A review of The Next Supper with a side of Portland context

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.

Readability

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.

Employee Abuse

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.                  

Sourcing

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.

Ownership

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.

Taking Action

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.

19 Reads I Recommend from 2019

Here are 19 works I read in 2019 that I am still thinking about. I’ve divided the list into fiction and nonfiction, but that’s the only organizing principle at work here. Please note that while I read these works in 2019, not all were published in 2019.

Fiction

  1. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir — Novel (Content Warnings for violence, body horror, and a whole bunch of necromancy). Are lesbian necromancers in space your thing? If so, read Gideon the Ninth immediately. If not, reassess why you feel that way, then read Gideon the Ninth immediately.
  2. Programmer at Large by DRMacIver — Novella (Content Warnings for social anxiety, privacy, and discussions of gender. Based loosely based on the Qeng Ho from Vernor Vinge’s “A Deepness in the Sky”, DRMacIver explores updating millenia-old computer code alongside discussions of how society might evolve with computer mediation. You don’t need to have read Vinge’s work (and, in fact, I haven’t read “A Deepness in the Sky”).
  3. Operation Spring Dawn by Mo Xiong, translated by Rebecca Kuang — Novella (Content Warnings for human extinction). Xiong also examines a potential future, with the story of a super ice age playing out over tens of thousands of years. The story isn’t a happy one, but it is meaningful.
  4. This microfiction by O. Westin — Flash Fiction (Content Warnings for ghosts). This story is just a couple of lines long, so go read it. I’m not going to write a critique of a story that’s longer than the story itself.
  5. Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather — Novella (Content Warnings for virulent illnesses, violence, and religion). Rather’s world-building in this novella is exceptional, with small details that elevate the story from yet another story of the aftermath of an interstellar war. 
  6. Hot and Badgered by Shelly Laurentson — Novel (Content Warnings for violence, smut, snakes, and ableism). Let me preface this item with a confession: I read romance novels of all kinds, including novels about shapeshifters. Especially about shapeshifters. There’s a certain level of absurdity that goes with the standard plots of shapeshifter romance novels which I adore. The pinnacle of that absurdity may very well be “Hot and Badgered,” in which a honey badger shapeshifter finds true love. 
  7. Ironheart by Eve Ewing and Kevin Libranda — Comic Books (Content Warnings for racism, violence, and ageism). Marvel’s “Ironheart” is just finishing a 12-issue run. Superhero Ironheart, AKA Riri Williams, is a genius who reverse-engineered Tony Stark’s Ironman suit when she was 15. She’s awesome, though enjoying her series may be hard if you don’t have at least a vague idea of the Marvel universe. Watching “The Avengers” probably covers the bare minimum of background knowledge.
  8. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal — Novel (Content Warnings for racism, sexism, natural disasters, and anxiety). The Calculating Stars won the 2019 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 2019 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Kowal’s alternate history of the space race won those awards for a reason.

Non-fiction

  1. Malfunctioning Sex Robot by Patricia Lockwood — Article (Content Warnings for misogyny, sexism, and John Updike’s particular brand of weird sex writing). Lockwood’s review of a recent reissue of John Updike’s work is a truly beautiful piece of criticism. She sets the tone from the start, exclaiming “You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling.” and slogs through Updike’s career with an admirable persistence. The article is probably better if you’ve read any of Updike’s work (watching “The Witches of Eastwick” doesn’t count).
  2. American Radicals by Holly Jackson — Book (Content Warnings for slavery, racism, sexism, and violence). “American Radicals” offers background on the organizations and activists who championed slavery abolition, universal suffrage, and a variety of other causes during the 19th century. Jackson provides the context that reading about these movements on their own just can’t provide. I enjoyed the book thoroughly. My sisters, however, may not have appreciated me reading this book because, when we watched the new “Little Women” movie, I kept wanting to talk about Louisa May Alcott’s references to transcendentalism. 
  3. The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones — Interactive Website (Content Warnings for slavery, racism, and violence). The 1619 Project comprises essays, poetry, photography, and more — all of which are worth your attention. Hannah-Jones developed the project to observe the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first african slaves in America. 
  4. Jurassic Emoji by Courtney Milan — Proposal. Milan is a phenomenal romance novelist, but her application for the expansion of dinosaur emoji options is a great piece of writing and even includes scrupulous research into the need for such emojis. Milan has also created a timeline, if you’re curious about the process of creating new emojis.
  5. The Israeli Black Panthers Haggadah translated by Itamar Haritan — Booklet (Content Warnings for Zionism and racism). Created in 1971 as a protest of the treatment of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, this haggadah uses the story of the exodus as a uniquely Jewish way to protest. 
  6. Being “Polite” Often Gets Women Killed by Scaachi Koul — Article (Content Warnings for murder, sexual violence, and stalking). Koul’s deep dive into the culture and communities of true crime podcasts is fascinating (kind of in the same way that true crime shows are fascinating). She uses the topic as a way to examine women-oriented media’s ability to cover the reality that women face violence at higher rates than men in our culture.
  7. Algorithmic Colonization of Africa by Abeba Birhane — Article (Content Warnings for racism, colonialism, and privacy). A discussion on the ethics necessary for new technologies, Birhane highlights the way startups are recreating destructive systems in digital form. In particular, the article highlights how importing technology means importing the ethics of that technology’s creators.
  8. You Should Have Asked by Emma (Content Warning for emotional labor and gender). Emma managed to sum up some of the feelings I’ve had about emotional labor. If comics aren’t really your thing, Zoe Fenson’s article, It’s so much more than cooking is also a good read.
  9. How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr — Book (Content Warnings for colonialism, racism, violence, genocide, incarceration. If I’m being precise, I still have a few chapters to read in this book, but I’m already convinced that every American needs to read this book. I like to think of myself as fairly conversant in the history of this country, but Immerwahr surfaces new information and offers new context to the point that I feel like I’m relearning centuries of history as I read.
  10. How Desire Built One of the Best Information Archives Online by Thursday Bram — Article (Content Warnings for privacy and links to sites that may host explicit material). Since this is my list and I make all the rules, I’m allowed to include my own work. This article is probably my favorite piece of my own writing from this year. Basically, my editor let me write about information architecture, fan fiction, and how sexy stories set new expectations for privacy.
  11. Reasons and Strategies for Avoiding Obsolete Terms by Erin Grace — Article (Content Warnings for slavery and racism). Editing this article caused me to immediately change how I wrote about certain topics. Sure, I’m biased because I worked on the project, but reading this article improved my writing.

This is hopefully enough reading material to keep everyone out of trouble for the next few months.

Why No Negative Reviews?

Not too long ago, I was asked why I didn’t seem to ever post a negative review here. As a matter of fact, very few of the reviews I write are negative, no matter where they appear. The reason why I don’t seem to write negative reviews is simple: it’s because I actually don’t write negative reviews.

If I think a book or a product is junk, I simply won’t write about it, in most cases. I’m certainly not going to waste space on it here and I’m not going to waste my own time on it either. I have only so many hours each day and I really have no interest in reading something that is poorly put together in any way. I receive plenty of review copies I never write about. I even buy more than a few products specifically for reviews that I wind up not writing about. That may be life, but I don’t feel a need to put less-than-great stuff in front of you.

Similarly, unless I have a very good reason, I’m not going to pitch one of the editors I write for on a review of something that their readers don’t need or want. It’s partly a matter of making sure that I land the assignment and get paid, but it’s also is due to the fact that I’d prefer to review something that I find enjoyable to write about. Finding a pleasant and new way to express that a particularly book will hopefully be remaindered soon is not a great use of my time.

The Exceptions

There are some situations in which I will write a negative review, although they are few and far between.

    • If I find a product that seems to be universally reviewed well but I find problems with, I’ll write up those problems in the form of a review.
    • If an editor requests a specific review, I will do it — I do like my paychecks, after all.
  • If a review, even negative, is truly relevant to what I’m writing about. This category is particularly rare and is typically limited to ‘You’re doing it wrong!’ reviews.

I don’t give positive reviews just because I know the author of the book. If I did that, I’d have to read books that family members have written, such as how to manage the serial collection at a large library — I love my family and far too many of us are writers of some sort.

I also don’t give positive reviews due to affiliate programs and other monetary considerations. While a nice steak dinner may bump a book to the top of my to-read pile, that’s as far as financial considerations will extend. I will promote (vigorously, even) products that I believe in and if they have an affiliate program, so much the better. But we have to be talking about a quality product to begin with. And any time I post an affiliate link, you’re free to use it in such a manner that I don’t get a commission, if that’s a big concern for you. I’d rather you don’t — I have hosting fees and a mortgage — but it’s not a big deal to me either way.

Interview: Mary Lewis

Today, we have an interview with the fabulous Mary Evelyn Lewis, of the brand new Blog Stop Book Tours, which organizes blog tours for authors, and the Virtual Wordsmith blog.
What is your background, writing-wise?
I’ve always been a writer. I took as many English classes as I could in High School. I had an editorial published in the Portland, Maine newspaper when I was a teenager. I worked as a writer, and editor, for a public relations company for six years. And, I love to read!
What prompted you to choose freelance writing as a career?
I chose freelance writing as a career for many reasons. First of all, it allows me the flexibility to work at home, so that I can be here for my four children. It’s incredibly important to me that my children know that they come first. Second, I don’t do so well in a corporate setting. Third, I suffer from an affliction I call got-to-know-itis. I’m incurably curious! So, when I discover something new, I want to share it. What better way than to write about it?
What prompted the idea of Blog Stop Book Tours?
The idea for Blog Stop Book Tours began a little over two years ago. A friend of mine was promoting a book for an author, and we talked about utilizing bloggers in the marketing plan. We could see the beginnings of what has become commonplace now – connecting the author with the reader via the blogging community. She decided not to pursue the idea, but it’s percolated in the back of my head ever since.
Then I was approached by another virtual book tour business, asking if I’d be interested in reviewing books for them. I agreed, and reviewed books and interviewed authors at Virtual Wordsmith (my blog). After doing that for awhile, I decided I’d like to start my own blog book tour business.
What have been the key differences for you between running a business based on writing, such as Blog Stop Book Tours, and freelancing?
The big difference between my freelance writing and my business is the process. Blog Stop Book Tours requires a lot of networking and organization – administrative duties. And I don’t actually do a lot of writing for it. Freelance writing requires fresh ideas, and focused original writing. I’m enjoying both activities immensely, but they are definitely not the same experience.
What advice do you have for writers trying to expand their businesses?
My advice to writers trying to expand their business is to remain open to possibilities and opportunities. Pay close attention to what’s going on around you, always keep a notebook handy, and when an idea pops, get it down before you become distracted and forget. And don’t limit yourself to the big glossy magazines. Trade journals, e-zines, newsletters, press releases, copy writing, writing for the web, all need to be written by someone.
Mary has upcoming articles in the following magazines: