Special Sauce: NYT Restaurant Critic Pete Wells on the State of the Industry [1/2]

What does a restaurant critic do when there are no restaurants to review? The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Soleil Ho has shifted to primarily covering how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the restaurant industry in the Bay Area, while also writing profiles of people like the Indonesian artist known as Nao, who publishes drawings of toast that, according to Soleil, “have garnered her a legion of followers who swoon at the accuracy of her char marks, the glorious shimmer of her half-melted butter and the detailed brush strokes in her crusts.”

And this week’s Special Sauce guest, Pete Wells of the New York Times has similarly broadened the scope of his work. He recently wrote a terrific piece with Jennifer Steinhauer about the ripple effects of restaurant closures, particularly in areas where restaurant booms have helped sustain local economies. The story really struck a chord with me, so I decided to ring Pete up and find out more about what he’s been up to for the last two months.

Our thought-provoking, far-reaching conversation covered so many bases that we’ve split it into two episodes. The first one covers how the restaurant industry has shifted, and how those changes have affected cities throughout the U.S.; in part two, which we’ll publish next week, you’ll hear more about how his job and life as a whole has changed.

And, again, if you care about the fate of restaurants as much as Pete and I do, please go to saverestaurants.com to find out what you can do. Or donate what you can to Jose Andres’s organization, World Central Kitchen. Through its Chefs for America initiative, it has served over seven million meals to people in need during the pandemic and has activated many restaurant kitchens in the process.


Ed Levine: What does a restaurant critic do in a pandemic when there are no restaurants to review? The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Soleil Ho has shifted to primarily covering how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the restaurant industry in the Bay Area, while also writing profiles of people like the Indonesian artist known as Nao, who publishes drawings of toast that, according to Soleil, “have garnered her a legion of followers who swoon at the accuracy of her char marks, the glorious shimmer of her half melted butter and the detailed brush strokes in her crusts.” And this week, Special Sauce guest, Pete Wells of the New York Times has been dusting off his feature writing chops. I read a terrific piece he and the fine Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer, wrote titled “As Restaurants Remain Shuttered, American cities, Fear of the Future”. The subhead reads, “restaurants have become the economic lifeblood for many cities, the coronavirus threatens to take away more than just terrific food.” The story really struck a chord with me so I decided to ring Pete up and find out more about what he’s been up to in the last two months.

EL: So, how are you?

Pete Wells: Oh, great. Oh great. I’m great. I was comparing it to, you know that you’re underwater, but it’s all, there’s nothing you can do about it.

EL: Yeah, it’s true. It’s true. First of all, just identify yourself.

PW: I am Pete Wells, a restaurant critic of the New York Times, I think.

EL: Last time you looked back when there were restaurants.

PW: Yeah, exactly.

EL: Let’s start with when you first sensed that your job was going to become radically different.

PW: Well, I don’t exactly remember, but it was about a week before. It was about a week before New York City shut down. What precipitated the realization in my head was when South by Southwest shut down or canceled. And some food people I follow on Twitter immediately started talking about how badly hurt the Austin restaurants were going to be, which is true because they sort of make enough during South by Southwest to survive any downturns in the rest of the year. It’s not that they make all their money, but it’s a very nice insurance policy for a lot of them to get them through the year. And without it, they are probably in the red. And my first thought was I’d been seeing these articles for a couple of weeks about how Chinatowns in different cities were empty. People were avoiding Chinatown. People were avoiding Chinese restaurants. And I started seeing some articles saying, “Go to Chinatown, eat in Chinatown. It’s your duty.” And then I started to see this in Austin and I thought, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. I understand the impulse to support restaurants, but maybe we should all take a step back here and ask ourselves if we should be in any restaurants at all, whether Chinese or Austin or whatever. Is a restaurant a safe place to be right now? Is it from a public health standpoint?” And this was all about, as I said, about a week before New York City shut down. And the more I thought about it, I started to realize that my job was rapidly shifting. And it wasn’t going to be about just telling people where to go. It was going to be about telling them whether to go or maybe just getting out of the way while somebody else told us whether we could go to restaurants.

EL: Yeah. You’ve sort of had the same restaurant going rhythm for a long time right? Now all of a sudden you’re not eating, whether it’s 10 restaurant meals out a week. Did you immediately sort of huddle with your editor and go, “Okay, so what are we going to do?” Or did you sort of have this idea that you’re going to sort of go back into reporter mode?

PW: That pretty quickly seemed to me like the only option. We did discuss it. I did talk it over with my editors and they were saying, “Well, maybe you should write something about, what’s the role of the restaurant critic when there are no restaurants?” And I just didn’t know how to write that piece. I’m not sure what it would say. And I asked them if I could instead just do some reported pieces for a while, while we figured it out, because there were so many things going on with the restaurants all at the same time. And really, it seemed to me like an all hands on deck situation where we just needed a lot of reporting, and a lot of writers covering it. And it still does, although the pace of news has slowed down a little bit.

EL: Yeah, for sure. And did you immediately think that the very definition of the restaurants that we love, you know small, independent restaurants, were going to be at outsized risk? Or did that only come when the IRC started issuing press releases and having press conferences and the like?

PW: I mean I don’t think I made the distinction between independent restaurants and chains or what have you. And it doesn’t go without saying that all the chains are going to be okay. They have very different considerations. But one of the considerations that a lot of them have is they’re highly leveraged. Some of them are walking around with a bunch of debt and now their revenue goes to zero. So it’s not a good position to be in. Your average independent restaurant has zero assets and zero debt and zero revenue so it’s slightly different situation. But as the aid packages started coming along and especially the famous payroll protection plan, the PPP, and one of the very first things that happened with that was that a bunch of chains got these really big loans. Shake Shack got 10 million, which they’ve given back, and Ruth’s Chris got 20 million, which they said they’re giving back.

PW: And then it started to look like the independent restaurants, maybe were at a disadvantage just by being the little guys and by being not part of any real interest group. The independent restaurants in this country are so incredibly diverse and such a strange group of everything from your corner Chinese takeout place to the Alineas and French Laundrys of the world and everything in between. They don’t normally have even many common interests. What they might want out of Congress or out of a city government might be completely different. So there’s no trade association that really represents all of their various interests. I’m not even sure, the Independent Restaurant Coalition can do that. Although there they are making the effort and trying to wrap their heads around it.

EL: Yeah, they’re trying. For sure. And I think, if you would have asked independent restaurant owners before all this happened, if the NRA did anything for them, I don’t think they would say that they did.

PW: I think there are certain things they do, but when it comes to kind of lobbying Congress, then you get to these situations where what McDonald’s wants is not necessarily what the 25 seat restaurant in your neighborhood wants. It’s going to be the corporations that have more money. That is just, I say that as if, well, duh of course whoever has more money gets what they want in our society, but is the reality for better or for worse.

EL: Yeah. And it’s also a reality, I suppose, that restaurants, even before the pandemic, were… a lot of them were on pretty shaky ground. And it’s very hard for a restaurant, even a packed successful restaurant, to have an operating margin bigger than seven or 8%.

PW: Yeah. Yeah so they say. I don’t really go over their bookkeeping, but that is what they say. And especially in New York, they talk about how the margins have just shrunk sort of year by year to a point now where even a really successful restaurant make, I don’t know what? 2%, 3%, 4%, and it’s not, it was never a great business. And now it’s barely a business at all.

EL: Right. And so that’s what’s weird. And, Gabrielle Hamilton wrote about that very poignantly, I thought in the Times. The arc of, well, we used to be open for dinners six days a week. Then we were open for dinner seven days a week and brunch twice a week.

PW: Right. And what went from being a little extra revenue when they first started, starting brunch. Wow. Look at all this extra money we’re making on Saturday and Sunday. That quickly went from being extra to being absolutely necessary. If you didn’t have that, the restaurant was no longer making good money.

EL: Right. Right. And to eventually, it’s not even enough. And maybe that a lot of that is because of the size of the restaurant. I don’t know.

PW: I don’t even know. I don’t even know what, I don’t know what to do about that. I don’t know. It’s obviously not my job to fix it, but as a curious outside observer, I find it really interesting and they do need to fix it one way or another. You want people to be motivated to open restaurants. I know I do. I know you do. We want people to feel like there’s some upside to this business so they’ll keep creating these environments that we love so much.

EL: Yeah. And it’s funny because every or many fine dining chefs, especially in the last 20 years, everyone’s, they see the gold in the fast casual hills. And so they think it’s really easy to open a fast casual concept that’s going to quickly catch on and become the next Shake Shack. And it turns out to be much more difficult than they think. And even big restaurants have, they have much larger overhead. And, when I ran a jazz club, it was like, oh, you’re so crowded on Friday and Saturday. It’s like, you don’t make your money in a restaurant or in a jazz club on Fridays and Saturdays. You make your money on Mondays and Tuesdays and Wednesdays. You know, and so that’s the thing I think people don’t understand as well as this thing that, “Oh, you must be rich. You have a crowded restaurant.” You know what I mean? What do you think of the coverage in general in terms of how the media is covering the situation for the restaurants and the food culture?

PW: I think that a lot of media organizations have really, what’s the right metaphor? They really stepped up to the plate. I’ve seen coverage that’s a very thoughtful, creative, trying to tell the stories that have to be told. The obvious stories, as well as the stories that might get overlooked. There’ve been great pieces coming out of the LA Times, great pieces coming out of Eater around the country. In a way, it’s inspiring because it’s our era. If you’re a journalist and you’re interested in restaurants, how can you not just be overwhelmed by how much there is to do right now?

EL: Yeah. For sure. What I find, and I don’t know if you find this, is that it’s hard to avoid telling the same story over and over.

PW: It certainly is.

EL: And that’s what I’ve been wrestling with even on these episodes of Special Sauce is, “It’s like, oh, that’s the same story I told last week.”

PW: Yeah, well, yeah. I’ve had a lot of conversations with restaurant owners and it sounds like you have too, and there’s no short conversations these days.

EL: It’s true.

PW: But what’s been helpful is every once in a while to try to step back and say, “Okay, all these restaurant owner, in fact business owners, across the country, they all kind of have the same story right now.” Some are maybe doing takeout and delivery and others are not, but essentially it’s the same thing and they’re waiting to see what comes next. But if we start to look around them, there are stories to be told about their employees that are different. There are stories to be told about the people who work with restaurants, the farmers and the suppliers, the bakers, and everybody else whose businesses are supported by restaurants. And then the piece that you’re talking about was actually Jennifer Steinhauer’s idea, she’s in the DC Bureau of the Times.

PW: And she said, “A lot of these cities that didn’t use to have a restaurant scene and then got one within the past 10 years or so, they’re kind of in trouble too. They’re in a different situation, from like a New York or a Los Angeles or a San Francisco, where New York will lose some restaurants and New York will still be New York.” And I would say that about San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, but there are smaller cities like Providence, Rhode Island is one that we wrote about where if a couple of key restaurants go out in Providence and don’t come back, it really damages that city’s reputation as a fun place to visit, a good place to stay for a weekend, an interesting food scene. There are a lot of things at stake that go beyond the problems of individual restaurant owners.

EL: For sure. Providence and St. Louis are good examples. Providence and I know you grew up in Rhode Island, right?

PW: I did. Outside of Providence when there were not a lot of places to eat.

EL: There aren’t a lot of places to eat and there really wasn’t one tourist attraction that was a magnet.

PW: Yeah, well there was the termite.

EL: There was the what?

PW: The termite. There was this big blue termite that you could see on the side of I-95. Nibbles Muchwood, and so he was a tourist attraction, but you didn’t have to get out of your car. In fact, you didn’t get out of your car to see Nibbles. You just blew by him. But now, yeah, it’s kind of amazing if you knew Providence in its earlier days, it’s sort of amazing that people come down from Boston to eat in Providence. People come up from New York and spend the weekend there. And one of the chefs I talked to there said, “People used to in the summer, they would stay down at the beach, go to Newport, or one of the other beach towns and maybe come up to Providence on a day trip, and now that’s flipped where they’ll stay in Providence and then go to Newport for a day at the beach.”

EL: Right. And it’s true. You mentioned St. Louis, but you could go down the line. There are so many sort of midsize cities with really vibrant restaurant scenes. And as you pointed out in your piece that you wrote with Jennifer. Like St. Louis, neighborhoods and cities were literally remade as a result of, in part, at least as a result of the restaurants. And people forget that even in New York, when Danny Meyer opened the Union Square Cafe, what was that? I don’t know, 30 years ago, or probably more, I don’t know. Everyone said he was crazy. Oh, there are no good restaurants there.

PW: Oh, that neighborhood was very different then. Yeah, and that was a kind of an early example of sort of the moment when cities started to turn around their fortunes. Where for a decade, two decades, sometimes three decades, and sometimes more, they’d been losing population to the suburbs. People fleeing the cities for the suburbs. The cities are over, the cities are dead. Downtowns are collapsing. And restaurants are one of the main things that brought people back. If you have, because people from the suburbs started coming in for the night and they would see the restaurant and the lights on the street and people walking up and down the street, they think, this is not as horrible as it used to be when we left. And they would start moving back into New York. And then, there’s obviously cities all across the country that I have not had that experience yet. And may never, but there are a lot that where it’s still happening or it’s happening very, very recently.

EL: Sure. Think about Minneapolis, Detroit, Indianapolis are three Midwestern cities that come to mind where it’s like…

PW: Right, right. We’re talking about them and we know what those restaurants are. It’s an even bigger deal if you live there or around there. And it makes the cities seem much more attractive for settling down or for living for a couple of years than it used to be. Somebody who had an interest in kind of an urban lifestyle 15, 20 years ago, was not very likely to look at the Indianapolis. That they could be, well, I’ll just go to Chicago. Now, Indianapolis can kind of compete for somebody who wants to live in a city and have a city lifestyle where you walk to your restaurant and you walk to your cafe, you walk to the local bar.

EL: Right. And that’s a radical change that restaurants have played a central role in. And I guess that was what you discovered in your reporting.

PW: Yes. Right. And it just works for these cities in so many ways. There, it helps persuade people to settle down there. It builds their tax base. Not every city makes most of its budget off of sales tax, but a lot of them do and restaurants are beautiful for that. You have these very small businesses often, not a huge number of employees, not a huge footprint. It’s not like the factory that the mayor of a small town was trying to bring the town 50 years ago when we still had factories. You don’t have that concentration of one business and everybody knows, you work at Levine Industries. Or you supply Levine Industries. They don’t have that scale. But cumulatively they’re really important.

EL: I agree. And that’s what I get saddest about. And that’s why I think the story that you wrote with Jennifer really resonated, was I started thinking about all the cities that you didn’t mention and how important restaurants are to those cities. Not just to their development, as tourist attractions, but just it’s restaurant culture is an important part of the overall cultural fabric of a place, you know…

PW: Yeah. Right, right, right. Right. You think about if you’ve ever read that Jane Jacobs, is it the death and life of great American cities or the life and death? I think it’s death and life, whatever it is. You know, one of the things that she talks about that now everybody who’s interested in cities repeats endlessly is the importance of having eyes on the street. These street level businesses where there’s somebody in the storefront at night looking out, to make sure that the cars aren’t getting broken into and the old ladies aren’t having their handbags snatched away from them. And restaurants do that. The restaurants do that really well. They’re often the eyes on the neighborhood or the eyes on the streets. The manager keeping an eye on who’s coming and going up and down the block. They fill all kinds of roles in a neighborhood.

EL: Yeah, for sure. I never really thought of that, Jane Jacobs saying, but you’re right. It’s like restaurants are sort of organically derived neighborhood watches.

PW: Yeah. Right. And if it’s a good restaurant, a successful restaurant, people are coming and going all night long, which is also good.

EL: I know it’s impossible to say what’s going to happen. What are your biggest fears? And are there things that give you hope?

PW: Well, I do have some. I’m fearful for a lot of these restaurants that we’re talking about because none of the federal government emergency aid seems to be tailored for them, seems to meet their needs, seems to have taken their needs into account. There, I think it’s much easier for restaurants as a group to be heard at the local level. They can yeah, even the New York City Council is very aware of their issues. And the city council has a lot of stuff to worry about, but city council is also listening. And I think even at the state level, the needs of restaurants are being considered and they’re being, restaurant owners are being invited in because the states and the city governments need their input to come up with reopening plans. The reopening plans have to be grounded in reality so they’re bringing them restaurant owners saying, “Can you do this? Can you do that?” There’s definitely more, they’ve got a little more pull that the city and the state level, but the federal government has the money.

EL: Yeah. Right. And the federal, even as the federal government, they’re hesitating to give money to the states and the cities so they can keep their firemen on the payroll. You’re right. You’re a 100% right. It’s not like the city and state governments don’t know about the restaurant’s important, but they have so many fish to fry, no pun intended.

PW: Yes, right. Right, right, right. What I worry about is the problems that restaurants have the day of the closure, which the clock does not stop on rent. A lot of them have gotten deferrals, but they’re going to have to pay it when they reopen again. There are loans available. But again, they’re going to have to pay that back when they reopen. So they have opportunities to create new debt, well, isn’t that great? We all have opportunities to create new debt and the trick is to not use those opportunities unless you really, really need them and you can pay them back. And I think we’ve all had the experience of borrowing money and then later wishing like, “Oh God, why did I take out this loan?”

EL: Right. And the loans that are forgivable have to be paid. First of all, there’s a formula for what you can spend them on. And they’re only forgivable if you open in two months or if you do something that you can’t possibly do. And the term was supposed to be 10 years, then they knocked it down to two years.

PW: Right. Right. If you don’t get it forgiven, you have to pay it back in two years, which is going to be really difficult. There are all kinds of problems with the way the loans have been. They’re just not useful for a lot of restaurants. Although some restaurateurs I’ve talked to are taking them as a grant. Or I’m sorry, they’re taking it as a loan and they’re going to deal with the short repayment term, but they’re not thrilled about it, but they’re taking it. And a lot of others are just afraid to take it because the terms are so punishing to them.

EL: Right. In fact, some of them have talked about giving the money back.

PW: Yes, right. Right. They got the loan and then they looked at it really closely and said, “I can’t do this.”

EL: Our thought provoking, far reaching conversation covered so many bases that we have split it into two episodes. If you listened, you notice that the first one covered how Pete’s job has changed. Next week, you’ll hear more about how his life as a whole has changed. And again, if you care about the fate of restaurants, as much as Pete and I do, please go to saverestaurants.com to find out what you can do. Or donate what you can to Jose Andres’ organization, World Central Kitchen through his Chefs for America initiative at wck.org Chefs for America. During the pandemic, it has served over seven million meals to people in need and activated many restaurant kitchens in the process.