First a few questions: Have you ever worked in a restaurant in any capacity? The answer is probably yes. Do you still work in a restaurant? The answer is probably no. And I’m guessing you left for the same reason I first left—it felt like a dead-end job, like meaningless labor. My goal is to make restaurants you’d want to work at for the rest of your life.
We all know restaurants have a range of problems, from the way they treat their employees to the way they’re funded and operated. People perceive them as high-risk businesses, but that risk isn’t inherent in them: they’ve just become the last refuge of terrible managers and awful labor practices. There is a different way to run restaurants. And if we’re serious about changing the food system, we’ve got to do restaurants right.
Restaurants are too important for us to ignore. They’re a major driver of our economy. Almost half the money that Americans spend on food gets spent in restaurants.
What happens in restaurants affects almost everyone in the country directly: 130 million people eat out every day. Most people reading this have already eaten out several times this week. Right now there are 10 million people working for restaurants—that’s seven times more than serve in the entire armed forces. Imagine the effect we could have if we changed this industry from the dead-end industry it is now and into the life-giving industry it could be.
What if we really lived up to the image that restaurants present? They are the very model of community: they’re where politicians go when they want to show they relate to regular folks; they’re where cities turn when disaster strikes and people need a place to connect. If you’re a person who cares about food, you have a responsibility to make restaurants live up to this image.
How do we do it? We start with leading by example. We offer proof that it can be done. Those of us who run restaurants, work in them, and fund them, have to demonstrate that there’s another way—that a restaurant company that takes the idea of the triple bottom line seriously can be a vibrant business.
That’s what we’ve been working toward at Egg for almost seven years in Brooklyn. We run a highly principled, mission-driven business that sources from human scale purveyors. We put over $200,000 a year into the pockets of small or organic producers. We’ve created a work environment that makes it clear that we believe that working with food is some of the most important work a person can do. We pay our staff well and we offer benefits to everyone. And we pack the house every day with people who love our food, and love eating someplace where they know that food was made by people who care.
We’ve also started a farm in upstate New York, where we help—in a small way—stimulate a rural economy. The farm supplies the restaurant with crates of the best produce we’ve ever eaten, but it also gives our employees a chance to work with food from beginning to end. And it helps reduce the alienation between urban and rural that plagues the food economy.
Our new restaurant, Parish Hall, is opening this year. We have lots of reasons to grow. For one, Egg is tiny. More room means more opportunities for our cooks and servers, more capacity to develop the community and educational programs we do, and better facilities to work with the amazing food we get. We’re building a restaurant that has sustainability at its foundation, a restaurant that takes great, well-sourced food and loving service as a starting point, not an achievement.
There are lots of ways to run a restaurant. And there are lots of ways to change the food system. But I think our best chance at making a serious, lasting, and wide-reaching difference is to marry the values of Slow Money with the power of the restaurant business. Let’s raise the bar so high that it will be redundant to talk about "farm-to-table" restaurants; so high that restaurants that treat their employees well won’t win awards for it; and so that the conventional restaurant industry will run out of excuses for its behavior. If we just change restaurants one by one, when we’re done we will truly have changed the world.
This piece is adapted by a speech Weld gave to the 2011 Slow Money International Gathering. You can watch it in full here.