Mark Bittman, a journalist and author who is perhaps most known for inspiring people to cook at home, is looking for backers for a new kind of restaurant.
It’s a concept that he argues has never been done before.
Bittman has spent decades writing for The New York Times and other publications about cooking and what he sees as a broken food system. He has written 30 books, including the “How to Cook Everything” series, and the most recent “Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal.” But the author in a recent column in The Guardian said he’s tired of waiting for the restaurant industry to change.
Now he wants to help instigate that change, or at least create a model for how it could be done.
The idea is to design a restaurant that will be called Community Kitchen, said Bittman, in an interview with Restaurant Business. This new concept will be built around four primary values:
1. It will offer healthful, delicious food.
2. That food will be sourced from farms that follow planet-friendly practices.
3. Workers will be paid fairly, up and down the food chain.
4. And prices will be accessible to all.
These are disruptive challenges that some in the industry have attempted to tackle, to some degree, but no one has done it all, Bittman contends. There are restaurants where workers are treated well, but the food may be junk, for example, or places that support regenerative farming but offer food that is unaffordable to most people.
Bittman wants to go all or nothing.
“I don’t want to nibble at the margins here,” said Bittman. “I want to tackle all four of these things at once … to show that it’s doable.”
And Bittman will be the first to argue that “doable” doesn’t necessarily mean “profitable.”
“My feeling is if you try to do everything right in food in a restaurant—and that means source from great farmers who are respecting the land and growing the right kind of food, pay workers fairly up and down the food chain,” he said, “cook terrific food that’s healthy and fresh and seasonal and culturally appropriate, and delicious and all that, and serve that on a sliding scale so that everyone can afford it—there’s just not room for profit in a situation like that.”
Some supporters, however, disagree on that point, saying there may actually be a way to build profit-making into this scenario, he said, though Bittman remains skeptical. The point, however, is not to prove that certain margins could be reached but rather that it can be done at all.
“The idea is that this is a demonstration model,” he said. “This is a proof of concept. This is a way of saying, yes, you can do everything right in a restaurant, you just have to figure out a different way to structure the financing.”
Bittman argues that financing structure could include some form of government subsidy or policy incentive, in the same way we see efforts to spark investment in alternative energies or electric cars.
It’s a matter of priorities, he argues. The U.S. government spends trillions on defense systems, for example, because we all agree there’s a desirable mutual need to defend our borders. It’s the same with spending on education (“sort of”) and transportation (“sort of”), he said. “Federal dollars are spent—sometimes more wisely than others—but those systems work.”
What is lacking in America is agreement that every individual has the right to nutritious food, said Bittman.
The current food system in this country supports the production of industrialized food for the masses that is largely to blame for a plague of diet-related disease that shortens lives. Those diseases have a greater impact on those on the lower end of the economic scale.
Bittman said he’s not a big believer in the food-is-medicine movement, which he calls a bit reductionist. “Food is food,” he said. “But real food makes people healthy and junk food makes people sick.”
Finding a way to give more people access to fresh, wholesome food can help solve a lot of problems, he said.
Others have made similar attempts at disruption, though some of those have failed.
Bittman, for example, tips his hat to chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, who in 2016 launched the concept Locol with the goal of bringing healthful, affordable food to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Locol closed in 2018, though Patterson is reportedly working to revive it as a nonprofit.
Bittman is also a fan of the nearly 50-unit Everytable, the Los Angeles-based chain with a social justice mission launched in 2016 by Sam Polk. Everytable offers fresh, affordable grab-and-go food (or for delivery) using a commissary system, with pricing that reflects the income levels of varying locations. The chain also has a unique Social Equity Franchising model designed to bring more women and people of color into restaurant ownership. Members of the first class to “graduate” from that program are expected to take ownership of units this year.
“Everytable is really great,” said Bittman. “But I think there are ways in which Community Kitchen is more ambitious and different.”
So he is looking for support, from philanthropists, investors, or maybe billionaires looking for an opportunity to do some good.
So far, he has raised $500,000 for the Community Kitchen project. Now he is ready to shift into a higher gear to start thinking more concretely about a location—probably in New York State, where he lives—hiring people and, fundamentally, raising more money to work out the details about how this might work. He hopes to raise $2 million before the end of 2023.
Bittman would like to start with two restaurants in locations that are different enough to offer learnings about where this idea would best work. At some point Bittman will need to find a restaurant operator to collaborate, he said. It’s too soon to say whether the concept could be multiplied.
Ideally Community Kitchen will be an open-sourced project, one that others could use as a playbook to do elsewhere, he said.
There are a lot of details yet to be worked out.
“You can’t know the end of the road before you start on it, but you can have a vision for starting on it and this is my vision,” he said.
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