Special Reports

Confessions of a time traveler

Here's what Editor-at-Large Peter Romeo learned trekking through 100 years of the restaurant industry.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Gather ’round, whippersnappers, and hear of my adventures in a world loosely paralleling yours. I’ve just returned from a safari through the past 100 years of the restaurant business, and Indiana Jones has nothing on me.

As the graybeard of our staff—sometimes snidely known as the antique—I was "volun-told" to tie a rope around my waist, secure the other end to my desk, and plunge into cartons of musty vintage photos, minutes of meetings where everyone seemed to sport a handlebar mustache, and crumbling back issues of The Soda Fountain(the original name of Restaurant Business). The mission was to trace the industry’s coming of age over the past 100 years, a process in lockstep with the emergence and growth of the National Restaurant Association. Co-workers figured it’d be a cinch since, hey, wasn’t I there to see it? Had I graduated by 1919? What was Hoover like, anyway?

The journey took about three months, though three years would have been a more appropriate allotment. I can’t say I spelunked every cranny or “met” every eccentric who found success in an industry of free spirits. But the immersion into the past century, starting with the formation of the National Restaurant Association in 1919, hammered home these impressions.

This is an industry of opportunity. That sounds like a syrupy recruitment come-on, but it’s truer than any law of physics. It’s infuriating that the world doesn’t see it, from high school guidance counselors to parents who know their son or daughter isn’t destined for a desk and briefcase.

The history of the restaurant business is an unbroken tale of men and women climbing from nothing to wealth and career fulfillment. Ted Balestreri was shipped from Brooklyn to his aunt and uncle in Carmel, Calif., after his father died, leaving him nothing but an obligation to help his mother. He would become a restaurateur before he could legally drink, and would end up owning most of Carmel’s prime real estate while changing the industry with his Sardine Factory restaurant.

Atour Eyvazian came to the United States after fleeing Iran on foot and being imprisoned in Turkey as a refugee. In the States, he landed a job as a janitor in a Jack in the Box. Today, he’s a leading franchisee of that chain and El Pollo Loco, with about 60 restaurants.

This whole historical issue could be filled with similar accounts. Yet the story fails to catch hold with the general population.   

Labor is the industry’s birth curse.  When the founders of the National Restaurant Association met in 1919, they had an agenda of matters to be addressed. Included on the list: labor. The problem back then wasn’t the availability of potential hires, but the threat of unionization, a worry of operators for decades to come. The familiar matter of supply would arise as a bruising matter during World War II, remain a preoccupation as prosperity increased the competition for workers, and fester into a crippler in the 1970s. If the topic is the restaurant business, an aside in that conversation is likely to be the challenges of staffing it.

The industry’s superpower is its willingness to collaborate. For 100 years, a hallmark of the business has been the willingness of even direct competitors to set aside their rivalry and brainstorm solutions to common problems, a trait unimaginable in most fields. I interviewed 20 directors of the National Restaurant Association and its Educational Foundation as part of my research, and all mentioned that willingness to share information as one of the industry attributes they most appreciate.

It’s only fitting the floor be turned over on that point to Myron Green, the St. Louis contract feeder who helped form the National Restaurant Association and served as its first treasurer. Asked why the group had come together, Green said it was like two men meeting, each carrying a silver dollar. If they traded coins, each would still have just a dollar. But if they traded ideas, each would walk away with two notions.

One hundred years from now, I’ll bet that story is just as applicable to this older but better business.

Click here for more insights and information on the Centennial.

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