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  • Derek Engles

Restaurants are Just Different Nowadays

I have been fortunate enough to patronize some great restaurants over the years, and alongside my lifelong career as a sommelier, have witnessed the rise of the fine dining establishment. After visiting some of the great cities of the world in 2022, my opinion of the current incarnation of great restaurants has been solidified: restaurants of all calibers are just different that they were just a few years ago. For better or worse, prices continue to rise, margins continue to tighten and the experience of dining in a restaurant continues to change.

The proverbial landscape may change but its always about guest service.

It was amazing to see how differently restaurants operate in Montreal, a place which I believe to be the most underrated food city in the world. I could rave about cuisine, as it was truly awesome and inventive, with so many establishments breaking culinary boundaries. However, it was the passion and enthusiasm of the staff members that I encountered that separated the experience from what one encounters in Manhattan, San Francisco or Las Vegas. Fine dining restaurant employees north of the border are simply more knowledgeable and more engaged than those we often encounter in many of the notable restaurants in America. After many years striving for Michelin honors, FORBES stars and sommelier certifications, it is tough to make some of these observations.

It is not all perfect in cities like Montreal, Toronto and Paris, as service is noticeably slower with less sense of urgency. In Las Vegas, the time an ordered drink comes to the table is under 5 minutes, with Paris being closer to 15. No particular place is doing everything perfectly, nor should diners expect such. That is where the personality, professionalism and passion of your staff comes into play... as when those characteristics are unlocked, your guests return.

You can pay someone to show up and even learn enough to make the grade, but you cannot pay someone to be passionate, engaged and enthusiastic. In order for high end eating establishments to succeed, they need to separate themselves from the pack, especially with a looming economic recession. Unfortunately, with the current compensations levels, it will be very difficult for restaurants to field the team they may have been able to just a few years ago. The question is, how will establishments in America keep pace with the great restaurants of cities such as Montreal?

Teamwork makes the dream work.

The decline in domestic eatery excellence cannot be laid solely at the feet of the hourly employees, as wages have remained stagnant for over a decade, while the cities that house the greatest establishments have simply priced out many hospitality professionals. There is no doubt that margins are extremely tight in the restaurant business, further exacerbated by the supply chain issues and rising costs faced in most industries of the day. But if a balance isn't struck and the reward for great employees not prevalent, the decline in service standards and knowledge levels in restaurants will continue to recede.

In New York City, the wages offered for sommeliers, servers and bartenders are basically flat since the last recession in America, 14 years ago. Menu prices are higher than ever, yet bottom line revenue is not growing for restaurateurs in Gotham. Combined with the fact that one must make $160k just to apply for an apartment rental, let alone be approved, what is the impetus for great professionals to live here, work here and give their best? Hospitality operators can overcome a lot of obstacles, but in this case, the math just simply doesn't work out. The result is that the city's great restaurants simply offer a more casual and less polished product than they would have in the past, while charging more than ever. Things really are different in restaurants these days.

It doesn't take a mathematician to see that the numbers aren't adding up for most employees.

Yes, things are very different in restaurants these days, from fine dining to take out. The quality levels have declined, the prices have risen and the profit margins maximized at the consumers expense. The wages are stagnant and the benefits slim, so the woes are furthered by the economic conditions in the cities where the great restaurants reside. So, where does it go? That is up to the operators. There are great employees out there, but you have to pay them. It is also up to the cities themselves. There are people that would love to move to your city and work hard, but there isn't realistic housing options. It falls on the employees too, as striving to be better is not a bad thing. This coming recession will tell us a lot of things about this economy, especially as it pertains to the hospitality industry. Things are just different nowadays I guess. Hopefully, positive changes come for those who live and work in the hospitality industry. Hopefully we end up with a better product for the patron and the professional.


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