great food doesn't often trickle down from the top of the business. I've heard the "Devil Wears Prada" argument that the top chefs set the course for discourse. They are the ones who pick "cerulean." I call bullshit.

Cerulean existed and was used before it was declared "in." Probably more so than with clothing, merely due to the volume of food consumed by each of us on a daily basis; the people who created cuisine's cerulean counterpart have been using and subsisting on it for hundreds of generations out of the limelight.

It just happens that someone from the top "discovered" that their food had value.

Don't get me wrong. At top restaurants, the technique and quality are excellent. Truly. The food is beautiful and thoughtful. But almost universally, the top chefs are Warhol selling you a screen print of a Campbell's Soup can.

I love Warhol.

Warhol made the final stroke and an indelible mark with the "soup can." But that image wouldn't exist without a guy named Herberton, a football game, and many other people lost to history. The image was part of Warhol's life and, eventually, his work because the soup was successful and popular in its own right.

In the same way that commercial art can be reimagined into fine art, much of the world's best food comes from the bottom and is "reimagined." Many top chefs will tell you that point-blank.

Why not have a restaurant proudly live at the bottom?

Why not start a restaurant with the least, and see what you can make of it?

Don't strive to show off with Wagyu. Impress with tripe.

Andouille, Pho Dac Biet. Menudo. That's true talent and deliciousness.

With this, I declare Aftermath Restaurant open for business.

What are we serving? We're working on it.

Who are we serving? Whomever we can reach. Whoever needs it.

Stay tuned to this channel, and let's figure it out.

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