There's hope ahead for chains

The future for the restaurant industry isn't all doom and gloom.
Restaurant Business
Peter Romeo

This month, we bring you an exclusive one-on-one interview with renowned pessimist Doom Gloom, CEO of the Hell in a Handbasket travel service.

Q: Doom, it’s a real bummer having you here, the first visit since you predicted Armageddon for restaurants in 2008. How’re things going?
Couldn’t be better, which means they couldn’t look worse. If things were any grimmer, we’d be talking plagues and mullets making a comeback. And I have the restaurant industry to thank for all that wonderful hand-wringing!

Q: Why those dark thoughts about a business that finally had a good quarter for a change? Sales and traffic were up for a lot of players in Q1, including the pack you’ve regarded as the surest bet to crush spirits since homework was invented: casual dining.
Don’t you read your own web posts? It’s labor, man, labor! My black heart was racing during the workforce session at your Restaurant Leadership Conference, where researcher TDn2k showed just how grim things are: Virtually every restaurant with a kitchen says it’s struggling to fill back-of-house posts. Half the people who’ve been coaxed into a restaurant job say they’re actively looking for another one. Two out of every three teenagers have zero interest in earning pocket money. And employers are already coming up short on filling 6 million vacancies.

I tear up when I think about the other signs of a tougher slog ahead. A chain restaurant was unionized. New York, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis have their scalpels drawn to eviscerate the tip credit. And it’s a toss-up as to which benefit will make wider inroads in the months ahead: paid sick leave or predictive scheduling.

Oh, one last thing: The unemployment rate just dipped below 4%.

Q: What about robotics and automation? Won’t those save restaurants?
Oh, that’s rich. Using half-million-dollar robots to do $45,000-a-year jobs? Sure, that’ll fly. We’re more likely to see flying cars reach a feasibility point.

Q: Certainly there have to be some reasons for optimism. Educate us.
You don’t have to get nasty and use the “E” word.

Q: Come again?
Education—did you have to go there? Didn’t you see what the government said last year about why teens and 20-somethings turn up their noses at restaurant jobs? Making $15 an hour isn’t worth their time. They’d rather work toward a six-figure career, ideally without running up a student debt sporting more zeroes than the GDP of Brazil. It’s education they want, be it a primer on holding a job, an introduction to working on a team or an advanced placement course on customer relations.

But what are restaurants going to do? Offer education? (Snort.)

Q: Like KFC’s new staff instruction program on personal economics? Or Arby’s half-day systemwide introduction to goal-setting?
Stop—what’s this weird feeling I’m getting? I’m worried it’s hope!

Q: Or how about the tuition assistance programs of McDonald’s, Starbucks, Taco Bell and Chili’s?
This is worse than watching a litter of puppies frolic in a meadow. I need to think about an ice cube’s chances in Miami, or maybe the Jamaican bobsledding team …

Q: How about the National Restaurant Association’s new apprenticeship program, a model the Department of Labor hopes can be transferred to other labor-starved industries?
OK, you win. It’s a sobering situation, but certainly not hopeless. If the industry can change its message from “Pleeeaaase work here” to “Join us and you’ll gain an edge for big jobs down the road,” we’d lower our pessimism rating by at least two dark clouds. It’s just going to take a reorientation.

Fortunately for the grim-minded among us, it’s a matter of waiting to see if that will happen.

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