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Restaurants Are Eager to Get Back to”Normal,” But Status Quo Isn’t Enough

Restaurant Diaries is a weekly series featuring four different people working in the industry. Each week you’ll hear from one of them: bartender turned brand ambassador Jenny Feldt, line cook Peter Steckler, farmer Kristyn Leach, and wine educator Kyla Peal. Here, Peal shares the gaps she is seeing as restaurants rush to reopen without addressing…

Restaurant Diaries is a weekly series featuring four different people working in the industry. Every week you’ll hear from one of these: bartender turned brand ambassador Jenny Feldt, line cook Peter Steckler, farmer Kristyn Leach, and wine educator Kyla Peal. Here, Peal shares the openings she is seeing as restaurants rush to reopen without damaging the reckonings on racism and sexism within the market, what a route forward for restaurants may look like, and how her wine education company, Slik Wines, is keeping these issues in mind. Read Peal’s initial and second journal entries here.

In Chicago, when winter finally breaks, the town comes alive. Everybody’s out and terrace year is in full effect! We’ve recently had a few unseasonably warm days, which are great for restaurants because they must optimize business during the short-lived season. Presently, restaurants in Chicago can operate at 50 percentage dining-in capability, and there is talk of that rising soon. However, as institutions reopen, I’m worried that a focus on COVID safety precautions, which can be extremely critical, will tamper down the urgency for systemic change instead of elevating both. Restaurants are eager to return to pre-pivot operations, to indoor diningtable, to usual. But for me personally, and a lot of others, status quo isn’t good enough.

To be clear, I didn’t anticipate sexism and racism to end overnight simply because Marie, Danielle, and I started our wine education firm, Slik. But after last year–with a lot of chef-owners and management being called out for the way they handled themselves, their companies, and the folks they employ–I just expected this new chapter of reopening to include some type of consciousness. I believed there could be an attempt at building and maintaining a healthy environment for hospitality workers that addresses the disparities we have been talking about nationwide for the past year–and a lot longer within industry circles.

Part of me feels as though it was easier for some to admit living in double emergencies –coronavirus and racial injustice–when we were at the height of it. After all, last year we had been at home, linking through our displays, so it was quite easy for restaurant manufacturers to place a black square and a fast sound bite of service. But that was just P.R. Now–now it’s time for action.

Photo by Alex J. Rivera

I’m not sure restaurants know how to correct the issue. A good deal of restaurants and companies have begun to employ these diversity programs due to what’s been happening, but such projects fall short of any significant change. There is no quick fix. In order for any step to have a meaningful impact, those in power has to center staff in the dialogue. But there is an inherent fear about having those talks. Maybe because some have not done it before. Maybe because some don’t want to get held liable.

Those talks require restaurant managers and supervisors to educate themselves and possibly even bring in someone who specializes in facilitating them. We do not have a thing on Slik’s site about the best way to begin doing that work–however, I love that thought –so for now, I’d refer anyone to a resource such as CHADD (Chicago Hospitality Accountable Actions Database) to start. The following steps would include cultivating a more equitable work environment, so allowing workers, particularly Black and brown ones, to flourish within the institution. Thus, don’t keep someone for a backwaiter for five years without any opportunity for upward mobility. It’s not only important to get a diverse group working from the restaurant–it’s also about putting them into positions of management and giving them space to reimagine how the restaurant functions.

With reopening and the weather warming up, our occasions at Slik are slowing slightly. We have made the decision to keep all our programming for the time being. Whenever we decide it’s safe for us to host in-person occasions –and not only when the city designates a specific capacity level–we will. But I don’t see us ever fully parting ways with the digital component of our business, and we are not going to base our activities on everyone else’s. We are lucky that we don’t have to compete with the same types of pressures that many restaurants have at this time.

Recently, we had our initial pay-what-you-can blind tasting of the year on Zoom along with the course went extremely well. I love to maintain our blind tastings super casual and fun. It is intriguing to see what people get out of a wine and exactly what it reminds them of. There’s an intimacy and a level of trust that comes with collecting at a tasting group. There’s always a couple of people who wish to understand about my trip in wine and we have a few who have worked in restaurants–they’re often most outwardly excited about me personally leading the tasting. Due to their familiarity with the restaurant business, they know how uncommon it’s to see Black women in places of authority on wine. Part of my job as a wine educator is to prompt us to explore the breadth of wine and also think about All its possibilities, among them the Men and Women who w

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