Social issues that should have nothing to do with dining, from a new drug epidemic to a political pause, nevertheless stung the restaurant industry big time this week. But there was some good news, including a crafty way to start collecting revenues before a place even opens.
Read on for the bad and the good.
1. Rising drug problem hits restaurants
As if Chipotle didn’t have enough challenges, the drug underworld dealt it another one this week. A branch near Philadelphia was raided after undercover cops bought marijuana in bulk from employees over a monthlong investigation. Three staff members, all in their early 20s, were arrested as diners were shooed outside to finish their burritos and bowls.
One of the more dramatic images included in the outpouring of news coverage was a toilet whose tank had been stuffed with drug paraphernalia.
At no time was it suggested management had any awareness of the illegal activities; the sales were completed in the parking lot. Nor was the problem tied solely to Chipotle.
An employee of a nearby McDonald’s—a McDonald’s!—was arrested for selling crack, as was a member of the staff of a local independent.
And that’s just the tip of the problem. Elsewhere, the worsening opioid epidemic has splashed into restaurants, whose public restrooms have become popular places to shoot up or snort. Meanwhile, reports are rising of restaurant employees themselves becoming victims of what authorities agree is a national epidemic.
2. Overtime-pay limbo brings lawsuits
The restaurant industry hasn’t complained about being in limbo since a court halted enforcement of new overtime-pay rules put forward by the Obama administration. The update in regulations would have cost the industry untold millions in additional labor costs, since the threshold entitling salaried employees to time-and-a-half overtime pay was literally doubled.
The problem, as events this week underscored, is that the rules are still on the books. That’s led managerial employees earning less than the new threshold of $47,476 annually to sue their restaurant employers for overtime pay despite the court-ordered hold. In effect, they’ve turned the situation into a civil matter to be litigated, rather than a criminal one.
Six employees of Farmers Restaurant Group, the agricultural co-op that runs several Founding Farmers restaurants in the greater Washington, D.C., area, filed an overtime suit on Tuesday. They alleged in part that they were dispatched to work at several of the restaurants for more than 40 hours in total, but were denied overtime pay because the threshold wasn’t hit at any one unit.
Almost simultaneously, Chipotle was hit with a lawsuit by low-level managerial employees in New Jersey. Their complaint was more straightforward: Only enforcement of the new overtime rules by the Department of Justice was halted by court action, not the applicability of the laws. So they’re demanding overtime pay, noting their salaries fall below the new exemption threshold of $47,476.
The unanswered question is what if anything the Trump administration will do about the overtime rules that were set forth by its predecessor. The new president’s team has been steadily reversing new obligations on businesses, from the start of menu labeling to a reinterpretation of the "joint employer" standard.
3. Are plastic straws the next restaurant target?
Among the nation’s nurseries for restaurant restrictions that ultimately find wider adoption is Berkeley, Calif. The city was the incubator for such movements as taxing soft drinks to discourage consumption, which has now spread to a number of cities.
Now the infamously liberal municipality is taking up a new cause affecting restaurants: Plastic straws. It hasn’t banned the restaurant staples outright, but city officials decided this week to speak with local foodservice operations and other stakeholders to assess the feasibility. Among the alternatives they intend to investigate is a voluntary switchover to paper and reusable straws.
Plastic-straw opponents say the simple conveniences often end up as litter or threats to wildlife, and clog the landfills in any case. They estimated that Americans use 500 million of the nondegradable, single-use straws every day.
4. The ghost restaurant as sales starter
Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Chicago’s well-known multiconcept operator, hasn’t revealed what concept will be rolled next into Intro, a perpetual popup whose theme and design are redone as regularly as many places revise their menus. But in the meantime, it’s already turning the space into a moneymaker by riding the so-called ghost restaurant movement. The kitchen will be used for delivery and takeout-only meals sold under the brand name Lucky Dumpling.
The place will not be a true ghost restaurant in that customers can enter the space, but it fits the mold of selling everything for off-premise consumption, eliminating the need for a finished dining room.
The move follows the demise of ghost restaurant pioneers Maple and Sprig. LEYE is no stranger to the phenomenon, having opened Seaside's as an off-premise-only complement to its Oyster Bah restaurant.
5. Resolving the kitchen-labor shortage
The U.S. restaurant industry is hailed as a global leader of the trade, but it’s still nice to get some validation from other parts of the world. That’s why an almost unnoticed tidbit of news from Ireland was particularly head-spinning.
It seems the United States is not the only market with problems in finding kitchen help. Ireland’s shortage of chefs is so severe that many restaurants on the tourism-dependent island are closing on Mondays and Tuesdays, reports the Restaurants Association of Ireland.
One solution that has worked: a national apprenticeship program, the group says. The indication will likely be warmly received on this side of the Atlantic; the National Restaurant Association announced last month during its annual convention that an apprenticeship program for restaurants is being developed in concert with the U.S. Department of Labor and the American Hotel & Lodging Association.
Despite the RAI’s praise for a national apprenticeship program, the group says more needs to be done. It’s calling on the government to create a network of kitchen training facilities, similar to the ones that have been developed to mold agricultural and fishing employees.