The Food Bubble: Pop!



The Times has an interesting article today comparing the restaurant industry to the real estate and financial sectors–there was a bubble, and yes, it burst. The article cites New York Department of Labor stats that show the restaurant industry gained 50,000 jobs in the last seven years, only to lose 10,000 of those jobs between October 2008 and January 2009. (Only four months!)

It’s true that in the last few years there seemed to be no end to the number of enormous, money-soaked restaurant openings. Whether the restaurants were good, bad or mediocre (who remembers Barça 18?) it seemed like there was no end to the money–no price to high for a cocktail, no space too cavernous.

The article quotes Jospeh Bastianich:

“Suddenly the restaurant business looks not so different from the financial and real estate markets,” said Joseph Bastianich
a co-owner of 12 restaurants in New York and nationwide. “When
expansion is fueled by unfounded optimism, you get a balloon that
doesn’t exist in reality.”

Hopefully, there’s an upside to all this, which is that when rents go down and landlords aren’t able to charge $20,000 a month, maybe someone other than celebrity chefs with publicity juggernauts behind them will be able to open restaurants. That might make for more interesting, and affordable, eating.

And the popping of the restaurant bubble also begs this question: Are there too many food writers? If everything in the food and restaurant world is downsizing, what about the hundreds of new food blogs (including this one) and publications that have sprung up in the last, say, seven years?

The expansion of food writing seems to have been in response to two factors (as far as I can tell):  the golden age of the restaurant bubble, and the Alice Waters/Michael Pollan-fueled interest in farm-to-table, and the ethical/political/culinary issues surrounding where our food comes from.

The latter (if interest in Alice Waters is any indication) is only becoming more relevant and heated. As for the former, if big-name restaurants dwindle, let’s be happy to write about, read about and support smaller, family-owned spots–the ones that manage to survive, that is.