This is the third in a series of articles dealing with my observations during the 78 years that I have been involved with the foodservice industry. It began in my family’s restaurant in Philadelphia when I was 12 years of age, after school and weekends. While my participation has not yet concluded, my last full-time employment was with the New York State Restaurant Association from 1961 to 2000, as president and CEO. I now am able to share my views on those issues that I feel are pertinent to the industry.
The ’70s marked the beginning of the social issues, which would affect the industry then and continue to do so today. First, there was the issue of driving while intoxicated (DWI). The issue itself was not new. However, the increased number of auto accidents and fatalities resulting from this condition aroused the general public and gave birth to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). This organization spearheaded an effort to get drunk drivers off the roads. During this process, a greater number of victims and survivors sought damages in the courts from the drunk drivers and from the on-premises licensees as well. This sent liquor liability insurance rates through the roof, and in many cases insurance companies stopped writing the coverage. The result? Many licensees took a great risk and ran “naked”—in other words, without it.
While the more responsible operators were exercising good judgment when it came to monitoring guests’ consumption, they too were feeling the effects of the insurance crisis and its skyrocketing costs. In response to the seriousness of the problem, industry associations launched a series of server training programs, which are still available today. These programs have been effective and many insurance companies now require them, some even offering a discount to those operators who require servers to attend them.
Next came the no-smoking issue. I will not spend time discussing what then was a very controversial issue.
Today we are in the “menu management” era. Not only do the “food police” want trans fats wiped from the face of the earth but they will soon launch a “sack the salt” offensive. This will urge chefs to reduce the salt content by 50% in their recipes. The would-be menu managers will not rest until every ingredient of every menu item is printed on every menu. I will have more to say about the regulatory climate in Part 4 of this series.
During the last half of the ’70s and most of the ’80s, the “eating out” public was being dazzled by nouvelle cuisine. At first it was more prominent in urban areas, but by the end of the ’80s and into the early ’90s it was being served everywhere. One of the most dramatic changes occurred in the public’s attitude toward and interest in the culinary arts and its players. In 1986, Julia Child suggested that a not-for-profit foundation be formed to keep alive the philosophy, ideals, and practices that earned the late James Beard his reputation as the father of American gastronomy.
As a result, the James Beard Foundation became a reality. Each year at its annual awards event, the best and brightest of the industry are recognized for their achievements. Between the Beard event and the popularity engendered by the Food Network, American culinary arts and its craftsmen and craftswomen had truly arrived. One of the most visible aspects was the food presentation itself: side dishes slowly disappeared and the main plate resembled a portrait.
If I may say so, one of the great artisans of that era was a gentleman by the name of André Soltner, who for more than 25 years was the chef-owner of New York City’s legendary French restaurant, Lutèce. Over that same 25-year spread, four separate food critics for the New York Times rated Lutèce four stars—a feat yet to be matched. Soltner is now associated with The French Culinary Institute in New York City.
A by-product of this fascination with food and those who prepare it is the increase in media attention. Almost every newspaper, major magazine, and TV station started devoting more space, time, and ink to restaurants, wine, and ingredients. Chefs were becoming media stars. Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, Rachael Ray, and Lidia Bastianich all became household names. Not only were they media stars but most have become best-selling authors. In fact, it is almost mandatory that in order to arrive as a culinary star, you must be published at least once.
The growth of chain restaurants, in both diversity and numbers, was changing the competitive landscape throughout the United States. This change also included a new type of competition, the local mini-chain. I call them signature chains. Examples are Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck, Steve Hanson, the Brennan Family, David Boulud, Danny Meyer, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Drew Nieporent, and the list goes on. In many instances their operations are in the same marketing area. This does not diminish their impact. As I have said many times, their reputations have become a great asset. This asset makes them attractive to property owners as well as their investors when they are selecting new locations. As the saying goes in Hollywood: “They are bankable.”
Our next era includes a new century, catering to an educated and sophisticated consumer, and the question of how casual we will get.