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The Macro Dining Room Edition
The high-stakes gamble of running a large restaurant post-pandemic
Sharing news of iconic restaurant closures has, like so many things, become one of the sad realities of pandemic-era life. When I learned on Sunday night that New York’s luxury Italian restaurant Del Posto was closing for good, and will reopen under new ownership after being split into two new restaurants and a cocktail bar, I sent the article to a friend. His response after reading: “Smart to split it into three spaces. It was way too big.”
I’d never personally eaten in Del Posto’s 24,000 square foot dining room, but I do have some professional experience working in restaurants with cavernous dining spaces. And in receiving that reply, I questioned whether this closure is part of a bigger trend we will soon see play out across hospitality.
Del Posto is not the only restaurant to shut because of the pandemic, and its ceasing operations is surely tied to more factors than its dimensions. But there are so many unseen implications of running an operation of that scale that simply don’t feel like they align with post- or late-Covid life.
My own experience working in a behemoth of a restaurant was a 15-month stint beginning in 2013 during which I helped launch the Grain Store in London’s then-recently-revamped Kings Cross neighborhood. As I recall, my employers were lured to the cavernous space inside the former grain factory with the allure of rent incentives and the promise that “Jamie Oliver is launching his own spot just down the road.”
The restaurant’s owners were no doubt also smitten with the potential of raking in huge profits because of the space’s sheer size — enough to fit around 100 tables and handle 400 covers on a busy evening or brunch service. As many reading may know, the only way to make any real money in the restaurant biz is by increasing scale, whether through multiple locations or operating a dining room that can accommodate hundreds of diners on a good night. We went with the latter.
My time at the Grain Store was equal parts enlightening, enjoyable, and grueling. When I came out of it, I knew I never wanted to work in that kind of operation again. And despite the quality of the food, of which I am proud to this day, I wouldn’t rush back to dine there had it not also shut up shop in 2017.
Managing a kitchen that big is a 24-hour operation; prep chefs work round the clock to make sure laborious, time-consuming base ingredients like veal stock are always in healthy supply. Other more specialized prep jobs require skilled labor, which has long been an issue in the restaurant industry but in our current moment has reached a crisis point.
Then there’s the question of how much food to prep. In the world of multi-course fine dining tasting menus, restaurants have a pretty clear idea of how many guests will step through their doors on a given night. But when your dining room can turn over 400 hungry guests during the course of an evening, what’s on the books never truly represents how the night will pan out.
When the weather’s good, diners turn up unannounced knowing they’re almost guaranteed a table given how big your space is. If the weather turns bad — and I’ve never truly understood this given that dining rooms are, by their nature, indoors — expect a slew of no-shows. The financial implications of an unexpectedly slow weekend can mean ingredients prepped for the a la carte menu are later repurposed into family meals. There are no profit margins there.
For diners, too, the busy nights and the slow ones provide their own unique challenges. When our dining room hit breaking point on a buzzing Friday eve, it became a ping pong match between the customer noise and the ever-increasing volume of the restaurant music. We could accommodate your party of 10, but good luck conversing with anyone other than the people on either side of you. At the other extreme, you could be the first lonely two-top to arrive at 6:30 pm, your awkward first date serenaded by an open kitchen full of rowdy chefs hopped up on Red Bull and adrenaline, and lacking any sense of social decorum.
Colin Nagy of “Why Is This Interesting” recently described just how jarring the former of those two assaults on the senses might prove to us in the post-Covid world:
We’re at an inflection point with our relationship to noise in public places. During COVID, we’ve been mostly removed from the hustle and bustle of the world, mixing in limited groups, likely eating outside where the ventilation is plentiful, and not indoors. As we collectively re-emerge into public spaces, we may find our mental calluses have diminished and full-on sensory overload could be on the horizon.
But more important, I think, are the economic and labor implications at play. Kitchen harmony and overall chef satisfaction rely on a large brigade, ensuring line cooks won’t be forced to work 10 15-hour shifts in a row. At a time when skilled kitchen labor is in such demand, chefs simply won’t join your team if you can’t guarantee that.
The thin margins that keep any dining room afloat always present restauranteurs with something of a gamble. The bigger the restaurant, the bigger the gamble. Years from now, food and drinks writers will pen lengthy examinations of the pandemic era and how it influenced what came next, and they may very well list sprawling dining rooms as one of this era’s multiple casualties. For now, running this kind of business simply feels — and I say this regrettably — like a losing bet. —TM
The 150-Word Endorsement
There are few aromas more evocative of the Mediterranean than bergamot, and possibly nothing on the bar cart more evocative of bergamot than Italicus. Made on the outskirts of Turin from botanicals sourced from the entire length of the Italian peninsula, this ‘Rosolio di Bergamotto’ puts off beautiful aromas of citrusy bergamot, florals, and soft bitter botanicals, while clocking in at a tame 20% ABV. You can sip this stuff as a neat aperitivo if you want (maybe give it a slight chill), but it really shines in a spritz or as the base of a low-ABV mixed drink. One part Italicus with two parts Prosecco over ice with a couple of olives makes for a tidy little spritz (and one that’s mercifully zero parts Aperol). Sub in tonic for the Prosecco, and you’ve got a citrusy, low-octane sipper ideal for all those warm afternoons that stretch into long summer evenings. —CD