By Chris Mohney
In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Zagat Stories asked AAPI professionals in restaurants and hospitality about positive change they’ve observed or experienced in the past year—as well as where they think the industry still needs to do more work. In particular for these conversations, we focused on the perspectives of AAPI women in the industry. Here’s what they have to say.
Executive chef, Kumi, New York
Due to COVID, we’ve really seen a shift in terms of the fragility of the human body as well as the importance of family. There’s been a significant shift in the necessity of time off in the hospitality industry. As a cook, I was surrounded by and fell victim to doing the 15-hour work days for shift pay, one day off a week, pushing your body to its breaking point regardless of being sick or having a bad back or whatever the case might be. And while as a leader and chef, I have made it a point to make sure my team is able to have their days off and be able to rest if they’re ill, I’ve noticed a huge shift as well with colleagues and others in this industry towards this end. As a whole, managers and employees are handling more reasonable work hours, being given their personal days without the eye rolls, and are more comfortable being able to say “hey, I feel sick and will be unable to make it into work” without there being such a stigma attached to it.
I personally used to feel crushing guilt for having to take time off work, and would still make it a point to be connected to my team while I should’ve been resting. I recall taking two weeks off for radiation treatment while I maintained regular meetings with my team and kept the group texts going the entire time, feeling guilty that I wasn’t there with them to offer both physical support as well as in-person leadership. I felt like I was failing my team by taking any time off for treatment and regularly checked in every hour or two to get updates on staff and service. Rationally, I know that it was ludicrous to feel this way, but the idea of a chef having that time off, even to treat or heal, was something that throughout my career was something of a myth.
Just a few weeks ago, I had a concussion and was encouraged by my bosses to go home and rest. In the past year, I’ve been very kindly “kicked out of work” to rest and have been encouraged to make sure I take time for myself, which has been weird but very pleasant. More and more, especially in the past year, I’ve seen as friends and colleagues are taking their PTO, sick days, paternity/maternity leave, or vacation time to ensure they can heal physically and mentally or spend time with their families. And they’re doing this without the guilt that follows as well as detaching themselves from their kitchens.
Owner, Poi Dog, Philadelphia
I was cooking for an event for the Nationalities Service Center, an organization that supports immigrants and refugees, and they properly listed my company Poi Dog on signage as being “From Hawaii.” I had noted to them that there is a distinction between “from Hawaii,” which I am, and “Hawai’ian” the ethnicity, a term that often is misused to refer to anything with a connection to Hawai’i. I was really happy to see that they honored this distinction. I’ve noticed an overall awareness from individuals in food media on how workers are treated at restaurants. I know there’s a discrepancy between media and the general public, but I hope that after seeing restaurants suffer through the pandemic and reading about their survival stories, diners are more aware of what goes on beyond their own experiences, and hold restaurants as workplaces and ecosystems to higher standards. It’s often said that we vote with our dollars, and I hope diners support small businesses in more interactions. This can be done in an accumulation of little steps, such as frequenting independently owned restaurants that you want to continue to survive, thrive, and have the ability to properly compensate their workers.
Chef-owner, Little Chef Little Café, New York
There is a lot more support and collaboration happening between businesses. Whether it’s pop-ups or cross-promotion or more frequent visits to support each other, it’s nice to see and be a part of the kinship that is happening in one of the hardest times there is to be in business. Equity and representation should be the focus. For so long, most of the hospitality industry’s focus has been on the external guest, the high-end clientele, the big-name restaurants and chefs with clout and accolades. But for many of us who work in this industry, we are behind the scenes trying to survive and aren’t working only to be recognized as big names in the industry—but to be recognized at all as players in the game. It’s great to see it starting to happen, and I hope that the focus will stay more on the independent shops built from the ground up by one or two people who have been working day in and day out, versus focusing on monster groups who have venture capital backing that can afford to market in the big leagues. I want to read more about the first-generation woman who is cooking her mom’s recipes, versus the classically trained chef who worked for another big-named chef and won four high-profile awards. Tell more of the stories about the hard-working people who have worked so hard to make their dream a reality. Who cares if they are not Michelin-rated? They matter, too, and they keep the local economy going, support local initiatives, and will be there when you truly need them—even when no one is highlighting them.
Owner, Alpana, Chicago
My new restaurant features photographs of famous women who I have long admired, including one of Bollywood actress Rekha. I grew up watching her movies, and she was known for bucking tradition and walking her own path. Ten years ago when I opened my first restaurant, it never occurred to me that I could do something like this as I accepted that the narrative that my culture and heritage wasn’t relevant from a design perspective. Given recent conversations about the importance of diversity and inclusion, I felt much more empowered to include a roster of women from all backgrounds, including my own. I have learned there is room for many viewpoints, and my story is just as valid as another person’s and vice versa. The first couple of nights after we opened, I noticed South Asian diners stopping to take photos of the wall, and I knew in my heart what it meant for them to see Rekha and a piece of their own story reflected back to them. We should not wait for permission to share our story. It is up to us to take that step for ourselves, and the impact will be felt by others who will be grateful you did.
Partner and COO, Pasjoli, Los Angeles
The biggest silver lining to come out of this crazy madness of the past two years has been watching our industry rally and come together to help one another. In March 2020, when Governor Gavin Newsom called for a two-week shutdown to “flatten the curve,” many of us were unsure what our next steps would be. Chef Dave Beran and I reached out to a few of our peers in the industry to hop on a call to brainstorm next steps. Before we knew it, there were over 300 people on this phone call, sending clear indication that our community in LA was in need of an organization to be their voice. Along with a small group of operators, we created the Independent Hospitality Coalition, a nonprofit organization focused on the needs of independent restaurants and bars in LA County. It has been inspirational to hear the stories of how my fellow operators have weathered the storm of the past two years. We have applied effective pressure to our local governments to make true change and influence laws that specifically apply to independent restaurants and bars. We schedule meetings with our local officials and are still working for a “seat at the table” with our governments to continue to make sure the voices of the independent hospitality community are heard. In addition, the coalition has been a true source of friendship and guidance. It may have taken a pandemic to get all of us to join together, but it is an organization that is so necessary to make sure that we can operate efficiently and effectively. It’s been truly inspirational see the support we have for one another.
Co-owner, Yardbird HK and Ronin, Hong Kong
I’m feeling that sense of support and loyalty from our regular customers and from the community by trying the new menus and supporting pickup and delivery. Honestly, it’s so nice. Because, you know, you can put things out there and people don’t have to take them or buy them or spend money on them. A lot of people are financially uncertain. When people do spend their money on what you’re putting out there, it’s feels really nice. Holistically, the Hong Kong government has been quite supportive in terms of subsidies and getting cash out there to small businesses—not just F&B, but owner-operated types of establishments. To be fair, they I’m sure they subsidize other larger companies, too. But I think the reality is that we’ve seen that F&B has always been considered recreational entertainment. Now, having watched so many closures of incredible restaurants—or even if they’re not incredible, they’ve been most likely been foundational venues in their neighborhoods—I think there has to be another way for people to protect the industry. I don’t know how it works, whether people work together more or the government understands and recognizes that people who work in this industry should be respected and treated in a much higher-value way.
Co-owner and general manager, Cassava, San Francisco
I have noticed a rise in “intentional” sourcing. At our restaurant, for example, we are wanting to feature more AAPI- and minority-led businesses on our beverage menu. The beverage world has long been majority dominated. We have found that our guests really appreciate the thought and initiative, as they can directly participate in the support by supporting us and ordering those items. It’s also become more normal for businesses to take a firmer stand in their beliefs, especially in San Francisco where the gesture is frequently celebrated. We are also freer to be more direct in the ideals we’d like to build our business around. With our hiring process, we explicitly state “absolutely no toxic masculinity, misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia allowed” in our listings. Now more than ever, we feel comfortable in including the “toxic masculinity and misogyny” piece, as so much more about the toxicity of the industry has come to light. Some job applicants have told us that they applied because they saw that, and this is coming from all genders.
The great resignation is amazing. Workers are standing up for their value and thinking beyond what the corporate side of the industry is trying to label them as. At Cassava, we aren’t having a hard time finding people, though the fact that we are a smaller restaurant may be in our favor. We believe that more people are attracted to our fair wage practices and our stance against the toxic industry culture. A mind-blowing 19 states still have a $2.13 per hour minimum wage for tipped workers. It’s 2022. Nobody in America should be working for that wage, regardless how much they make in tips. It is both inhumane and disrespectful. The entire industry should be supporting the work One Fair Wage does. In addition to the condemnation of substance abuse and the advocacy for mental health wellbeing, the industry also needs to be more vocal against the toxic masculinity and misogyny that exists.
Paula de Pano
Owner, Rocks + Acid, Chapel Hill
I remember when it was not acceptable to speak about unfair circumstances in the workplace—when there was a clear preference for white professionals. It was framed as them having more personality, an “affinity” for certain types of guests, or seniority hence why they were chosen. But that wasn’t the case. I remember going to meetings and hearing casual comments where they would say that they needed a certain look that would reflect better on paper and pictures. The preference of having white coworkers singled out for these promotions was the norm even though there were others that were as qualified to represent or do the job. It felt awkward hearing comments like those and back then. No one really spoke up about them except minor grumblings on how unfair the situation was.
These days, I find it so amazing that when someone speaks up about this kind of unfairness. People are now able to step back and think about where the other person is coming from instead of shutting them down, giving shallow excuses, or dismissing them due to their stereotypes. They’re not easily dismissed anymore because there are more outspoken advocates in the community that are so inspiring—so much so that POC hospitality workers are not taking any excuses anymore as to why they’re being passed up for opportunities. Professionals like Miguel de Leon, Tahiirah Habibi, and Hai Tran are my personal heroes. They’re out there, calling out the BS rampant in the industry, and they’re not taking prisoners either. It’s great to see accountability happen, not just for the sake of calling things out, but seeing the impact and changes of what they’re doing.
I think it would be great to keep an open mind and not just be dismissive when there is a voice that speaks out against what is the “norm.” Change is uncomfortable, and it pushes all of us to reflect on what is and what it could be—a better, inclusive, and equal place for everyone to be judged by their merits rather than how they look. Empathy for others sounds so foreign in an industry that celebrates toughness and badass-ness, but telling people to suck it up doesn’t work anymore. I think now that there’s momentum in this positive change that it’s very important, more than ever, to pay it forward and not just reap the rewards of what others have contributed to the cause. Mentor other people, give back your time, speak out instead of holding back, and shine the spotlight on others because there is room for everyone.
Co-executive chef, Horses, Los Angeles
I just turned 30 this year, and I already feel like I’m aging out of restaurants. It’s something I see with a lot of my peers as we continue to mature in this industry together. I’ve seen people achieve great successes and career pivots, as well as walk away from the industry altogether—the latter being most prevalent. It’s a big problem in restaurants that people don’t see longevity in this work. Restaurants are demanding, great places for 20-year-old cooks with few responsibilities and a penchant for staying out late, but less so for the 30-some-year-old cook who just started experiencing knee pain from bending over to open lowboys for the last decade and wants to maintain healthy relationships outside the walls of work. So, how do you age gracefully in this industry while earning an equitable income, respecting the limits of your body, and embracing all the other milestones of life that exist beyond work?
The roadmap to success in restaurants has typically been to climb the ranks—aka work more for less money, for titles like “Executive Co-Sous Chef De Cuisine.” Unless you end up owning your own business, titles are the ceiling of success. So often this is where I see people exit this industry for jobs with less hours, more flexibility, and better pay, and rightfully so. Ask almost any restaurant employee, and they always have a plan B. Which is crazy, because shouldn’t this be a fulfilling career? We put so much time and care into our work, yet you have a saute pan in one hand while constantly hovering your finger over the escape button with the other.
I think it specifically hits hardest for women who want to start families and who often make the—I’m hesitant to say “choice”—to leave restaurants. How do you negotiate a 12-hour work day with a newborn and no paid maternity leave? How do you negotiate any work life balance when a place demands three quarters of your waking hours? I hope to see businesses invest in their staff more—better pay, basic benefits, and opportunities for education and to foster growth within the company. I also think it’s up to the chefs we look up to, to talk honestly about navigating a life in restaurants, and not just chalk it up to hard work and their genius palate. Less time shilling their line of chili crisp and more time making sure the cooks that come after them are entering a more sustainable industry. I just want to keep doing what I love for the foreseeable future without having to sacrifice my health and happiness while doing so.
Cofounder, Black Seed Bagels, New York
One positive change I have seen in the hospitality industry is more investment in hourly employees. I am not just speaking about the rise in wages, but the overall environment and employee journey within an organization. Employers are finally taking the time to provide other benefits, better training, and extended education like ELL to help foster the growth of a once-overlooked staff. The change I think is most important for the hospitality industry to focus on this year is the hiring and promotion of more women of color in leadership roles. While there is much diversity in the service and hourly staff, it is often not reflected in the higher rungs of the “ladder.” These higher-paid leadership roles are also the fastest way to bring more economic stability for a population that would often be overlooked for a role that has been typically taken by men.
Managing director, Hotel Figueroa, Los Angeles
In many ways, our community has gotten smaller and closer than ever before. In downtown LA, for example, the hospitality and dining community has banded together as a united front on everything from volunteering and donating food to homeless shelters, to improving safety by upgrading lighting in parking lots. In the past year, we also have become even more civic-minded—partnering with LA County to convert our current dining room into a polling location was such a positive experience for us at Hotel Figueroa that we look to repeat this regularly for DTLA locals. As we continue to experience labor shortages throughout the hospitality and restaurant industry, we must develop talent from non-traditional sources. We have also seen that having a diverse leadership team from a variety of backgrounds improves our ability to recruit, retain, and connect with team members.
Partner, Atoboy and Atomix, New York
Heartfelt interactions between people are without a doubt the greatest joy of working in the hospitality industry. Guests who visit us at our restaurants do not typically come to us with a problem to be solved, or an ailment to be fixed—our restaurants are places where people celebrate, share joy, and find comfort. Hosting these interactions gives us positive energy and always renews a sense of purpose in my work. In the last few years, through the hardships of the pandemic, we were surprised by an outpouring of generous, heartfelt expressions and gestures from our guests near and far. They showed us their hospitality. These moments and feelings stay with me vividly and they have been critical in our strong will in rebuilding our industry, and moving forward to the future.
I think my biggest priority for our industry is the value of “consideration.” The restaurant industry was one of the hardest hit from our pandemic in all ways. It is not easy to work in that environment. Our industry is still working tirelessly to move forward while still building back our foundations. In this sensitive time, it’s so important to consider each other more, to try to respect and understand each other’s perspectives. In that, we have to invest in creating a sustainable change to our professional environment, creating a framework for healthy, respectful environments. This can’t be done alone, but must be done with leadership, partnership, and changes at the government level. Leaders of the industry are thinking and discussing this more openly than ever before through coalitions like ROAR.
Owner, Sesame LA and Sesame Dinette, Los Angeles
I was incredibly moved by the Future of Women event put on at Here’s Looking at You, a restaurant that just made a triumphant return after its unfortunate pandemic-related closure. The resiliency of that restaurant and all of the women in attendance was truly remarkable to witness. Fifty-plus women came together that morning for a very memorable and inspiring breakfast highlighting females in the hospitality industry. In this truly incredible way, I felt supported while also supporting others. This event was part of International Women’s Day, but the accomplishments of women should really be celebrated and honored every day.
Founder, The Elk and Bar Beau, New York
With everything we have collectively been through and exposed to over the last couple of years, what I have seen change in the hospitality industry is people caring more about each other. Whether that’s the guest who in prior times would be in and out of the restaurant, now taking a moment to check in and inquire about how we are doing—to the staff member who is more considerate of their actions or lends an extra hand when in need. I have of course also seen many exceptions to this, but I think these small shifts in behavior have proved the resiliency of the people that make up the industry. I have been quite moved by how people have come together and worked through a tough time with compassion and care. It has inspired me as a leader in this industry and given me hope to move forward with new perspective.
Director of operations, Camphor, Los Angeles
Hospitality leans towards connecting with people. Now, I see that a lot of people are making efforts in digital engagements. Although COVID had a largely negative effect on the world, the positive is that we’re now more conscious of each others’ well-being and ensuring that we are happy with our life and work balance. I love seeing businesses globally highlighting their team members from back of house to front of house, who rarely get recognized publicly for their contributions. We also saw businesses supporting fellow BIPOC businesses online, recognizing that we are all successful through each other.
I think that the pandemic has really been a wakeup call. It is clear that we are more interconnected than ever before and must be laser focused on getting back to the basics, with graciousness, warmth, and genuine hospitality being the guide of our principles. Besides honoring our first responders, front-line workers, and those that are not with us anymore, we as a society yearn for genuine connections in all facets of our lives. We really need to create an inviting work/family environment for people to want to be a part of. The hospitality job market is more competitive now with skilled personnel finding opportunities remotely and through alternate mediums. We need to invest in our players. People aren’t working for just the salary or pay anymore—they’re wanting to advance and grow with opportunities. There are a ton of talented people out there that may not have the immediate skills, but the beauty of it is that they’re wanting to be here, show up, put in the hours, and be a part of the team. To me, putting in the patience and setting up everyone for success is key.
Owner, Morph Hospitality Group, Nashville
I am really loving seeing young people of global descent making a bigger appearance on the food scene. Whether I’m at an event or judging Chopped the diversity of the up-and-coming talent has increased. The biggest change that I would like to see in the hospitality industry moving forward is giving the people and places who create ethnic food more opportunities to grow and succeed.
Alice Cherng & Belinda Wei
Founders, Dear Bella Creamery, Los Angeles
We love the trend of pop-ups and ghost kitchens. These concepts allow many cooks and entrepreneurs that would otherwise not be able to open their food business because of financial constraints to quickly start making and selling food. By lowering the barrier of entry, we are seeing so many different cuisines and food concepts. The diversity is wonderful. It also allowed us to test out our own Taiwanese-American street food pop-up, Love Boat Kitchen, in Winter 2020.
As far back as we can remember, there has always been a separation and a rivalry between front-of-house and back-of-house staff. We think it’s important that we as restaurant owners bridge that gap by offering the same treatment to all staff and compensating everyone similarly. More effort should be put in to unite the entire staff, such as staff gathering and facilitating disputes. This can be applied to ensuring there is no discrimination in the kitchen, whether it comes to position, gender identity, or race. We find that creating opportunities for staff to get together and connect helps break down stereotypes and form a level of respect for each other’s differences and commonalities.
Co-owner, Phuc Yea and Pho Mo, Miami
I think the positive change we’ve made in the past year is understanding the importance of practicing patience and flexibility. No two days in the hospitality industry are the same, so we’ve adapted and learned to embrace the chaos. We’ve worked incredibly hard to build a new and improved restaurant operation that is malleable and have trained our employees to be malleable as well. Getting hung up on the minutiae, and not being able to forge through the daily struggle of pandemic restaurant life, is the type of mentality that will set a business and its employees up for failure. Being patient, flexible, and positive is contagious in this industry and needs to be bred and preached from the top down. It’s all about the pivot we make as a team in the direction of success.
Chef-owner, Revolution Taco, Philadelphia
From my perspective, the positive change that I’ve seen more of lately in the hospitality industry is increased cooperation and collaboration rather than competition. The industry was already tough to survive in, but COVID has amplified that for many of us, and by combining efforts we can lessen the impact it has had. For example, last October, I participated in an event with other women restaurateurs and chefs in the Philadelphia scene. There was so much love and supportive energy from the event that I left feeling invigorated and inspired. There was a sense of camaraderie that we were all going through similar struggles.
It is crucial for the hospitality industry to focus on diversity, inclusion, and mental health because it historically didn’t value those aspects as every workplace should. It was the complete opposite. We have come a long way as an industry, but we are still moving needles. Our actions speak louder than words, so when we say these things are important, we need to back that up and build a culture around it which encompasses those values. When I started in hospitality, more often than not, the places that I worked at lacked this. Men often dominated the kitchen, and I never saw an Asian female in a management position. Mental health talks were unheard of (but to be fair, mental health has only recently been taken more seriously by the general public). Since the start of the pandemic, mental health has become more important than ever to focus on. Our nervous system has been in overdrive for two and a half years, and now we all must work on healing the trauma.
Founder, F10 Creative, California
Everyone became a lot more appreciative of staff. I felt that restaurants were one of those old school last bastions where it was okay to scream and berate your team, and I think the scarcity has encouraged a lot of restaurants to thankfully focus more on team culture. That means appreciation, kindness, gratitude. If people don’t see that, they just don’t show up to work anymore. As we think about the emotional and financial costs of employee turnover, rehiring, and retraining, great training is more important than ever. We have a younger and younger workforce that is inherently less experienced than the older generation. That generation seems to have just vanished, so we don’t have the old guard training the new. Everyone is a freshman in high school all of a sudden, so we need to spend time to enforce good habits and a good hospitality ethos so they doesn’t get lost.
Cofounder, Mimi Cheng’s, New York
The biggest positive change we’ve seen in the hospitality industry is the larger community it has created among restaurant and bar owners and operators. We used to be much more siloed. The pandemic brought everything to a standstill and created the time and space to meet and help each other. More specifically, ROAR was created with a mission to make the hospitality industry more sustainable for everyone involved. Knowing that you have friends going through the same thing has made everything that much more bearable and less lonely.
Bar manager, Birdie G’s, Los Angeles
It’s definitely a weird time for the industry. The pandemic really hit us hard. I feel like this past year has been all about rebuilding and finding ways to refocus and navigate this new normal, which at first was really difficult. But I think there definitely has been some positive changes too, especially in workplace culture. We all take care of each other and ourselves a little more, where before if you were sick, it was normal to come to work and either suffer through, or wait to be sent home, because calling out just wasn’t really an acceptable option. Oftentimes colds would travel through the staff because of it. I know it sounds horrible, but it’s the truth across the industry. Nowadays, people are a lot more careful with their own health, and calling out sick is a lot more acceptable, which honestly helps everyone in the long run.
I feel like it’s really important for us to focus on elevating the standards of the industry, back to and past what they were before the pandemic. So many people left the industry in 2020, that 2021 was all about new blood, and I think our standards dropped because of it. I know a lot of places had a really hard time finding qualified staff, and for a while there, it was almost as if just showing up would get you the job. I think we’re now finally at a point where we can really hone in and continue to push forward in the direction we were pre-shutdown, which is creating more inclusivity in the industry and celebrating the accomplishments of minorities—especially women and people of color. It’s really time for us to change our attitudes and make the hospitality industry welcoming to everyone.
Chi Sum Ngai
Cofounder, Coffee Project NY, New York
I see all of us coming together a little bit more to share resources and overcome challenges. As a business owner, we have industry friends—sometimes we have shared the same problems, and we are there to hear each other out, or some of us might have a solution to a problem. I see that we are a lot more transparent with our resources now, and we are there for each other’s successes. We also know how hard things have been for hospitality staffing. We are thankful for organizations and groups like ROAR and Restaurant After Hours for providing emotional and mental health resources to us all.
For me, I think this is about enforcing the need to treat all hospitality staff with respect—respect the work that we do, respect the effort that we put in for the community, and respect the skills set that we have to offer in our industry. Many people do see us as just a person who’s there to provide a service, but it takes 100 percent effort if not more to be there mentally and physically, and then provide the service. A simple gesture like making eye contact or saying please and thank you is going to make us feel a little more appreciated. I understand that this is reciprocal, and I have been in a situation where hospitality staff weren’t delivering as well, but this could be a snowball effect of how they are not seen or heard for a very long time. In a nutshell, we all have to continue treating everyone with respect and eventually we will be in a spot where all expectations are met.
Cofounder, Baology, Philadelpia
As an industry, we need to focus and treat ourselves and value our work. That includes reexamining the way that we’ve done things simply because it’s been done this way for so many years. Clearly, we knew—we all knew—that there were problems, and yet we were happy as an industry because it worked, and it was fine for now. And that is a dangerous way to operate a business in general, because now that we’ve seen that it’s a brittle and broken system, what are we going to do to address that? When you work in restaurants, especially at a certain level of service, a lot of the job is to anticipate the guest’s needs. Are we doing that with our teams? Are we anticipating their needs? Are we going out of our way to make sure that they feel safe, that they feel comfortable, that they feel valued and appreciated? You can have guests come in, but if you don’t have a quality product over time, even their goodwill will only carry so far. We provide a service and a product, and it’s important that there be value in both. And that value comes from having a talented and skilled workforce. We’ve just not been appropriately valuing that workforce.
Area coach of operations, Panda Express, New York
I work for a company that puts people first. Panda Express encourages continued learning for personal development, and offers scholarships—they actually pay their employees to better themselves and equip themselves for a better life. In a time where many businesses in my industry are having a hard time hiring and retaining employees, we have a lot of friends and members of people’s families joining our team through word-of-mouth referral. I joined as a regular employee ten years ago, and now I’m an area manager. I’ve learned how to be a better person, a better leader, a better mom—my job has really affected all points of my life. It allowed me to start from nothing and achieve the American Dream. I think this is baked into the Panda Express business because the founders are also immigrants and have dedicated themselves to helping their employees. In New York, a place with a lot of diversity, people who have started working here when they were young—they’ve stayed and eventually end up becoming general managers and area managers. The sense of belonging and acceptance as new immigrants really attracts a lot of people to join. This makes the job more interesting and fulfilling, to have a sense of purpose to achieve the American dream, and to better the next generation. I think it’s important for the hospitality industry to make long-term commitments like this to their employees if we want to see any real change.
Co-owner and chef, Saucy Porka, Chicago
The future is here. Labor shortages are top of mind for those of us in the restaurant and food industry. No matter how big or small the restaurant, or if it’s located in a major city or small town, the impact is being felt by everyone. As we began to reopen to full capacity, I posted online for the various front- and back-of-house positions. I received one response in three months. I started to feel like I was doing something wrong. But then hearing from fellow restaurant owners and seeing the vast number of for-hire signs posted in every storefront window I walked past, I realized a major shift had occurred in our industry. People left and weren’t coming back.
There have been various articles and analysis from industry experts trying to make sense of this phenomenon. And we know we aren’t the only industry struggling to find workers. While many have begun utilizing more technology, such as kiosks, robots, and QR codes, I think we also need to look at human solutions. The problem of finding and retaining a stable labor force has been decades in the making, and was then heightened by the pandemic. The food and restaurant industry has fallen behind when it comes to providing its workers a sense of stability and safety. Some businesses are better at it then others, but at the end of the day, the hard truth of our industry is that we deprioritized the people grinding away in our kitchens and dining rooms. We had become an industry that treated its employees as transient, replaceable, low-skilled workers.
The profit margins for a small restaurant can be razor thin, and providing health insurance and paid sick leave to employees may seem financially unattainable, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek creative solutions to address these looming issues that face our industry. Whether it’s childcare, transportation, or healthcare, these are real concerns and issues facing our workers every day—concerns that have many of them turning to other industries to fill these needs. As owners, we can’t continue to ignore them. We can’t pretend everything will return to normal again. We need to reexamine and think about actionable solutions—tax credits, specialized grants, childcare incentives, etc.—that will create stability and safety in the restaurant and food industry. We need to work more closely with our governing bodies, community organizations, and local chambers to help connect us and our workers to more resources. If the pandemic has taught us anything over the past three years, it is clear that no one restaurant can solve this problem on their own.
Chef and proprietor, Les Trois Chevaux, New York
There has been a large shift in food media of late to focus mainly on restaurants and cuisine that are in the more casual sector—a shift that is both welcome and deserved. However, in doing so, we have forgotten the importance and innovation that comes with the fine-dining sector. It is important for fine dining to not only be encouraged to sustain and flourish, but also for new restaurateurs and chefs in this area to thrive, as many of these restaurants set the technical foundation for the next generation of cooks in our industry, regardless of the type of cuisine they will chose to pursue in the future. I have always believed that there is room for everyone in the restaurant industry, and I think it would be a healthy shift to recognize that once again.
Owner, Chao Krung and Tuk Tuk Thai, Los Angeles
“The restaurant industry is a community now, more than ever before. The past two years took such a toll on all of us, on our families, our businesses, and our communities. As awful as that was, it made us take extra care of each other, collaborate more, and lend a helping hand to each other when we need it most. As a family business, and as Thai-Americans, Chao Krung and Tuk Tuk have been doing this for years – it’s in our culture. We are proud to see that the hospitality industry in LA is so resilient and supportive of each other in times of need.”
Chef-owner, Baoburg, New York
A really positive change I have observed is a noticeable uptick in the level of appreciation offered by customers and business partners. The pandemic hit the hospitality industry like a tsunami, leaving a lot of damage. Many places closed for good. I think people realized the loss, and they appreciate the role and the value the small businesses play in their lives and serving local communities. Inflation, supply issues, and worker shortage remain the central problems of small businesses in the hospitality industry. Owners like myself need to face these challenges head on to ensure business continuity, while managing customers’ expectations—e.g. price sensitivity, sustainability, plant-based options, delivery quality and speed, etc.
Cofounder and owner, High Street Hospitality, Philadelphia
There’s no question that the pandemic has spurred change in the industry, and despite the tumultuous circumstances, I have seen some really positive changes—more collaboration, more sharing between ownership, more people talking about the importance of culture and human capital, our most important asset. More and more restaurants are thinking about how to ensure all their employees are guaranteed living wages, health insurance, mental health, paid time off, etc. Also more attention is paid toward women and BIPOC by the media and other companies in the food space that have the ability to support. Staffing and hiring is a problem facing nearly all industries—hospitality in particular. That said, I think it’s important to invest in your staff to make them feel valued and have a clear path for opportunities and growth. Meeting with every employee to figure out their path and how we can help them achieve their dreams and personal goals is a start. We’ve always offered 401K plans and health insurance since the 1990s, but we have always had a low percentage of participants. S we are looking at innovative ways to ensure that everyone can access healthcare via combining some new models of primary and catastrophic care. Also elevating benefits by incorporating more education opportunities, trainings, and “field trips.” I think investing in your people inspires them to be more invested in your business, and it creates a tighter bond and camaraderie among staff.
General manager, RedFarm, New York
I think the most important focus for the hospitality industry this year is empathy. The industry is just starting to rebound from the pandemic and with demand for service higher than ever, the team is under strenuous pressure to perform and keep up. As a manager, not only are we responsible for customers’ satisfaction, we must also make sure our team is happy and has a positive overall being. They are the face of the restaurant, and if they are not happy, our customers will also not be happy. We have to build in extra flexibility and policies to ensure that while the customers’ needs are being met, the staff’s needs are also met—whether it is from work-life balance perspective, or creating a sense of belonging and security at work. RedFarm is a demanding operation, but I build in as much flexibility as possible and ensure that staff’s personal schedules are taken into consideration. I don’t consider myself a supervisor but rather a friend—someone they can talk to, vent, and be themselves. I also remind everyone constantly that although we are a small team, we are a mighty one. Every customer walking out the door with a smile on their face is not an individual’s win—it is the team’s win!
Founder and owner, Tea Drunk
There’s an overall increase of both appreciation and earnings for people in hospitality. I think the pandemic has made people realize what an important role hospitality professionals play in contributing to the overall happiness and satisfaction of society. I really think efficiency is the main issue that is still yet to be solved for the industry. Many establishments still face staffing shortage, even at increased wages. Hospitality is a huge element of a good-spirited society, but it remains largely a low-margin industry. Most independent operators still struggle to achieve the financial success that matches with the hard work they put in. To increase margin with the rising costs, hospitality will need to come at a higher price. At the same time, prices to consumers cannot continue to increase at the current rate. So the sustainability of the industry doesn’t rely on a better business model. I think it needs a revolutionary business model that can systematically and fundamentally decrease costs—and therefore risks—with much improved efficiency. We have seen delivery apps that helped one chunk of the issue, automated cooking machines solving another, and self-ordering kiosks tacking on yet one more. But that’s still not enough. From bringing customers to the door, to seating, ordering, payment, and post-sales engagement, the whole value chain can be improved. Every time a customer wants one more drink but the waiter is too busy is an issue of inefficiency, and that is at the cost of the operator. How to fix issues like this without compromising the “hospitality” in the hospitality industry would be what I look forward to seeing this year.
Assistant general manager, Gramercy Tavern, New York
I would love for the hospitality industry to take care of themselves. I think much of the industry is coming from a time where you never call out sick even with a 103-degree fever, broken bones, and from working three weeks straight and 16-hour days, just to prove a point. Or when mentally, it is just not clicking. We cannot fully take care of each other if we aren’t taking care of ourselves. Similarly to when you are on an airplane, you should put on your oxygen mask before helping others with their oxygen mask. That means we need to put in the work to ensure that we are putting ourselves first to be the best versions of ourselves.
Co-chef and partner, Yangban Society, Los Angeles
I’ve been grateful to witness a movement to encourage and support both quality of life, as well as mental health. I am very proud of the fact that all members of our hourly staff are part of the tip pool at Yangban. Full-time employees are also provided with amazing benefits. I came up in an era of line cooking where you weren’t always compensated for your time and were often not provided with health insurance. I think it’s so important that the hospitality industry do everything possible to modernize and reevaluate some of the older systems. It has been a pleasure to watch the evolution of restaurants and their care for their staff. I also think that the pandemic acted as a reset button for guests in some ways. I hope that the pandemic and the losses of some great institutions helped bring awareness to the fragility of restaurants, and that people continue to acknowledge that dining out is a privilege and not a right. Guests need to continue to grow with us and be willing to pay appropriate prices for food in restaurants, tip the staff accordingly, and not treat restaurant workers as their personal servants. I love how during the pandemic I witnessed a lot of guests showing empathy and trying their best to be true supporters of restaurants, and not just diners. I was able to see people come together and place an importance on eating locally and in their neighborhoods.
Chef de cuisine, The Modern, New York
When The Modern reopened in July, we started with five cooks, and now we are at 45 cooks and growing! With rapid growth, we are constantly teaching and learning from each other. This past year has really shown how resilient and flexible our team has been with the challenge of reopening and navigating the continuing pandemic. I am continually impressed by how we support each other to find success each day. On an industry level, I have witnessed a heavier emphasis on work/life balance as well as prioritizing mental and physical well-being, which is a very refreshing change.
Sous chef, Le Fantastique, San Francisco
This past year, COVID-19 put a spotlight on the hospitality industry creating more appreciation and respect towards industry workers. The amount of support from both the public and our peers has been incredible. While the industry has always been close-knit, there is a new level of camaraderie, and I’m optimistic about what the future holds. I think the pandemic caused many of us to realize the importance of taking care of our overall health. The industry can be a very physically and mentally demanding job, and we often put others before ourselves. Having this extra time to reflect has motivated many people in the industry to strive for a better quality of life. I’ve already noticed a significant change, but it’s important that we keep pushing for that—both workers and employers.
Director of operations, Royce LLC, Atlantic City
The biggest change I have seen is that a lot of women in this demanding business made bold changes in work and home life. Many women were given career advancement opportunities that came from the dramatic labor shortage the last two years. I’ve seen those women prove themselves impressively in roles that were previously out of reach. For other women, I’ve seen them make clear choices to achieve a better work-life balance, even if it meant working less and making less money. As for what I think is important to focus on this coming year, it’s recharging customer service. There has been a sharp dip in all customer service the last two years because of labor shortages. Plus, many hospitality professionals have been out of work for so long that it will take extra motivation to leave home every day and be enthusiastic about hospitality again. More than ever, the industry needs to focus on making work fun! We have to get creative with individual and team-oriented reward systems, recognition, and other motivators to get people excited again about giving great service and improving their skills.
Sandy Nguyen & Cassie Ghaffar
Founders, Ordinary Concepts Hospitality Group, Houston
As female restauranteurs, what we have seen is more and more females succeeding in this industry as owners, chefs, and upper management. We have gained a new core of girlfriends in this last year that are in this industry together. We have, more than ever, supported each other both personally and in business. We experience the same highs and lows. That is an incredible shift we have witnessed. When it comes to Asian support, we have friends within this industry who have created a Facebook forum page to help hurting businesses during the pandemic. Now it’s a go-to experience and review page to use when just looking for some good food. It is called Chow Down in Chinatown-Houston. They created this page with a strong controlled stance to remain positive for businesses and not bash them like on other platforms like Yelp. Not only do they allow others to openly posts new restaurants, dishes, and experiences, they put forth the effort to highlight all of us together. Over the last year, their following and initiatives has drastically changed the Asian food scene in Houston.
Chef de cuisine, Caravan Swim Club, Los Angeles
The pandemic definitely created a lot of hurdles for the hospitality industry, from shortages of goods to increased prices, lack of delivery services, and staffing issues. Even after coming out of lockdown, demand continues to rise, and we struggle to keep up. The pre-pandemic way of doing things no longer exists. We need to figure out how to rebuild and grow more efficiently. The most important change that the hospitality industry should focus on this year is creating work-life balance for their employees. The best service does not come from overworked staff. We need to overcome the challenges of the pandemic by creating a healthy work environment in order to give guests service that is sincere. It is important that guests feel true warmth and hospitality from employees who are happy at their job. And it is important for us to recognize true talents being utilized.
Cofounder, Madame Vo, New York
I think there’s more sense of community now. The initial shutdown was when I really got a chance to get to know my neighboring businesses. We often checked on each other during the last two years to offer advice or help in any way. I also noticed that customers are more appreciative and aware when they dine. They understand the work and people it takes to serve them. I had a customer call before making a delivery order to ask which is the best platform to order from. Before, people mostly cared about the food and service, and now they are more understanding and considerate. For us, on a granular level, it’s always been about giving the best service, food, and creating a great work environment. It’s what we’ll always strive to do for ourselves and our customers. I think that on a more macro level, the ideas of creating safe and fair working environments need to become a larger part of the conversation on what makes good hospitality to a guest—and ultimately what makes hospitality a more sustainable industry for its workers.
Top photo: Ellia Park of New York’s Atoboy and Atomix. Photo: Kate Previte.