Read Fork in the Road, Eater, Grub Street, or any of the other New York-based restaurant-watching websites and everything seems hunky-dory. Each month, for example, statistics show that far more eating establishments have opened than closed. In fact, if you total up all the openings over the last decade, and subtract the paltry reported closings, you’re likely to conclude that every storefront in the city is now a restaurant.
The debut of each new place occasions lavish coverage — color photos of the interior and exterior, publication of menus, reportage concerning pre-opening “family meals,” endless yawn-worthy interviews with chefs and owners — not one whit of it critical in any way. In fact, much restaurant writing is now publicity copy in disguise from writers who’ve received free food and beverages.
But for restaurateurs, this must be the best of times and the worst of times, to swipe a Dickens quote. For every successful restaurant in brick-and-mortar real estate, there’s a truck idling outside, spewing diesel fumes, turning out snacks and meals at a fraction of the per-cover cost of a normal restaurant — and at no savings to the consumer. Why do we consent to pay the same for, say, a hamburger from a truck that we eat standing in the gutter, as we pay for a hamburger from a sit-down restaurant? I’ve got one word for you: hype.
Meanwhile, local restaurateurs are competing with national franchises for space. In the last few years, chains the city had never seen before — the unpronounceable Qdoba Grill, Five Guys, Papa John’s, Dunkin’ Donuts — have established beachheads here and undertaken wild programs of expansion. Who knows how many native donut shops in Brooklyn have been slaughtered by the Dunkin’ Donuts that have appeared across the borough like the stinking spoor of some night-stalking animal? In the usual cynical way — and Starbucks has been accused of this very thing — bankers provide enough seed money to the chains for more branches than can ever succeed, with the expectation of muscling ma-and-pa joints out of the way. Then they close many of the branches in the name of overall profitability. But the ma-and-pa places never return.
Meanwhile, our doughty and dedicated band of restaurateurs are up against the wall, forced to sell lesser food at higher prices to compete with franchises for space. Where most of them probably always dreamed of opening a true restaurant with real apps and entrées, more and more have had to settle for glorified hamburger stands, pizza parlors, creperies, and other places turning out low-end food — and we the website scribes do our utmost to make it all seem glamorous. But just how glamorous can a small $20 pizza really be, with less dough than a dog biscuit?
So, we fiddle while Rome burns, depending on the tourist-based economics of Bloombergism to keep the entire ship afloat. As prices climb to $75 per person even in the most rudimentary and obscurely located bistros — which buys you one mixed drink; one app; and a slender, carb-free main, often tendered with indifferent service — places depend more and more on clueless tourists to fill up the seating, or the city’s wealthy, who don’t seem to care what they’re eating, as long as it’s of the moment.
But there’s another, more hidden drawback to this hyped-up restaurant economy. Increasingly, a game of musical chairs is being played with the city’s restaurant real estate. Since the half-life of hype is something like 1.5 months, herds of diners addicted to the visceral excitement of the Next Big Thing migrate from restaurant to restaurant, and three months into a new restaurant’s run, it already seems used up and old hat. The friends and freeloaders who expect at least a partly comped meal have deserted it, and tourists and local diners who’ve bought into the hype are left scratching their heads and wondering, “Why would anyone pay $75 for this?” Then the place closes, or changes its identity, or is replaced by a pop-up, or simply sits empty. Manhattan is filled with empty restaurant storefronts.
And while we pay lip service to sustainability in food supplies, nobody gives a crap — except the restaurant owners, chefs, and armies of employees — about restaurant sustainability.
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