The American restaurant is on life support

We’re eating at street-corner stalls and food trucks, in front of the TV and at the grocery—everywhere but restaurants. They might not be here when we get back.

The restaurant industry is in a scary place, one that fairly guarantees heartbreak. Restaurant traffic was “flat” at the end of 2019 and “sluggish” the year before that, according to The NPD Group, a research firm that tracks how often we spend money at five types of businesses: fine dining, midscale, casual dining, retail, and, the biggest category, with 62 percent of the pie, quick-service restaurants (QSRs). Quick-service and retail qualified as “relative bright spots,” according to NPD, and casual places managed not to endure a fifth straight year of losses. But full-service restaurants dragged everything down: “Visit declines in the full-service restaurant segment continue to prevent the industry from growing.”

posted by poffin boffin (90 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

Oh, look, more of the middle being hollowed out.
posted by praemunire at 11:07 AM on March 3 [27 favorites]
(People will tell you it’s because we are now paying restaurant workers a pittance and a half rather than a pittance but it’s actually because ALMOST ALL THE PRODUCTIVITY GAINS OF THE PAST THREE DECADES HAVE BEEN CAPTURED BY ABOUT TWELVE PEOPLE AND SO NO ONE CAN AFFORD TO EAT OUT ANYMORE. As with demand for almost every other consumer good that’s not bargain-basement and falling apart.)
posted by praemunire at 11:08 AM on March 3 [103 favorites]
And the food trucks are winning because the restaurants pay rent, but deities forbid we should ever make a 4 wheeled motorized vehicle pay for parking anywhere at any time.
posted by straw at 11:16 AM on March 3 [15 favorites]
i feel like the author was leaning more to the side of the restaurant owners than the workers a lot, and certainly more than towards the consumers who literally can’t afford to go to a restaurant anymore bc it’s not just paying for your food and leaving a tip. going to a restaurant in nyc (or anywhere i guess?) involves:

– getting there by? train? cab? uber? (costs money)
– sitting waiting waiting everyone arrives (costs time)
– eating, which you were going to do anyway, but still (costs money)
– drinking bc it’s a social thing now (money, time later when hungover)
– figuring out the fucking bill bc there’s always One Asshole Who Thinks Everyone Should Split Equally (costs money, time, sanity)
– maybe having to cover that One Asshole’s tip portion (years of your life stripped away in resentment)
– getting home, which if you are drunk is definitely a cab/uber (costs money)

also the vital category of fucking ARRANGING a meal out with your friends who all have different schedules and live in different boros, which has an appalling cost on sanity and time bc everyone like “idk what do YOU want to do??” i want to wear pajamas at home, karen.

so it’s now cost you way more money than ordering in, you have spent 2x as much time doing it, cutting into the extremely limited time anyone has to do anything anymore, maybe you are hungover tomorrow, you could’ve walked home you drunk fool but nooooo you had to take a cab. etc.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:17 AM on March 3 [32 favorites]

i can’t even imagine what it’s like in LA where those poor fools have to DRIVE everywhere
posted by poffin boffin at 11:19 AM on March 3 [7 favorites]
Not sure about the rest of the US, but here is Los Angeles Country and Orange County the restaurants have definitely not gotten the memo about this. I’ve optimized my “eating out” life to either going to restaurants during off hours (like lunch at 3pm), or going to places that let me check in online and spend the hour plus waiting for a table doing something else.
posted by sideshow at 11:20 AM on March 3 [8 favorites]
The article made more sense when I realized NRA is the National Restaurant Association. Talk about yer wacky misunderstandings.

Much like movie theaters, I have found that I like the idea better than the reality. There are a couple of dinners/movies a year worth going out for, and then a bunch of “eh, let’s stay in, they don’t allow pets in restaurants/theaters.”
posted by BeeDo at 11:23 AM on March 3 [6 favorites]

i can’t even imagine what it’s like in LA where those poor fools have to DRIVE everywhere

[Looks out the window and sees it’s 80 degrees and clear at 11am the first week of March…]. Oh, we manage.
posted by sideshow at 11:23 AM on March 3 [27 favorites]

The logical, if unwelcome, next step might be further consolidation, as corporate investors gobble up promising small businesses or simply outlast shakier ones—and in fact, NPD blamed a 2018 dip in quick-service outlets on a decrease in the number of independents. In the tradition of Big Ag, Big Pharma, and Big Tobacco, we could be headed into the era of Big Menu; some complain we’re already much of the way there.

I was bored a little while ago and went looking up the restaurant I worked at when I lived in New York, which was part of a regional chain, to find that they’d been acquired by a private equity firm and consultantized in both menu and title, meaning that they added the word “fresh” wherever they could to both of those things. In retrospect, the chain’s anachronistic vibe didn’t bode well for it going into the 2010s (think prime rib with horse radish, or rack of lamb with mint jelly — I’m not hating, but that type of thing was not at all popular on menus in the 2000s), but the result of the overhaul is so obviously, desperately, blandly corporate in a way that is guaranteed to lessen the place’s appeal rather than improve it, and I wonder — do the people behind those changes know that, and is it just frivolous make-work before the inevitable asset liquidation? Or does someone really think that adding loaded nachos and tempura shrimp alongside the chicken marsala is going to revitalize the business?
posted by invitapriore at 11:24 AM on March 3 [10 favorites]

Restaurants are closing because… most restaurants close? It’s a really tough business with razor-thin margins and if you’re in a highly competitive area like NYC or LA, you are most likely going to fail, particularly if you are starting from scratch and don’t have a reputation leverage or other locations to use as a buffer.
posted by grumpybear69 at 11:26 AM on March 3 [4 favorites]
Well, now that Seamless is sneakily adding in an “administrative fee” (gouging both ends of the transaction) and some restaurants are really jacking up the delivery fees, I find myself doing less delivery, more eating out, but at midscale-to-fine only on special(er) occasions.

I think the Equally person has a point; what I can’t abide is the person who won’t do the equal split and ends up staring at the bill for half an hour. I have totally been that one person who only had an app and a Coke because that was all I could afford when everyone else was drinking, so I get it, but then you fucking have to be able to do middle-school math at a reasonable speed. You have a calculator in your pocket, for God’s sake!!! In NY, drop the last digit, multiply by three, and you have it almost exactly!
posted by praemunire at 11:26 AM on March 3 [4 favorites]

I think this article pretends to be about ‘restaurants’ as a category but in reality is focusing on a narrow sliver of trendy places in coastal urban centers. A phrase like “Chefs and restaurateurs on both coasts” really shows how the article is completely ignoring the 60% of the American population (and restaurants) that aren’t on a coast. Restaurants selling rice for $20 are necessarily going to have a limited appeal.
posted by crazy with stars at 11:28 AM on March 3 [13 favorites]
But he was equally bewildered by a restaurant meal where food came out as it was ready, not in courses, even though everyone at his table had ordered their own meal. To him the lack of pacing meant “you don’t know how to coordinate your kitchen. Your server should read the table, or ask questions: ‘Are you going to share or eat what you ordered?’”

Huh. Almost like there’s a certain amount of, what’s the word, “skill” involved in working in a well-functioning kitchen.
posted by invitapriore at 11:30 AM on March 3 [10 favorites]

There are plenty of mid-range restaurants in coastal cities who are facing this crunch. I sometimes wonder if everyone thinks we all drive around in our chauffeured cars every day from $800 tasting menu to $800 tasting menu, stopping only to pick up $500 bottles of champagne.
posted by praemunire at 11:33 AM on March 3 [6 favorites]
A new place opened up in my neighborhood like 8 months ago and my roommates and I decided to finally try it, we were going to get takeout and watch a movie. I am the only person at the house that will call people on the phone. I was looking over their menu, on their website, when one of my roommates offered to place the order online for pickup since I was at work. It is the menu offered up in the side panel on google when you search the restaurant name. I noticed a pricing difference on one item, and upon further inspection, came to see that every single item on the menu is priced up. I called the restaurant, and the guy on the phone confirmed – that site was put up by postmates, and they charge $1-$3 more for every item, even when you’re not getting delivery. I was shocked. My order over the phone was $49.50, and if I had used the web browser to place the order, the total was $64.
posted by FirstMateKate at 11:35 AM on March 3 [17 favorites]
Maybe its just my area of LA (Hollywood), but I feel like I see a lot fewer food trucks than I used to. Seems like a trend already on the downswing (not talking about more traditional street stuff like taco stands and street corn which has always been around).

Also there are dozens and dozens of restaurants in walking distance, so we definitely don’t drive everywhere despite what you may have heard 🙂
posted by thefoxgod at 11:35 AM on March 3 [1 favorite]

figuring out the fucking bill bc there’s always One Asshole Who Thinks Everyone Should Split Equally

I’m definitely the let’s just split it evenly guy. But it seems to me that I’m never the one driving the bus. The people with the strongest opinions tend to be the ones that want split checks. I honestly have no idea what the right way to deal with those situations should be. I have family members who are so damn annoying with their scribbled math that never comes close to working out and takes forever that I try to just pick up the tab whenever I’m with them to avoid seeing a red mist while we sit there for 30 minutes. Of all the ways that becoming well-off has changed my life, I’d have to say that buying my way out of those situations is very high on my list.
posted by Lame_username at 11:36 AM on March 3 [8 favorites]

3rd Coast here, Chicago, which has become sorta the big Restaurant Place in the last decade or so. Seems like trends here are flattening out some and becoming less about Instagram-bait. There’s lots and lots of small restaurants in this city that serve normal food to people who just want to eat. I just had lunch at a regular Mexican place yesterday, a place that has been there and has been the same for well over a decade. There’s a lot of that around here. Even semi-cool new spots seem to be serving more mainstream fare these days which is probably for the better. You wanna start a Polish-Korean Fusion, or a Rice-Based-Ethnic-Rainbow joint more power to ya, but it’s probably gonna be tough.
posted by SoberHighland at 11:38 AM on March 3
(As you can see, quite a mix of restaurants close in NYC every week. But, well, probably just trendy elitists eating at Polish pierogi restaurants, rice-noodle places located under underpasses, and tiny Persian places that operate as counters in pizzerias.)

postmates

Postmates silently jacks up the price for every item it delivers, which is another incentive not to use them. I’m a little surprised there are still people who don’t know that.
posted by praemunire at 11:39 AM on March 3

We don’t “go to restaurants” very often, but we order out a lot. But, we rarely do delivery. I just go pick stuff up. It’s amazing how many people seem to be doing the Postmates/Uber eats stuff though. Usually two or three folks picking stuff up for this type of thing every time. There’s a Thai place near us that I have NEVER seen anyone eating in at, but, they are still open, and still seem somewhat busy. Harsh they have to pay rent on a space that seems totally unused. Coronavirus isn’t going to help either.

It’s a weird world we are living in.
posted by Windopaene at 11:42 AM on March 3 [1 favorite]

As a member of the high-powered coastal elite* about a sixth of my meals are at mid-to-low-range sit down restaurants. I have already given up on ever being able to retire or pay off my student loans, so fuck it. I’ll eat decent meals that I didn’t have to cook, and cook things I like to cook.

I suppose this is the first time none of poffin boffin’s critiques have really resonated with me, because eating in restaurants is about the only thing I spend money on.

*Academic librarianship is just shockingly lucrative
posted by aspersioncast at 11:43 AM on March 3 [10 favorites]

I have family members who are so damn annoying with their scribbled math that never comes close to working out

I recently had an aunt who refused to pay tax and tip. She’s from out of state, so initially I thought she’d just forgotten that the numbers are little different here, but she just…refused. We had been a party of like ten, including four kids, so even if the tip hadn’t been included, it would’ve been a moral imperative to pay at least 20%, but it was, and also New York state doesn’t regard tax as optional, so we all just sat there looking around until her daughter-in-law (who lives in tight circumstances) covered it. Everyone has a calculator in their pocket now. There’s just no excuse, unless you are disabled in such a way that you can’t see or manipulate the bill.
posted by praemunire at 11:46 AM on March 3 [5 favorites]

I don’t know about the overall hypothesis. Maybe it’s different in other areas, but where I am, there aren’t a lot of vacant restaurant spaces sitting around, which you’d expect to see if the industry was really contracting. But I’ve not seen that, nor have I seen restaurants get turned into other stuff, which would be the other scenario.

I have seen some formerly sit-down places get replaced by quick-serve, but I question if that’s really a consumer preference or if it’s just cost-cutting by the restaurant owners. Some quick-serve places charge nearly as much for a plate of food as a traditional sit down restaurant, and they don’t have servers (or bussers, or as many dishwashers) to pay. I can see the appeal if you’re designing a new restaurant, it probably helps margins, and profitability in the world of restaurants is notoriously thin.

Although most quick-serve places don’t sell alcohol, which is supposedly where many restaurants make their money, so there’s a tradeoff there I suppose. If someone only walks up to the counter once, they’re probably at best going to order one drink; if they’re ordering from a server, it’s pretty easy to have a couple of rounds.

Anyway, I don’t think food stalls or trucks are nearly as significant as delivery. Delivery has really taken off in the last 10 years or so; areas where you used to be stuck with “pizza or Chinese?” as delivery options now have dozens of options via DoorDash or Seamless or whatever, and I suspect quite a few of those meals are at the expense of going out. (It’s not like delivery is super cheap; you’re paying restaurant prices to eat at home. The only way you save money is by mixing your own drinks, really.) So that probably hits traditional table-service places pretty hard.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:47 AM on March 3

look i just want to be cozy
posted by poffin boffin at 11:47 AM on March 3 [4 favorites]
we could be headed into the era of Big Menu

Your tone is quasi-facetious. You do not realize Taco Bell was the only restaurant to survive the Franchise Wars. All restaurants are now Taco Bell.
posted by hanov3r at 11:47 AM on March 3 [22 favorites]

We ask for the checks to be split before we order. While we are very much into Not Being A Bother, we had that bandage ripped off when we started to eat out with friends and our kid. “Oh, we never know if we’ll have to run, so could you please put us on a separate check?” Now that the kid is old enough that we can linger at the end of a meal, we still ask for separate checks – no complicated math beyond “move decimal, double, round up to nearest dollar” and we’re done!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:49 AM on March 3 [1 favorite]
I’m at the Pizza Hut. I’m at the Taco Bell.

I’m at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.
posted by SoberHighland at 11:51 AM on March 3 [16 favorites]

Ironically, the GM strike forced my last employer to close.
We had drive tru, grub hub, Uber eats and door dash. I’ve seen a small spike in folks ordering on-line.
posted by clavdivs at 11:55 AM on March 3
Ugh, praemunire! I went on vacation with a friend and her family recently, and I couldn’t figure out why I kept having to shell out $60 for myself whenever we went out (mid-range restaurants). Turns out that when friend’s father-in-law was paying for himself, mom, and one adult son, he was not paying either tax or tip. No tip because he “doesn’t believe in tips.” Republican so probably doesn’t believe in sales tax either?

Anyway, once I figured that out, friend and I started making ourselves absent for the restaurant outings.
posted by queensissy at 11:56 AM on March 3 [4 favorites]

I sometimes wonder if everyone thinks we all drive around in our chauffeured cars every day from $800 tasting menu to $800 tasting menu, stopping only to pick up $500 bottles of champagne.

Don’t hate me for my librarian lifestyle.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:00 PM on March 3 [24 favorites]

Turns out that when friend’s father-in-law was paying for himself, mom, and one adult son, he was not paying either tax or tip.

How obnoxious. If someone I dined with tried to pull that shit, I’d be calculating out the tax and tip on exactly what I ate, and let them figure out the difference.
posted by Automocar at 12:01 PM on March 3 [7 favorites]

I hope more mid-scale restaurants become eat-in ONLY. No Delivery.

Alpana Singh, a local restaurateur, basically said that using delivery services was not worth it for her. It puts enormous pressure on the kitchen without a concomitant increase in real revenue. The revenue from the excess orders from delivery services did not make enough profits after paying all the charges to these services. So she shut it down.

Living in Chicago; I don’t see this apocalyptic vision bearing fruit. Maybe that is because I am a Vegetarian and don’t go to many of the hip and hot places; but places that cater to me are actually on the rise; compared to when I moved to this country in the early 90’s.
posted by indianbadger1 at 12:03 PM on March 3 [5 favorites]

I mostly eat out with friends and colleagues. We split the bill evenly, maybe with some rough adjustments if, say, someone wasn’t drinking. Since I’m reasonably situated, if I’m out with a friend who’s short on cash, I usually pay some or all of their meal. I’m sure it doesn’t work for everyone, but it works ok for me and my friends.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:07 PM on March 3
I solve the tipping problem by never eating with anyone who ticks two or more of these:

  • incapable of basic arithmetic
  • untrusting of my ability to do basic arithmetic
  • penny-pinching about paying other people’s wages (PSA tipping is part of the meal in the US. If you don’t want to tip make your own food and bring it to your own table and advocate for better pay).

I also won’t eat with people who care too much about decor, who never seem ready to pay for their meal, or who get wasted at dinner. And I have a hard time with picky eaters if their needs are unknown or unpredictable.

And yet! I still manage to eat in restaurants with good friends all the damn time.
posted by aspersioncast at 12:09 PM on March 3 [6 favorites]

straw: And the food trucks are winning because the restaurants pay rent, but deities forbid we should ever make a 4 wheeled motorized vehicle pay for parking anywhere at any time.

Regulations vary greatly from city to city, and even within a city. For example, a small town in New Mexico had a food truck incentive to register to park and get electrical hook-up around the town square/ plaza for $75 for a year, in an effort to draw more food trucks. They were so eager for food trucks that they promoted this on the radio. On the other hand, in 2016 Fortune posted the article Here’s Just How Hard It Is to Open a Taco Truck in NYC.

indianbadger1: I hope more mid-scale restaurants become eat-in ONLY. No Delivery.

Given the rise of 3rd party delivery services, I don’t think this is too likely.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:10 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]

I’m usually the one with the cheapest order, and I’m happy to be the one who suggests splitting evenly. I don’t mind subsidizing a buck or two if it means we don’t have to give the server a complicated list of amounts and which cards they go with. But we’re usually close together in prices in a scenario like that. If someone’s literally just getting a side salad or something, no they don’t need to pony up to subsidize the folks with steak and cocktails. Are there really people out there who think that’s fair? Some people just weren’t raised right….
posted by Weeping_angel at 12:12 PM on March 3 [7 favorites]
Don’t hate me for my librarian lifestyle.

Seriously. I snort my blow off of Melvil Dewey’s mummified ass just like everyone else.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 12:19 PM on March 3 [19 favorites]

Forgoing delivery seems like a bold move, given how popular it seems to be. Rather than that, I expect to see more of the opposite, of restaurants optimizing their business around delivery. E.g. by renting a “dark kitchen” in an industrial park somewhere and using it for delivery orders, and maybe prep cooking for the eat-in restaurant, letting you have a smaller customer-facing space, or fill more of the space with tables rather than kitchen, or some other tradeoff.

Maybe not all restaurants, but I think it’s inevitable that some will, and they’ll have a shot at basically owning the delivery space for their geographic area and cuisine if they do it reasonably well.

What maybe doesn’t work anymore is viewing delivery and carryout as a sort of sideline to your main business as an eat-in restaurant. Could be that places are going to have to pick one model or the other to remain competitive.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:21 PM on March 3 [4 favorites]

A few years back there was an article/discussion here that the restaurant industry was being propped up by investors and competing with landlords to break even. The prediction was made that the “middle” of the market was going to disappear, and we would see two types of restaurants – Pricey full-service places with living wage employees, and “fast casual” places with many fewer employees.

In my town this has come true for all new restaurants (in fact, we saw one fastcas turn full service because they weren’t making enough money to make rent). Old restaurants are either jacking their prices way up, going out of business, or dropping quality.
posted by rebent at 12:22 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]

when we started to eat out with friends and our kid. “Oh, we never know if we’ll have to run, so could you please put us on a separate check?” Now that the kid is old enough that we can linger at the end of a meal, we still ask for separate checks

As a parent of small children this sounds like a fantastic idea, but how on Earth do the kids manage to pay their bill?

Anyway, I don’t really understand the rise of delivery. Most food just doesn’t taste that good after delivery unless you’re really careful about the type of food you order. Soups/curries do pretty well, but anything with any crisp is dramatically diminished. If I don’t want to go out and don’t want to cook, I’d rather just have ice cream.
posted by skewed at 12:24 PM on March 3 [5 favorites]

I’m doing my part, but now that I’m back in school I just bought a ton of groceries and am planning to not eat out at all in March. Woops, I killed another thing.

I love eating out, but I basically never get delivery. I’m either in the mood to go get food or I just sit at home and steadfastly don’t eat until my partner scolds me (or I cook, I do cook a lot).
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:27 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]

Those Millennials have really gone too far this time.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 12:34 PM on March 3 [4 favorites]
I go out with friends pretty regularly, and I can’t remember the last time we weren’t asked if we wanted one bill for the group or to have separate bills before it was given to us. Maybe that is just Canada? Are American restaurants against separate bills?

I’ve read that separate bills usually results in a higher overall tip for waitstaff.
posted by fimbulvetr at 12:37 PM on March 3 [3 favorites]

I wonder — do the people behind those changes know that, and is it just frivolous make-work before the inevitable asset liquidation? Or does someone really think that adding loaded nachos and tempura shrimp alongside the chicken marsala is going to revitalize the business?

Neither. They’re adding loaded nachos and tempura shrimp to the menu because it’s a thing to do that they won’t get yelled at for. “No one ever got fired for buying IBM” manifests differently in different domains.
posted by PMdixon at 12:41 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]

As a former USA food server: generally separate checks (bills) mean more complications, as (very often) the kinds of people asking for this are the very hard to please in any way, shape or form. A potential Pandora’s Box.

Just pool your money. Chip in more or less as needed. It’s a meal out, a fun time, it’s not a tax return.
posted by SoberHighland at 12:42 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]

The foodie bubble of 2008-2016 has basically burst now due to its own success and this is most likely just the impact of that trend coming to an end. Farm to Table is not new and exciting now, and it was actually more about the PROMISE of a certain type of life (back to basics, supporting local business, sustainable, etc.). Also, honestly just from my perspective as a former foodie, the quality of some of these restaurants doesn’t match the price, so I can go get a great bowl of pho for 8 bucks at a hole in the wall joint.

Also we of the millennial variety are all broke, friendless, burned out on social media, and the nature of dating has changed, so going out to a fancy restaurant seems kinda pointless to many of us.
posted by Young Kullervo at 12:42 PM on March 3 [6 favorites]

GrubHub deciding to offer delivery for restaurants involuntarily pushed me over the edge to going cold turkey from all delivery services, and we used delivery *a lot*. Like I’m pretty sure I’m saving over $1k a month by either going out to eat or just cooking at home.

I used to love eating out but so many new restaurants are mediocre and uninteresting that it’s not really worth it to me. There are several which I love and go to repeatedly but the ones I’ve visited and thought were meh seem to be the ones that fail because everyone else feels the same way. Even when the food is great a lot of restaurants miss the mark on service and at that point I’m just happier at home.

It’s just my wife and I at home and we’ve gotten very good at throwing things together that take such a small amount of planning and labor that it’s actually more inconvenient to go out for dinner.
posted by mikesch at 12:42 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]

Restaurant traffic was “flat” at the end of 2019 and “sluggish” the year before that, according to The NPD Group, a research firm that tracks how often we spend money at five types of businesses. . .

Sounds about like what you’d expect for an industry that’s been around for thousands of years and is well known to every human in a civilization with stagnant wages. The remaining many thousands of words don’t do much to answer the quantitative question, “what has changed?” I’m guessing the answer is therefore, “not much.”
posted by eotvos at 12:45 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]

I have no idea why restaurants in the US can’t split bills by who orders what, as they all do automatically here in Canada. Fails a bit in “we all share 5 kinds of dumplings” restaurants, but also doesn’t matter so much there.

As I recall this finished happening when restaurants were required to use POS devices because they cheated on sales tax too much.

(I in theory like going out for meals and in practice am very cheap.)
posted by jeather at 12:47 PM on March 3 [5 favorites]

I live in a small, bedroom community in South Orange County. While we are not all that far from some of the more populous areas of the county, our particular city is one that you would never just “happen upon” while commuting, people really only come here if they have a purpose, namely, living here. It’s not “on the way” to anything. This means that our local restaurants are almost entirely dependent on the immediate local community to support their businesses, which has sadly meant that restaurants here are like a game of Whack-a-Mole in terms of watching them open and close with great frequency oftentimes very quickly after opening.

It has become almost darkly comic on our local city Facebook page watching residents champion and wax poetic over some rather mediocre dining establishments in the desperate hope they can drum up excitement and prevent yet another quick closure. Add sky high rents (South OC, after all) and a limited customer base to the factors noted in the article and it makes it a shocker anything but large chains can survive here at all (the local B.J.’s is always pretty crowded).
posted by The Gooch at 12:59 PM on March 3

jeather, the way we pay at sit down restaurants with paper and servers running 5 cards already feels arcane even within the US. At “fast casual” places like panera you just order and pay on a computer with no wait, and places like TGIF have such systems built into the table. The lack of POS devices at even fancier full service restaurants is wild.
posted by MillMan at 1:03 PM on March 3
Well, this millennial and my friends go out to restaurants quite frequently. I don’t use delivery apps for ethical reasons, but even they can’t fulfill the social purpose of going out to eat, which is meeting at a place that is nobody’s home.
posted by noxperpetua at 1:07 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]
The article made more sense when I realized NRA is the National Restaurant Association. Talk about yer wacky misunderstandings.

A few years ago both NRAs held their conventions/trade shows on the same weekend. That made for some interesting Twitter marketing conversations.
posted by JoeZydeco at 1:10 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]

PLS SPEND?
NO WAGES!
ONLY SPEND

WHY dOnt mIlleNIALs eAt At ReSTaRuAnTs ANYMore?
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 1:10 PM on March 3 [14 favorites]

Gen-Z will usher in a new post-foodie movement dubbed “sloppp”. Culinary nihilism. The worst cafeteria environment, rock bottom prices, beige deep fried food. The world is burning, a nice restaurant is obscene.

Entire social media feuds will be fought over what constitutes “authentic” hot dish.
posted by FakeFreyja at 1:10 PM on March 3 [4 favorites]

Entire social media feuds will be fought over what constitutes “authentic” hot dish.

Florida pizza. It simultaneously burns your mouth and is stone cold.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 1:12 PM on March 3

but large chains can survive here at all (the local B.J.’s is always pretty crowded)

BJ’s is headquartered in Orange County, so it’s both a big chain and a local restaurant.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:13 PM on March 3

“Hot dish” just came up the other night as a punchline on Stephen Colbert’s show. My wife (56) had never heard of it. I (49) have only heard of it in places like Metafilter where it was described as a concept. We’re both born & raised in Chicago, and have lived in other places, too and have done a LOT of travel. Hot Dish, where can I try HOT DISH?
posted by SoberHighland at 1:14 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]
Hot dish is a state of mind. Wherever there is a family watching CSI reruns while eating off of tv trays, there is hot dish.

Wherever there is unseasoned hamburger and canned cream soup topped with deep fried processed potatoes, there is hot dish. Beige on beige on brown. The secrets of hot dish have been whispered across the plains of Minnesota for generations. Wherever there is a hand fanning a mouth and a “wowee that black pepper is too spicy, fella”, there is hot dish.
posted by FakeFreyja at 1:23 PM on March 3 [17 favorites]

i can’t even imagine what it’s like in LA where those poor fools have to DRIVE everywhere

Your regular reminder that most Angelenos live in actual neighborhoods where we can get many varieties of awesome food within walking distance (or your accessibility equivalent) and that the whole backhanded car-culture snobbery erases entire socioeconomic strata of people who buy and sell daily from street vendors and family-run backyard restaurants and others who have been doing their thing day in and day out, in some cases for generations.

Anyway, yes, of course we’ve lost our share of neighborhood institutions. I can name a dozen restaurants who’ve lost their leases to new landowners who wanted to raze the whole block for some charmless overpriced block of mixed-use buildings. But it’s interesting how the ecosystem is adapting nonetheless. My favorite vegan junk-food joint is owned by a pair of local boys from East L.A., and it’s only open on weekends as an after-hours pop-up in an old diner. A Black restaurateur I know opens up her soul food pop-up a few months out of the year in a roving location, and does the bulk of her annual business in catering. I believe that it’s nearly impossible to do the permanent, year-round, brick-and-mortar restaurant thing, but the folks I know who are passionate about serving food have long since given up on that and are innovating new ways to serve food to the people who want it, at prices their communities can sustain.
posted by mykescipark at 1:27 PM on March 3 [14 favorites]

This is not my own method of splitting bills, but one taught to me by one of the ‘elders of the internet’ whose name escapes me.

At the end of the meal, when the talk on how to split comes up, take the check, let no-one see it, and ask everyone to put in what they *think* their food and drinks cost and a tip. When it’s all in, you add in your own amount and a tip.

Fast, quick to implement, everyone leaves happy. I know, it sounds counter-intuitive, but in over ten years of using this method, I’ve only had to put in more than my meal cost once. And of course this also leads to a higher tip for the wait staff than a calculator.
posted by ewan at 1:31 PM on March 3 [4 favorites]

3rd Coast here, Chicago, which has become sorta the big Restaurant Place in the last decade or so.

Chicago rather notoriously has about 7 places that food trucks are allowed to park in the entire city and even then only for a couple of hours. Even then they are not allowed to cook on the trucks. Almost all trucks currently operating are part of a restaurant now. The brick-and-mortar restaurant industry supports their local aldermen and their is even a restaurateur among the aldermen. Not the restaurants have it easy in Chicago. They still have pass their food “inspections” but if you know a guy he can tell you how much it will cost and how to pay it.

There are not even hot dog cart vendors in the city and the only street vendors you ever see are illegal tamale sellers that the cops mostly turn a blind eye to because they are not selling in areas that will complain about it. If you want to sell hot dogs you need to open an entire restaurant to do it. I’d say it is a pretty big example of regulatory capture (and I’m not a right wing Cato institute guy – I just miss being about pick up a hotdog in two minutes for a couple of bucks.)
posted by srboisvert at 1:33 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]

Turns out that when friend’s father-in-law was paying for himself, mom, and one adult son, he was not paying either tax or tip.

Grieving for a family member can be a terrible process. Sometimes relatives try to make it easier on the family by being assholes for years ahead of their deaths.

This means that our local restaurants are almost entirely dependent on the immediate local community to support their businesses, which has sadly meant that restaurants here are like a game of Whack-a-Mole in terms of watching them open and close with great frequency oftentimes very quickly after opening.

Ben Schott (of Schott’s Original Miscellany) published a book titled Schottenfreude, a dictionary of German words for which no ready equivalent exists.

I have probably half a dozen books along these lines, but all the others are a variety of languages — here’s a word in Malay, here’s a word in Greek, here’s a word in Spanish, here’s a word on Hausa, and so on. This was all German, all the time. I thought, “okay, German is agglutinative and allows you to stick a bunch of little words together to make bigger words. And partly because these agglomerations can get kind of unwieldy, German can sound a little funny to the English ear.”

Possibly my favourite at this moment is Gaststättennenöfferungsuntergangsgewissheit (the pronunciation, should you choose to dazzle people, is roughly ‘GAHST-shteht-ten-NOY-air-OEUF-noongs-OON-ter-gahngs-ghe-VISS-hite’). This is “one’s total confidence that a newly opened restaurant is doomed to fail.”

A close second for sheer elegance is the symmetrical Bauchgefühlbauchgefühl, which is “instinctively knowing what gave you food poisoning.” The literal translation of the word is “gut feeling gut feeling,” which delights me.

It seems to me that having some Bauchgefühlbauchgefühl could lead to a Gaststättenenneuerofferungsuntergangsgewissheit.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:37 PM on March 3 [15 favorites]

One side effect of my reading and radicalization is coming to thr belief that the American restaurant industry should not exist in anything resembling its current form. It sits squat center in the intersections of so many different kinds of exploitation and theft and harassment and it *barely makes any profit* anyway.
posted by The Whelk at 1:37 PM on March 3 [11 favorites]
Separate checks is a VERY region-specific thing in the US. In large northeast cities like DC or New York, asking for separate checks is a huge hairy deal that marks you as a difficult, demanding customer, and often servers will simply refuse to do it (or it’s company policy not to). But in the South and Midwest, it’s utterly normal to do separate checks — “together or separate?” is a question you hear from the server every time you go out to eat, as normal as “for here or to go?” at a fast-food joint. I don’t know what typical practice is on the West Coast.
posted by snowmentality at 1:43 PM on March 3 [10 favorites]
In my experience, getting separate checks is becoming less and less gauche in restaurants big and small, especially since everyone uses credit cards. I always feel bad about asking for it, but rarely in recent memory have I had a server give me stink eye.
posted by grumpybear69 at 1:46 PM on March 3
It’s me I’m the bad guy who ruins split checks. I prisoner’s dilemma the whole situation and double fist surf and turf on the suspicion that someone else will do it to me if I don’t strike first.
posted by FakeFreyja at 1:49 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]
On separate checks – IME it used to be something places only did grudgingly, but these days everywhere (mid-market) I go seems to offer it. I’ve been assuming that a change in whatever widely-used point-of-sale software that made check splitting easier.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:49 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]
I don’t know what typical practice is on the West Coast.

Not an issue that I’ve ever experienced. The places I’ve been in the NE didn’t have issues with it either but I speak as a visitor, not a resident, and it’s equally likely I’ve been lucky or am guided to places that have been identified by others as easy places to split checks.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:54 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]

I know a place where they don’t just automatically do separate checks, but they mark who ordered what by what you are wearing, in case you move around the table. Since it’s a boardgame cafe, that actually happens a lot.

As for splitting evenly: the only times I have ever been happy doing this has been when we’re eating family style (sharing all dishes) or eating things at EXACTLY the same price (e.g. we all got curry for $6). I have spent too many years on a limited income to ever expect that I should subsidize anyone else’s dining – or that they should subsidize mine when I can afford to splurge. I ordered what I was willing to spend – and I never order without looking at the prices. I will always include tax and tip, but I’m going to pay for exactly what I ordered and ate – and I can calculate what you owe as well. It will go faster if you don’t argue and let me just pull out my calculator. (One good trick: if local tax is 13% and you wish to tip 17%, take the base price and multiply by 1.3 – or by whatever number you want.)

My SO doesn’t drink at all. Once, as a student, he was asked to pay $50 for a $10 meal because the people he’d gone out with had been drinking lots of wine – and they treated him like he was the one being socially awkward. I think he ended up paying – and also never socialized with them again.
posted by jb at 1:59 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]

On separate checks – IME it used to be something places only did grudgingly, but these days everywhere (mid-market) I go seems to offer it. I’ve been assuming that a change in whatever widely-used point-of-sale software that made check splitting easier.

Yeah, it’s this, mostly. There is no one true POS (there are quite a few on the market, but check splitting is built in to even the crappiest one I’ve ever used), but 15+ years ago POS systems were less common and check splitting meant (1) your server had to go back and figure out who had what, which can be difficult with large parties especially and (2) do some math to work out who owes what. Servers are often pretty bad at math IME (further compounded by the fact that if they fuck up they’re on the hook for the difference in some places), and it’s generally also time consuming to do all of that so in a busier place it’s even further disincentivized. Now that the computer does it for you it’s much less of a hurdle, and some servers will automatically start spllit checks and combine them if needed rather than the reverse which as I said can be tricky.
posted by axiom at 2:02 PM on March 3

Recently in LA I started seeing checks with the orders already split out by guest, without asking for separate checks (we were paying together, but it was done automatically). That seemed pretty nice and I hope it spreads (it doesn’t _seem_ like a ton of extra work, but I’m quite possibly wrong on this of course as I have no personal experience as a waiter).

My friends and I usually just trade off who pays, as splitting can indeed be annoying and no one has cash (but we are also I think outside the age group that uses app-based payment stuff, I am vaguely aware of things like Venmo but never seen anyone actually use it).
posted by thefoxgod at 2:12 PM on March 3

The future: high rise Chinese.
posted by cenoxo at 2:23 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]
Restaurants that refuse to deliver are being listed on delivery sites, and the food is produced by other kitchens. So if restaurants decide they won’t play the delivery game, they will get customers complaining about the shitty delivery food they didn’t actually make.
posted by rednikki at 2:39 PM on March 3 [7 favorites]
in portage, michigan restaurants of all kinds are almost always packed to the gills. we do not have “fine” establishments, but restaurants we do have are always full at prime dining times. the only thing that delivers to my house is pizza. pizza and chinese to my boyfriend’s house 2 miles closer to the main drag. that’s like, 1 of 2 things i miss about big-city-east-coast living.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 2:51 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]
going to a restaurant in nyc

It’s unfathomable to me that people actually live and work in that city. I feel too poor to even type out it’s name.
posted by GoblinHoney at 3:15 PM on March 3 [3 favorites]

Few people carry cash, so pooling the bill is more complicated than splitting it.
posted by No Robots at 3:17 PM on March 3
I tend to compare NYC to my one visit to Kyoto and Osaka, and those places seem to have amazing restaurants. And then there’s the stereotype of surviving Japanese restaurants that are a hundred years old. It prompts to me the question of whether and how restaurant industries in other countries might fare somewhat less worse off (or have a different balance of surplus and welfare), even while capitalism is at the base of it all.
posted by polymodus at 3:21 PM on March 3
Restaurants that refuse to deliver are being listed on delivery sites, and the food is produced by other kitchens.

Dear God I had already suspected the food delivery apps were directly responsible for making service in restaurants that actively participate worse — if you do actually walk into places to either make or pick up an order, you can see staff mentally juggling order rushes and literally half a dozen different tablets (or more). This is a problem one or more of the apps *could* solve by coming up with some kind of common standard order protocol and having all the delivery apps that might integrate with common point of sale/order management solutions…. but the incentives are wrong, naturally what every delivery app wants to do is only have orders flow through them, and why would anyone behind those apps be even so much as capable of giving a damn about anything else?

But I’d had no idea folks like GrubHub might also be actively working to make the experience worse for restaurants that don’t participate. That’s some next level black mirror soulless techbro shit there.
posted by wildblueyonder at 3:26 PM on March 3 [3 favorites]

Google News search: Restaurants coronavirus. Butts in seats down, deliveries up?

HOW RESTAURANTS CAN PREPARE FOR A CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC – As virus fears grip the country, experts stress planning and good food safety practices to reduce risk, Restaurant Business, Jonathan Maze/Heather Lalley, Feb. 28, 2020:


The result of a potential pandemic could lead to mass quarantines, travel restrictions and other steps that could have a serious impact on restaurants. “Disruption to everyday life may be severe,” Messonnier said.

For restaurants, the prospect of a global pandemic puts increasing importance on developing a pandemic plan, said Roslyn Stone, chief operating officer at Zero Hour Health, a firm that serves as a health and crisis response team for U.S. restaurants and other corporate clients.

“Those restaurants that developed pandemic flu plans in 2009 need to take them out, dust them off and update them,” Stone said.

She said that the response to a coronavirus situation may be similar to a flu pandemic plan or a hurricane plan, where a restaurant chain might have to close a large number of locations in a region that is quarantined due to coronavirus.

“Where the concern comes in for the industry is whether or not there will be regional quarantines, and if there are regional quarantines, what does that mean?” Stone said. She added that there are good templates on the CDC’s and WHO’s websites [links below this article] for businesses seeking to develop their own pandemic plans.

Messonnier said that communities can help mitigate the transmission of the virus by taking the same steps they would to prevent the spread of influenza. That could mean school closures, using internet-based teleschooling and canceling mass gatherings.

It could also mean more employees working from home. And there’s evidence that employers are already thinking about that: There was a dramatic spike this week in the number of executives on corporate earnings calls who said their employees could “work from home,” according to a search on financial services site Sentieo.

It should also mean consistently cleaning surfaces that people touch with any frequency, Messonnier said.

“Some of these measures are better than none,” she said. “But the maximum benefit occurs when the elements are layered upon each other.”

Many of the recommendations from employers to prevent the spread of the virus are the type of steps restaurants should already be taking, anyway, such as ensuring workers wash their hands frequently, sanitizing high-touch areas and sending home workers that become ill during the day.

The CDC recommends that companies notify workers when they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 while ensuring they maintain the confidentiality of the initial victim.

Recommendations also note that employees should stay home. The National Restaurant Association said it is “highly recommended” that employees showing flu-like symptoms be excluded from the restaurant until they are “symptom-free.”

The prospect of a global pandemic has already put a spotlight on restaurants and the tendency for employees to come in sick. Though more chains have started giving employees sick time as the supply of labor has tightened, it’s increasingly important for companies to change their culture to ensure employees aren’t working while sick, Stone said.

posted by cenoxo at 3:34 PM on March 3

This is a problem one or more of the apps *could* solve by coming up with some kind of common standard order protocol and having all the delivery apps that might integrate with common point of sale/order management solutions…. but the incentives are wrong,

I mean yeah, the incentives are wrong. Why would Oracle (as an example, they own Micros these days) do a bunch of free work to make Postmates’ job easier? Micros is a billion dollar business.
posted by sideshow at 3:46 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]

But I’d had no idea folks like GrubHub might also be actively working to make the experience worse for restaurants that don’t participate.

Also, for this part, rednikki got part of it wrong. GrubHub is unilaterally enabling “delivery” for restaurants against their will, and the restaurants are suffering from GrubHub’s poor experience and general shittiness since the customers have no idea the restaurant itself is not involved the ordering/delivery process. GrubHub is not pretending to be the restaurant and then having the food made somewhere else.
posted by sideshow at 3:53 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]

I have been very mixed about my going to restaurants while the coronavirus is a thing. I don’t want my face restaurant people to lose their jobs! I also don’t want to unwittingly spread Coronavirus with no symptoms. Tldr: the restaurant business is a precarious one that treats it’s employees terribly and I have to contemplate how not to exacerbate that.
posted by tofu_crouton at 4:11 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]
> I don’t know what typical practice is on the West Coast.

I never go to fancy restaurants, but at the causal places I go to it’s standard for the wait staff to ask if my friends and I want separate checks. And we do, why on earth wouldn’t we? I’m not ashamed of my love of the split check. (I’m a big tipper but not all of my friends are, life is easier with split checks.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:17 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]

One side effect of my reading and radicalization is coming to thr belief that the American restaurant industry should not exist in anything resembling its current form. It sits squat center in the intersections of so many different kinds of exploitation and theft and harassment and it *barely makes any profit* anyway.

If you’re confident the restaurant industry exists in a current form characterized by such broad strokes, I’d say your reading and radicalization isn’t doing you any favors.

(People will tell you it’s because we are now paying restaurant workers a pittance and a half rather than a pittance but it’s actually because ALMOST ALL THE PRODUCTIVITY GAINS OF THE PAST THREE DECADES HAVE BEEN CAPTURED BY ABOUT TWELVE PEOPLE AND SO NO ONE CAN AFFORD TO EAT OUT ANYMORE. As with demand for almost every other consumer good that’s not bargain-basement and falling apart.)

For an industry that nobody can afford, it’s amazingly strong and dynamic.

i can’t even imagine what it’s like in LA where those poor fools have to DRIVE everywhere

You should visit L.A. some day. You might be surprised by how much you don’t have to drive. Even to find some good restaurants.

I find the OP kinda bullshitty and hand wring-y. the TL;DR version: the restaurant industry has trends. They work well for some segments, not for others.

I live in a L.A. neighborhood around the block from a major artery. No shortage of places to eat, from fast food to full service. We did lose a full service two years ago, a very upscale place that was a local institution for decades. I went there once, and was served by an almost comically snooty waiter, made me want to order escargot and spit out my wine when he hands me the plate. That kind of place. Very good food, a couple hundred $ per person. But other than that loss, within two blocks there eight places to eat. One location seems to change every couple of years, but it’s always a restaurant. Venture a few blocks in either direction, and you’ll find a dozen more. Plus a food truck or two depending on the time of day. Locally, whatever the trends are, the loss was very high end, but there is absolutely no shortage of wares to choose from, we actually gained a very happening bistro from what was a dive bar. And I feel absolutely no guilt about patronizing any of these establishments. I wish I could afford to do it way more often.
posted by 2N2222 at 4:59 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]

Man. This is news to me. Like two dozen restaurants opened in my neighborhood in the last four or five months alone.

It’s like hot yoga and Barré joints are getting replaced by poke, bibimbap, vegan pasta, taco and pho joints every where I look.

I’m good with that.
posted by Everyone Expects The Spanish Influenza at 5:12 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]

> I don’t know what typical practice is on the West Coast.

I never go to fancy restaurants, but at the causal places I go to it’s standard for the wait staff to ask if my friends and I want separate checks.

I mostly go to casual places, but I’ve found fancy places are fine with separate or combined checks, in my experience.

When I saw the FPP headline, I thought this was going to be about the impact of coronavirus fears. I walked past a brewery earlier today and it was way emptier than usual.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:13 PM on March 3

My wife delivers food by bike.

Tonight someone tried to run her over, and then when she said hey what the hell, they pepper-sprayed her. (Missed, got her jacket.)

Last year one of her crew was killed on the job.

She has been injured many times, and I sit worrying about her until she comes home every time she works a double.

They go out in the rain, in the snow, in high winds…they have no sick days or health insurance, no benefits at all.

She makes like, $5/hr before tips.

Please tip generously if you’re going to order delivery, especially bike delivery
posted by captain afab at 5:22 PM on March 3 [6 favorites]

In the first half of 2019 the BLS logged about 40,000 more “food service and drinking establishments” than there were just four years ago, a jump from 526,387 to 568,870.

Maybe restaurants and foodie culture have simply peaked? If you open up a lot of restaurants in a short period of time, concentrated together, they can’t all survive, and as noted, it is a very tough business to be in, in the first place.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 5:27 PM on March 3

For an industry that nobody can afford, it’s amazingly strong and dynamic.

Indeed, capitalist exploitation unparadoxically tends to exhibit those qualities
posted by polymodus at 5:42 PM on March 3 [2 favorites]

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