Content notes: Discussions of deaths due to COVID-19, abusive behavior (including sexual abuse), racism
I read The Next Supper by Corey Mintz recently and it’s been stuck in my brain. I tweeted about the book, hoping that someone would write a review of The Next Supper, contextualizing the information it contains for Portland, Oregon. And then I remembered that sometimes you just have to write the article you want to see out in the world. So this review is kind of that, with the caveat that I’m not a food journalist and haven’t really set foot in a restaurant in almost two years. Another caveat worth noting is that I received a free copy of the book through NetGalley. I don’t think that influenced this review — but if you are at all worried, please note that the link above goes to the WorldCat entry for The Next Supper. You should be able to find a library near you with a copy rather than spending money based on my potentially biased opinion.
I found The Next Supper very readable, especially for a book telling me that everything about how we eat is probably bad. Mintz shares anecdotes showing that he’s not judging other eaters. He has committed the same sins as the rest of us — including eating at Taco Bell.
It’s comforting to know that none of us are alone in struggling to eat in a way that goes beyond stuffing the nearest calories down our gullets. I know I have terrible eating habits, but I’m not the only one. I’m trying to cut back on takeout after basically living on it for the last few years. I’ve been wondering how other people eat without relying on picking up prepared food from restaurants. Turns out that I’m part of a trend! The Next Supper documents a massive trend in relying on restaurants (as well as other sources of prepared foods, like supermarkets) — in 2018, US consumers spent more money on dining out than on groceries.
In The Next Supper, Mintz planned to cover the future of restaurants — and he did so, but not in the way he planned. Mintz began writing the book before the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the restaurant industry crumbled. From Mintz’s research, it’s clear that key trends around staffing, sustainability, and finances were dramatically escalated by pandemic lockdowns.
Key Topics in Context
Mintz covers a lot of ground in The Next Supper and I certainly don’t want to just repeat what he’s written. But Mintz wrote about national numbers (and international in many cases, given that he covers the restaurant industry in both Canada and the US). Since I live in Portland, Oregon, a city known for its food culture and wealth of local restaurants, I’m interested in what The Next Supper implies for the restaurants around here. To that end, I’m going to cover a couple of key topics from the book.
One fact stood out to me: Mintz says that there are far more restaurants in the US than can be supported by the number of diners. Partially due to big brands constantly pushing growth, the US had roughly one restaurant per 500 people before COVID. There’s just no way that consumers can support that many restaurants based on math Mintz presents. Portland’s restaurants tend to be independent, but the numbers are even more extreme here. I’m not sure how many restaurants are in Portland, but OpenTable currently lists over 5,000 restaurants in this city. That number is definitely low since there are plenty of restaurants that don’t use that site. Portland’s metro-area population in the last census was roughly 2.5 million. With just the 5,000 restaurants on Open Table, we already hit the level of one restaurant per 500 people. If we had a comprehensive list of restaurants in the Portland metro area, I bet we’d actually find that Portland’s ratio is closer to one restaurant per 300 people. That’s unsustainable unless we dramatically transform the relationship between consumers and restaurants.
Wages and Tipping
Staffing is a thread that runs throughout The Next Supper through sections on tipping, wages, abuse, and immigration. Portland-area restaurant staffing is a little different than what you may see in other cities. Oregon requires that restaurants pay full minimum wage of $12 per hour to servers, rather than allowing bullshit like paying a server $2.13 and counting on tips to bring that rate up to something someone might be able to live on. Furthermore, Portland itself has a higher minimum wage than surrounding areas, with a rate of $14 per hour.
Tipping is still common here (although I think it’s past time for us to find a way to eliminate tipping and actually pay everyone a fair wage). Mintz’s inclusion of Michael Lynn’s research on tipping caught my eye, especially given the racism built into Oregon’s governance from the first state constitution onward. Lynn’s research has demonstrated racial disparities in the tips diners give to servers. The disparity hits the point that forcing servers to rely on tips feels like an actionable civil rights violation. I’m not a lawyer, of course, but I doubt we’ll see substantial changes to tipping culture without that kind of in-depth examination and refutation.
Of course, tipping is only one way restaurant employees are compensated for their labor. As I browsed through job listings for restaurant staff here in Portland, I noticed that the listings didn’t quite match up with Mintz’s discussion. Many of these jobs list benefits like paid-time off and offer hourly rates above minimum wage. That’s a good sign for local food culture, although what job listings offer often doesn’t match the reality of working for a given restaurant. It’s easy to find lots of posts like this one about applying to multiple jobs offering one wage and then actually offering significantly less to new hires. Bait-and-switch techniques are common in hiring restaurant staff right now. There’s also a long history of wage theft in the form of unpaid training, paying day rates (rather than hourly wages), unpaid overtime, etc. in the restaurant industry, which Mintz goes into in more depth.
Mintz doesn’t touch on one factor in restaurant hiring that I think is crucial: line cooks had the highest COVID mortality level in 2020 of any profession. No fault to Mintz — I doubt that this information was available before The Next Supper’s content was finalized — but the reality is that an almost incomprehensible number of skilled servers and cooks died or became disabled since early 2020. When we see claims that restaurants are understaffed, we need to push back. We need to talk about the many reasons why restaurant staff aren’t prepared to work for businesses that exploit and endanger them.
When discussing staffing, Mintz also covers a wide variety of abuses that are commonplace in the restaurant industry. Portland’s restaurants are no exception. During the summer of 2020, many restaurant owners and chefs faced calls for accountability for sexual harassment, abusive work environments, and other types of harm. In Portland, many of those calls were channeled through an Instagram account operated by Maya Lovelace, who owns Yonder. They were later cataloged by Eater PDX, including concerns about Yonder. While some of the people responsible for these harms are no longer running restaurants, there are still plenty of similar problems in the kitchens around town.
These problems are compounded by a variety of larger social issues. There’s an underlying misogyny that enables business owners to sexually assault staff members, an underlying racism that allows business owners to take advantage of undocumented workers, and an underlying devotion to capitalism that makes wage theft a standard business practice.
Personally, I’m unconvinced that call-out posts will reform these problems at an industry-level. Collective action, such as unionization, is the only strategy that I’ve seen work. Unionizing both independent restaurants and local chains is likely the most useful strategy, and one that Portland may be able to rely on. With the recognition of the Burgerville Workers Union, we have the first unionized fast food chain in the country. We just need to build on that success.
Third-Party Delivery Apps
Third-party delivery apps — which around here includes Uber Eats, Postmates (owned by Uber), DoorDash, and Caviar (owned by DoorDash) — are notoriously bad for restaurants and delivery drivers alike. There are plenty of examples, from pocketing delivery drivers’ tips to charging fees to restaurants for orders that don’t go through the apps. Independent restaurants get the worst deals, as big brands like Applebees negotiate with delivery providers to keep costs down. The Next Supper points out venture capitalists with long-term plans fund these apps. They subsidize the cost of destroying other delivery options as well as keeping prices down long enough to get consumers reliant on these apps. Third-party apps can afford lobbying efforts or they can punish users with local fees when local governments are willing to push back against their practices.
Communities (including restaurants, delivery staff, and diners) need to plan for the long term. We need plans for both minimizing how capitalistic interests can mix extra costs into our food budgets and for building better systems for getting food in the hands of hungry people. I see organizations like CCC PDX as a start to that discussion. Local bicyclists formed a collective to deliver food and other products in partnerships with local restaurants and retailers. A logical next step might be building an app that handles handles local deliveries for local brands. It could offer equitable splits of both expenses and profits without sending money outside the Portland ecosystem. I don’t think that’s enough, long term, but the conversation has to start somewhere. Only once we’re actively talking about these issues will we be able to bring up options like collective purchasing, neighborhood-based food systems, and other options that move us towards radical change.
Portland does make an appearance in The Next Supper, or rather there’s a discussion of the Portlandia sketch during which two restaurant diners learn about their locally sourced chicken, Colin. There is, of course, plenty of truth in Portlandia’s comedy. Many Portland restaurants make a point of discussing where they get meat, produce, and other supplies from. But Mintz points out that we don’t have a system for confirming those claims, especially for independent restaurants.
McDonald’s — which I learned is the world’s largest buyer of beef, pork, potatoes, lettuce, and tomatoes during my reading — has a variety of mechanisms for auditing their supply chain for reducing harm. There are also a variety of NGOs that work to hold McDonald’s and other large chains accountable. But there’s virtually nothing in place for smaller businesses. Mintz catalogues different ways restaurants can lie or stretch the truth about the sources of their ingredients. As we look at our local dining options, we are responsible for deciding who we trust. But, frankly, none of us have the resources to check whether a given restaurant might be lying. There’s no easy solution to this problem and it will only grow as climate change advances and diminishes the quality of certain crops.
Ultimately, many of the problems with the restaurant industry grow out of problems with ownership, especially of large chains that can make decisions that move the market for everyone else. It’s tempting to ignore problems with big chains if you live inside Portland’s city limits: Red Lobster and Outback Steakhouse are only in the suburbs (due in part to minimum wage laws), so there’s a sense that their problems are better dealt with by the residents and governments of Beaverton, Lake Oswego, or Vancouver. But these big companies make plenty of decisions that impact folks inside city limits and we need to pay attention.
The National Restaurant Association (or, as Mintz calls them, the “other NRA”) is a major lobby in Washington DC. The “other NRA” is one of the chief lobbyers preventing paid sick leave legislation from passing at a federal level. They don’t just harm restaurant employees with their political goals, but every employee in the country. Paid sick leave should be a right for every employee. The state of Oregon has legislation granting paid sick leave, but only for full-time employees of companies with more than 10 full-time employees.
While the problems Mintz discusses are national or even international, few of us have the resources to work on that level. But we can work on those issues on a local level, improving Portland’s share of the restaurant industry. One key step is encouraging local food journalism that goes beyond restaurant reviews. If we have local food media that covers supply chains, staffing, and other facets of the restaurant business, individuals don’t need to try to figure out those details on our own. Of course, local journalism has issues of its own. Eater PDX’s staff works hard, as do the writers in charge of covering food at publications like the Portland Mercury and Portland Monthly, but those publications all have clear goals that don’t prioritize critiquing the restaurant industry. We need something closer to the Racist Sandwich podcast, with a more explicit focus on Portland. (Fingers crossed for another season of Racist Sandwich soon.)
Getting good information is only part of the equation. We need to act on that information. We all want to make good choices about what we eat, including choosing restaurants that minimize harm. Mintz sees the need for more action, telling us “Don’t just vote with your fork, vote with your vote.” We need collective action, which can include voting for local candidates as well as unionization drives at restaurants, getting off of third-party delivery apps, and believing folks about sexual harassment and other abuses they’ve experienced. The problems within the restaurant industry are the same problems we see throughout society — perhaps written small enough that we can create real change on a practical timeline.
In closing, I found The Next Supper to provide a good lens on the restaurant industry, including some of the changes wrought by COVID. I’ve only covered a small chunk of the material in the book and how it relates to Portland’s restaurants — to cover it all would take, well, a full book.