A spirit of hope emerged during the annual Next Big Bite panel discussion organized by the New York chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier (LDNY).
Although the restaurant industry remains in crisis, operators who’ve managed to stay open have realized their incredible worth and value as “more than places to dine, but essential to the fabric of our community and critical engines of economic growth,” said Barbara Sibley, chef-owner, La Palapa Cocina Mexicana in New York, who moderated the discussion on October 19.
Angie Mar, executive chef/owner of The Beatrice Inn in NYC’s West Village, stressed that it’s imperative for restaurants to be nimble in order to give communities what they’re looking for in challenging times. “I’ve never done takeout before. My restaurant has always been fine dining. But we pivoted our business to make it affordable, to cater to the neighborhood’s needs,” Mar said.
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She also noted that The Beatrice Inn’s outdoor dining space made it easier for her to pivot to more casual service. Guests aren’t lingering, so table turns are quicker, which has enabled her to keep the restaurant’s entire staff employed.
“As a business owner, you have an immense responsibility to take care of the people who work for you,” said Mar. According to One Fair Wage, nearly 40 percent of the U.S. restaurant workers who have been laid off are undocumented, which means they’re unable to apply for unemployment insurance.
Yvette Leeper-Bueno, owner of Vinatería in Harlem, has also remained open since March. During lockdown, the restaurant lit candles at tables inside every night to cheer the spirits of passersby. Since the summer, Leeper-Bueno said that the Open Streets program in New York has both provided an economic lifeline and brought communities together. “I think there’s a vibrancy that’s still there. I’ve been able to extend my outdoor seating, which has helped tremendously,” she said. Without tourists visiting the area, she’s been serving a larger number of neighborhood regulars, some dining at Vinatería two to three times a week.
What the Future Holds
Ruth Reichl, who recently conducted many interviews with chefs, shared her optimistic view of the future. She predicts that due to reduced real estate prices, we’ll see “an explosion of creativity and new restaurants in New York City and beyond,” including significant new opportunities for young chefs and restaurant entrepreneurs. “There’s going to be a renaissance period for restaurants, for art, for writing,” Reichl said. “The city’s going back to creatives, and that is why we fell in love with New York.”
There’s also the potential for reimagining a more equitable culture for restaurants. “By reducing or eliminating kitchen hierarchies, we can achieve a newfound respect for the back of house,” said Mar. Reichl told the story of one chef at a fine-dining restaurant who decided to pay his entire staff the same salary, which completely transformed the atmosphere for the better.
“This pandemic has exposed how centralized and concentrated everything had become, and we need to go back to being more regional, we need to shop from our farmers,” Reichl said. “We are now seeing communities coming together, supporting local growers and businesses. It’s important for restaurateurs to live in the neighborhood they are serving so they know who they are feeding.”
Sibley also believes this localized approach will heal communities and save restaurants. “Food is community. We are the landscape, the touchstones, and what makes New Yorkers feel normal and that there is hope. If we take this moment to reimagine and find equity and deeper meaning, we will come out on the other side,” she said.
Rethinking Hospitality and Mentorship
The annual Women in Wine Leadership Symposium (WWLS), hosted by Winebow Imports, went virtual and national on October 20 for the first time since its inception in 2012. A mostly female audience tuned in to hear panelists discuss how to build a more diverse, inclusive, and successful industry.
“Every restaurant should have a human resources department,” said Victoria James, director of beverage and partner at New York’s Cote restaurant and cofounder of Wine Empowered, a 501c3 nonprofit that offers tuition-free wine education to women and BIPOC. Cote maintains a zero-tolerance policy for harassment of staff by other staff members or guests, James explained, adding, “Cote means ‘flower’ in Korean; we’re all about flourishing, and [we] can’t have any bad weeds in the garden.”
Moderator Dorothy J. Gaiter, senior editor of The Grape Collective and a SevenFifty Daily contributor, weighed in with her own perspective as a Black woman and someone with many decades of experience: “Age means experience. You have wisdom and talent. There are younger people coming into the industry, which can be invigorating. We need to figure out a way to honor both ends of the spectrum.”
Mentorship is a critical ingredient in building a more inclusive industry, explained Tonya Pitts, sommelier and wine director at One Market Restaurant in San Francisco. She urged aspiring wine and restaurant professionals to seek out mentors. “If there is someone you admire, reach out to them,” she said, noting that a mentor she had early in her career helped keep her from feeling isolated.
Being mentored doesn’t have to be a “big, long, drawn-out process,” Pitts added. “Take advantage of bite-sized mentoring. It could be a phrase, a quick conversation, or a piece of advice. People pop up at different times in your career. Take advantage of that. Women need to create opportunities for themselves.”
Creating Holistic Sustainability
Sustainability expert Sandra Taylor, author of The Business of Sustainable Wine: How to Build Brand Equity in a 21st Century Wine Industry, led a spirited discussion on sustainability, which broadened the definition beyond specific vineyard practices to include social initiatives.
“We don’t talk enough about the sensory aspects of sustainability, the beautiful landscapes we want to preserve, the quality and taste of the wine, and also about preserving culture and heritage,” Taylor said.
Celebrating and supporting every individual in the grape-to-bottle ecosystem has become critical to a winery’s longevity, asserted Yalumba winemaker Heather Fraser. “Without a thriving community, we can’t go forward for the next five generations. Our growers are extensions of the Yalumba family,” she said. At the winery’s Barossa headquarters, there are plaques that honor VSOGs (or Very Special Old Growers), employees who have worked at the winery for more than 21 years.
Belén Iácono, chief agronomist for Catena Zapata’s famed Adrianna Vineyard in Argentina, spoke of the winery’s program to support vineyard workers: “We observed that in summer, when kids weren’t in school, women had to stay home and take care of them.” Partnering with other wineries and the local municipality, Catena created a free summer camp for children, so mothers can work.
In closing, Taylor asked the panel to share their thoughts on how the wine industry will bounce back after the pandemic. “We need to innovate, and sustainability is a way to do that,” said Andrea Léon, winemaker for Casa Lapostolle in Chile. “We want to make a great wine that happens to be sustainable. The purpose of sustainability is not to be a selling tool.”