I, like many others currently working in the food industry, often feel like I have an axe hanging over my head. The reality for many of us is that at any given day another shutdown could come with no subsequent relief. This colours every pre-shift meeting, it’s there in all of our interactions and every slow night is a reminder that unemployment could be coming again. This has led many — workers and owners alike — to wonder what’s next for the restaurant industry.
In 2014, PMPress published the article “Abolish Restaurants.” As the title implies, the Prole.info collective calls for the abolition of restaurants, citing several reasons including intensity of labour, tips and coercion. Upon publication, this article became a grounding point for many in the industry. It was also rigorously fought against at times by those within the industry who are on the left. Admitting that your livelihood is contributing to your own destruction can be difficult.
The text is good — it’s concise, accessible and thoroughly researched. I can also relate to much of what it discusses. I’ve worked almost every job in a restaurant at this point except upper management. I’ve fought with head chefs as a dishwasher and line cook (frier, sautee, grill). I’ve worked as a server in front of house, a food runner, and am currently a bartender. I guess I’ve never been employed as a host, but in smaller restaurants you’re almost always your own host.
Restaurants have some of the most savage labour conditions that any worker can experience. Long hours, exhausting conditions, brutal heat — I’ve had to walk off the job before when kitchen temperatures reached upward of 54 degrees celsius.
I’m certainly sympathetic to the idea that we need to abolish restaurants. But to me, abolish means to do away with something, change its essential nature and to recreate it anew. So my biggest problem with Prole.info’s article is that it failed to even attempt to explain what restaurants may look like in a revolutionary world. And make no mistake about it: I think they would have a place in such a world.
I love restaurants, and I love to be behind bar. There are many like me, who get to experience the best of what the food industry has to offer. My last head chef was one of the best men I’ve had the privilege to know and work alongside. He also worked at another restaurant before I did, and the staff there didn’t have the same opinion of him. The difference was that when I met him he was responsible for making food he loved. Even under a different society, his passion for food would still exist, as would mine for service and drinks.
It’s unfortunate, really, that the industry works so incredibly hard to break us down, but the reality is that there can be passion even under the most exhausting and brutal types of exploitation. Despite bosses’ best efforts, this passion doesn’t die, it just gets muddled, muffled.
So, what would restaurants look like without capitalist exploitation but with unmuffled passion. What does a revolutionary society do to produce food for people who aren’t necessarily in the mood to cook for themselves that day?
We could say to change the way that these places exist in their entirety: rip out the exploitative bosses, root and stem, and ensure safety becomes a priority for workers.
This is necessary and obvious, but a deeper answer requires us to imagine a world that is wildly different from ours, being both just and equitable. One in which access to resources isn’t determined by a class that is inimical to the survival of working people. One where, likely, fast food won’t exist in entirety, and where career restaurant employees may not exist either. Farm labor will be radically changed, along with supply lines for restaurants. The focus wouldn’t be running a 20 per cent product cost, under 15 per cent labour cost, and creating workplaces where ownership preys on the disenfranchised.
Instead of career food industry workers, restaurants would likely be staffed by a semi-volunteer group dedicated to food and beverage service. The existence of the career food industry employee as we know it — overworked, exhausted and miserable — will be gone.
Restaurants would become places that are built for communities. The kind of places where people can sit together, eat, enjoy company and engage in conversation. They would focus on entirely different aspects of what food service could be, including community, health and sustainability.
The farm to table movement was a ploy to make it seem like restaurants are concerned about those three things. It gave an excuse to jack up prices, overcharge customers and serve meals that would otherwise have been too pretentious for anyone to ever eat proudly. They were onto something though, and as I mentioned previously, there would be changes to supply chains. Restaurants would likely be centred around community farms and gardens.
Passionate and experienced cooks would come and prepare meals, and likely educate communities about how to feed themselves and grow their food. Farmers would discuss crops and livestock, while hunters and fishermen would teach their trades. Cocktails would no longer be focused on producing the cheapest drunk possible, but instead on developing flavours and matching. Access to the beauty of food that’s not only affordable but healthy would be given to the working class.
Seating would also likely see a change. Gone would be the isolated experience of a private table with a server, where you sit and are left in isolation. Communal meals require communal seating. The experience of breaking bread is near universally treated as sacred — to be invited to the table for dinner was always a big deal in my house, reserved for friends.
Building community and allowing for open exchange and conversation will of course be a goal of revolutionary society. Not just to refresh the human body, but the human spirit. The development of these kinds of places will take time as well as the normalization of community eating, especially in the imperial core.
The first steps to ending our current restaurant system can be taken today. Food industry workers can organize, form unions and strike back at the labour practices that make both them and guests suffer. The fight against exploitation must occur everywhere, in all places, at all times. This fight will be long and often disheartening in the food industry, but it must be done.
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