Acme Food & Beverage Co.’s chef and owner gives his thoughts on where the restaurant industry is headed
By Kevin Callaghan | Illustrations by Lindsay Scott
Kevin Callaghan has been the chef/owner of Acme Food & Beverage Co. in Carrboro since 1998. For years, the restaurant has been one of the South’s leading advocates of sustainable and local farms.
Let me be clear: I’m not a medium. I’m not talking about the size shirt that I pull on in the morning. Instead, I’m referring to the clairvoyant, tea leaves-reading kind of medium who psychically predicts what lies ahead. Because, let’s be honest, no one who could truly glimpse the future would ever choose to get into the restaurant business. Most of us restaurant people are Luddites. (OK, we do have cellphones and use Slack.) But by and large, we make things. Using fire and ice and knives and large wooden spoons.
So, I don’t have a crystal ball to see where my industry is headed. That failing of vision runs in the family. Nearly 40 years ago, my father bought stock in a fast-food chain that was meant to offer healthy alternatives for on-the-go Americans. The name, D’Lites, should have been enough to scare him away. The company went bankrupt faster than you can say McSalad.
But I do think that my father’s investment fiasco is illustrative of why predicting the future of restaurants is challenging: He was 40 years ahead of the curve. Today, there are very successful chains that serve healthy and delicious fare. Acai bowls and avocado toast may have seemingly appeared overnight, but they are the fruits of much time and persistence. Turning the subjective idea of healthy eating into something real – something people eagerly chose to buy and eat – was the result of a long back-and-forth conversation between the dining public and wannabe health-centric restaurants all over the country. Just imagine how many bad veggie burgers had to be eaten during that span.
Today, there’s a lot of talk that fine dining is dead. Iconic restaurants around the world are shuttering. Some say that COVID-19 is to blame, winnowing labor and guests from people-facing businesses. And it does feel like the pandemic is the marker of a “before” and an “after.” Independent restaurants are scrambling to right the ship and return to the good old days, but that may not be possible.
Let me explain.
As I mentioned, I’m not a psychic. I’m also not a pessimist. Restaurants are a people business. First, last and always. Meeting and exceeding the expectations of our guests is the job. And as the expectations shift, restaurants have to pivot. When I was a kid, tuxedoed maitre d’s abounded at fancy restaurants, and only the man at the table got a menu with prices (a sure recipe for disaster today). And then there was a shift. Restaurants became less formal, louder, with bigger flavors. It’s fairly clear looking back that the change was the result of boomers arriving full force in the ’80s, boisterously slinging cash in their guise as yuppies. No longer were restaurants primarily serving the expectations of the stuffy parents of boomers, but the expectations and demands of the much more casual boomers themselves.
And it feels like we are at a similar inflection point today. But whereas the boomers arrived in a raucous party bus, windows down and music cranked, millennials show up separately on scooters and listening to a podcast with their AirPods. And the pandemic hastened what is emerging in our industry: that profound generational realignment as millennials take center stage.
Hospitality is not generic. The thoughtful attentiveness that was the hallmark of good service for years has given way to a more laid-back, congenial approach – think coffee shops and breweries – with a more declarative sense of equality between guest and employee. The power dynamic is much less apparent. Sometimes I really enjoy that as a guest, and sometimes it drives me bonkers. But just as high-quality healthy options took years to become reality, this new hospitality will take time and practice to find its footing.
The challenge is that all of us who’ve been at this game for a long time often see this shift as something scary that needs to be “repaired,” that our business and industry is veering wildly off course. And that feeling can be overwhelming. I’m sure that the restaurant generation before me balked at restaurants without white tablecloths or crystal stemware or that had, God forbid, grits on their dinner menu. Had social media existed, I’m sure there would have been endless howls that fine dining was dead.
But deep down, any true change must be understood for what it is. That requires the fullness of time. I don’t think any of us know where the restaurant industry is headed, other than it certainly isn’t going away; people like to go out for dinner. Full stop. But I do know that figuring out a path forward requires listening and asking questions of our guests and our team members. It requires that most dreaded thing – patience. Because I’d say that there’s been a fairly stiff wind at the back of the hospitality industry the entire 34 years that I’ve been a part of it. There have been storms for sure. but mostly strong sailing; we knew where we were headed. This feels different. It’ll be exciting to see where this new wind takes us.
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