Chef and activist Matt Jennings says it's time for a revolution. Here's how to get started.

By Matt Jennings
March 17, 2020
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Things will never be the same.

After the past week of watching my beloved industry crumble to the ground under the forceful hand of the global pandemic, COVID-19, like all of you, I am left reeling, deeply saddened, angry, confused, and fearful of what is to come.

As owners and operators, we are used to being in control. We are used to creating our own opportunities, having the authority and autonomy to mitigate and navigate disaster, to be a positive force within our businesses—like generals, leading our troops to war, or a director gracefully conducting a daily or nightly performance.

Credit: Michael Piazza

As employees and team members we are used to being armed with the facts and set to a course of action. We operate from a place that gathers information, and then uses that information to craft product and experience. Philosophically, these are simple concepts.

But this week we have seen when the above model is blown apart by the only thing that has a deeper and more profound control over any of our lives: nature. Nature is our master. Never within the last number of generations has this now been so obvious.

The hardest part of the COVID-19 outbreak is that we are powerless against an unknown force and simultaneously deeply lacking in useful information that we can use to our advantage. This goes against our nature as humans, and certainly as those in hospitality. We are not in control and we are now forced to admit it.

Thankfully, our reaction has been to mobilize. Like we have done as an industry in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, 9-11 and other disasters, I have watched the hospitality industry fight for survival. To those chefs and restauranteurs who are vocal and proactive with regards to generating solutions for small business survival, I am grateful and in awe of your bravery.

However, we have to recognize that if we demand action from our political leadership, our voice is strongest as a chorus. The hospitality industry is a trillion-dollar sector that employs 16 million people. I, along with others in our hospitality community, are calling for immediate economic stimulus from state and federal governments. I hope you join me in demanding this by using the hashtag #servicestimulus and #savefandb on all your social posts, and bombarding your representatives with calls, emails, and letters.

Fitness studios, theme parks, markets, retail, travel—any and all service-related businesses are in grave jeopardy. It is important to remember while we feel it directly and dramatically, it is not just the F&B community that is affected. We need to bond closely with these tertiary industries now, to create a clear and powerful voice.

It is paralyzingly difficult to make decisions as a leader in an environment where the data is changing by the minute. For this, the only cure is time. While our gut tells us that we must react immediately, the truth is that only sustained effort will deliver the most significant relief.

The steps from here on out are simple but excruciatingly difficult to endure:

  1. Recognize and fully embrace the challenges on every level.
  2. Believe there is a solution that can be achieved by group action.
  3. Trust the experts in individual fields to provide our best information.
  4. Gather unfolding knowledge and parallel process our demands for governmental action.

Now let’s end with something uplifting, because dammit, we all need it. This is a reset. This is our industry’s opportunity to recalibrate and redefine how we do business and to remind ourselves why hospitality is significant.

Somewhere along the past decade (or two) we got lost. Restaurants became a status symbol for developers and landlords, for diners, for cities and communities. Food and the process of providing it to those who could afford it in a gussied-up format became transactional. We lost the soul. We lost the meaning.

Is this what restaurants are all about? Or are they about something deeper, something more meaningful. Are they to provide community and a distinct contribution to the welfare of others? I think we should use this horrific moment in our industry’s history to reflect on this and to think about how we create opportunity from ashes.

In addition to this, we now have a voice we have been asking for, a voice that is loud and resonant to our patrons and guests. Perhaps now they will see firsthand just how difficult it is to work in this business and just how volatile each of our models are when rocked by any type of unseen disruption. We must use this voice to our advantage as an industry.

Perhaps from here we collaboratively work to build a new industry that is humble, transparent, empathetic and stronger from the suffering we are about to endure. We know how resilient our industry is, that has never been in question. But how can we use our resiliency to propagate change, for our operational model, our employees, and our relationships with our direct communities?

Things will never be the same. But they might be even better. Someday.

Don’t withdraw. Don’t succumb.

Codify. Strategize. Believe that this evolution forced upon us by mother nature is a chance to be better chefs, restaurateurs, and humans. In our collective powerlessness, there is a great power inside each of us to shed a cocoon. To transform. To improve.

Be good to each other. And believe.

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