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  • Writer's pictureJ.S. Kohout

What Are We Doing Here?

Updated: Mar 4

"Restaurants aren't real. It's a place that can burn down, change locations, or franchise out. The menu can change. Ingredients change constantly due to weather, supply chains, technology, and breeding. The recipes change. The average length of employment for restaurant staff is one month and 26 days. A jar of pickles might represent a restaurant longer than a Chef. But, because everything is flexible, all you have to do to start a restaurant is announce that it exists. With that, welcome to Aftermath." - Me.

I've tried doing this, or something like this, many times before. 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 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 they'd 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, as opposed to 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). But even if a financial success, they often seem destined to fail in other ways.

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.

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 money.

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. 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.

Applebees is successful. It positions itself as quick, convenient, tasty, and affordable. Fine. But what do their methods cost their employees, their customers' health, and the larger economy? I'd argue that its existence is a net drain on society. It's a "success" that harms more than it helps.

Then, from what I've seen, even famous chefs aren't making that much money off their restaurants. They're selling cookbooks, making television appearances, and leveraging fame. That's not necessarily bad, but it doesn't make their restaurants any better.

Eating food has many functions, but the current system often puts profit over all the other aspects.

Now let's talk about tips and wages.

The people who show up for a 12-hour shift rarely make more money 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 I'd argue that the pay discrepancies ultimately hurt the business and the industry as a whole.

Restaurant advocacy groups 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 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. All of this seems wildly unbalanced.

Let's recap.

Restaurants are a business of frequent failure. They operate in an inefficient system full of waste. They also can't (or won't) reasonably support the people who operate them resulting in an complicated and unbalanced pay system. The purpose of a restaurant often boils down to profit over all.

The other point here is that great doesn't often trickle down from the top chefs. Don't get me wrong. At top restaurants, the technique and quality may be excellent. Truly. But almost universally, they're Warhol selling you a screen print of a Campbell's Soup can.

I love Warhol. He 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 others lost to history. The image was part of Warhol's life, and eventually his work, because the soup was 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 live at the bottom to begin with?

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

Don't strive to show off with Wagyu. Instead, aim for tripe. Andouille, Pho Dac Biet. Menudo. That's true talent and deliciousness.

With that, I declare Aftermath Restaurant open for business.

What are we serving? Not sure yet.

We might fail, but let's figure it out.

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