Abandon Hope All
Ye Who Enter
A Lifetime on the Line
It was thought for a long time that the world’s first restaurateur was a man named M. Boulanger. The legend went that in 1765 he opened a simple soup kitchen outside Paris that mostly served meat-based consommés. Weary travelers could choose which soup they wanted from a menu, rather than have something fed to them without choice. His goal was not to be dazzle but simply to feed. He claimed that his sheep-hoof soup had magical restorative properties. The English word “restaurant” comes from the French word restaurer, which means, literally, to restore.
Modern fact checking has been unable to prove that M. Boulanger ever existed. Or his soup-kitchen/bakery. Boulanger is the oldest living myth in the restaurant business.
We don’t know who, what, or where the world’s first restaurant was. But we do know for certain that the world’s first restaurant must have at some time closed its doors. Yes, the world’s first restaurant threw in the towel. Restaurants have continued to fail ever since.
I once worked at a flashy new cocktail-focused restaurant in the basement of a stately old building in Lower Manhattan. The atmosphere was intoxicating and a little icky – all velvet and darkness like a vampire orgy.
The food was lush, resplendent, and expensive. The dining room was like the court of a coked-out Louis XIV: floor to ceiling velvet drapes, golden fixtures, mirrors on everything. There was an enormous crystal chandelier. There was a Japanese rope weave that took up an entire wall.
It was entirely impractical, a mirage of extravagance and class, almost as if someone had modeled a restaurant after a DeLorean car.
The bar sold twenty-dollar cocktails with such ingredients as house-made celery syrup, cacao nibs, and smoked seaweed. The floor staff were hired for being beautiful and young, like the cast of a reality show where everyone just has sex and betrays each other.
But something went wrong. The pieces didn’t fit. The critics were harsh. Nobody came. The restaurant struggled along for about a year before the landlord sued for nonpayment of rent, and then Hurricane Sandy came and flooded Lower Manhattan.
The restaurant never reopened. Insurance didn’t cover flood damage. Someone lost a million dollars. A mercy killing, in a way.
These days a new restaurant has taken over the old space. Nothing as outrageous. Soups and sandwiches.
In America, where there are regional styles of cooking but no real national cuisine, we embrace the dishes of non-Eurocentric cultures before we accept the people who make them. Take, for example, that time a presidential candidate tweeted: “I love Hispanics!” while holding a “Taco Bowl.”
That man didn’t like Latin people; he just liked Mexican food.
Successfully opening a restaurant is blindingly stressful and difficult.
Actually making a profit is even harder. Yet everyone seems to want to try it. Is it out of some inherent optimism? Or Inherent hubris?
So most restaurants fail. But how long does a restaurant need to stay open before it is considered a failure? The commonly cited statistic is that most restaurants fail within five years. So, are you successful if you last five years and a month before going out with a shrug? Bon Appetit named Alma, in Los Angeles, the best new restaurant of the year in 2013 and yet Alma somehow shuttered two years later.
Ari Taymor, the chef and owner of Alma, later said, “My stress and anxiety, my lack of balance, created an ulcer that sent me to the emergency room at 26 years old with massive internal bleeding. I felt numb, the hallmark of depression.”
There was an exceptional French restaurant in a small town in Washington State, opened by an old friend of mine and his wife.
Every detail of the restaurant was designed with purpose. It had a Northern European ambiance, all reclaimed wood, squared corners, and polished brass.
The chefs/owners were perfectionists, obsessed. They worked sixteen-hour days and often slept in the restaurant, sometimes in their chef whites. I did the best I could. Everyone wanted their business to be successful, but the owners had a hard time letting go. They tried to do it all alone. They trusted no one to do anything. One by one they ran cooks out of the kitchen for failing to keep up and similarly fired the wait staff until only one trusted server remained.
Meanwhile they were so obsessed with the day-to-day operation of the restaurant that they forgot to pay their taxes. I mean, literally forgot.
So, when the second, fifth, or tenth letter came that the government had imposed immense late penalties on top of the taxes, it was basically over. They stayed open for several months, keeping it a secret, knowing they were doomed but working just as hard, until the day a state official locked them out of their own building.
This type of thing happens more than you would think. Why do people open restaurants when the chance of economic success is so unlikely?
I think that the desire to open a restaurant is akin to the desire to host the party. It’s a desire to love and be loved. To show off, to entertain, to feed, to excite. It’s an absolute certainty that your party would be the best party.
Your party is just what this world needs right now. Be that Alma. (Or be it a brand-new Outback Steakhouse outside of Dayton, Ohio.)
Restaurants, even franchises, begin as someone’s vision, like a book, a sculpture, a loosely knit sweater – any creation, any work of art. A dream of how it will feel, how the menu will read, what type of people will want to eat there. Steely-eyed owners gamble hundreds of thousands of borrowed dollars, dreaming of what brilliant things they will do, rather than what will almost surely go wrong.
And something always goes terribly wrong.
But let’s say everything goes as planned. Six months go by and the restaurant is open but not making a profit. That’s okay! What we need is a ten thousand dollar Italian Espresso Machine! Then a year goes by and the restaurant is doing really well! People like it! There is even an hour wait on weekends! And brunch is a crazy success! But when the thankless accountant does the year-end books – sorry, still no profit.
Where does the money go?
Beyond the endless, surprise taxes, the litany of annually renewed permits, the inevitable fines, the water-heater that breaks on a Saturday night and the $500-per-hour emergency repairman, the slow nights, the no-show dishwashers, the hapless, exhausting promotions (Fuck You Burger Week!), what it comes down to is that the busier it gets, the more staff you need. You can’t do it all yourself. And the more staff is needed, the less you profit.
A slow restaurant can survive with a skeleton crew, but when those busy days come the meager staff will be overwhelmed, unable to keep up; guests will not feel like they were given proper service. Word will spread that the food takes forever. Or the water glasses were left unfilled.
Goodwill vanishes pretty quickly when there are ten other places on the same block.
One of the first nice restaurants to hire me was a neighborhood-gem Italian place that had held a fine reputation for twenty years, though it had never really shown much of a profit. Shortly after I was brought on as a pantry cook, the restaurant was sold, name and all, to an out-of-town couple looking to expand into a new market.
They’d owned some burger joints, nothing in fine dining. They kept the name of the restaurant but added the words ”World Bistro.” The old chef was fired and a new chef brought on. The menu then offered something closer to ”global cuisine” – unrelated dishes from around the world, like the food court at a shopping mall. Alongside the Pork Belly Porchetta there was now a marinated Kolbi short rib. In addition to the Caesar Salad and Crab Napoleon there was a rice-and-okra thing grilled in a banana leaf.
People hated that restaurant. It made no sense. Even if the public at large hadn’t frequented the former incarnation quite often enough, the old place had been a comfort purely in its existence. And now this new thing was not the old thing. The new thing was garbage.
We lasted a year before the owners flew back to Hawaii.
But fear not. As long as there are starry-eyed restaurateurs, there will be those like myself, ready for the fight. We will make the food. We will shake the cocktails. We will smile at the unservable. We will plunge the dishes. We will mop the floors.
Restaurants will continue to be born, to live, and to die as long as civilization exists. Dream. Execution. Ultimate failure.
Nothing lasts forever, except McDonalds.
That’s because McDonalds uses
robots to cook.
Steve Lohse is a writer and chef in Portland, Oregon who has worked in and out of kitchens for twenty years. His writing can be found at McSweeneys Internet Tendency and his play “Henry Brimble Tackles The Big Awesome” was performed as part of the 2018 Fertile Grounds Theater Festival.
He has held food-handler permits in exactly five different states.