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E-Table: The Future of Restaurant Menus?

E-Table: The Future of Restaurant Menus?

An interview with Mark Boyle, sales director for E-Table.

Ordering food in a restaurant via iPad is so 2010. This is the future of restaurants, at least according to Mark Boyle, sales director for E-Table, a projection ordering system that is already in several restaurants.

Can you briefly explain the E-Table concept?
E-Table puts diners in control of the ordering process. They can place orders for food and drink straight to the kitchen or bar.

What was the inspiration for this idea?

The founders of the company came up with the idea whilst out for a meal when they could not catch the waiting staff’s attention.

What are the components and how does it work?

The E-Table system uses overhead projection to deliver a menu and other digital images to a restaurant table-top.

Images are projected on tables? Don’t people interfere?
Projected images do overlay food dishes in our restaurant but the system can be designed as clients want. We in fact have a clear display i.e. no projection over the plate.

How do people interact with the system?
There are two touch panels built in to each table, which allow guests to browse the menu, place orders, and interact with the system.

Are there sounds?
There could be but we do not use them in our own restaurants.

What’s the advantage of using E-Table over say, iPads?
Projection technology means surfaces can be waterproof, hardened and easy to clean, which makes them more suitable to food and beverage outlets.

How does a restaurant implement this system?
We and our partners can provide full working solutions which include hardware, software and services, which deliver a client’s brand, menu, and language to the table-top.

How much does it cost to implement?
This depends on the size of the restaurant. A restaurant with a minimum of 70 seats or more and an average bill of $35 or more could achieve a return on investment within 12 months subject to their business model.

What kind of upkeep does the system require?
We provide software maintenance and can train restaurant staff or partners in the hardware maintenance, which generally comes with manufacturers' warranties.

You note the system empowers customers to order, and enables restaurants to make customers happy, and reduce waitstaff costs by about 30%. What about when you order and realize you don’t want something, or you didn’t know there were things you were allergic to? You’re still flagging waitstaff, no?
You can call a waiter with the system. You can highlight components/ingredients of each dish on the system, which can easily be updated through the Content Management System by restaurant staff.

Aren’t you going to need staff devoted to updating the system? Is it really more effective, and cost-effective?

The Content Management Systems has been designed to be simple and easy to use. Full-time staff are not required to manage the system.

Two restaurants use this technology in the UK, and there's another restaurant on the way in the Netherlands?
Correct. Inamo has been open since August 2008, Inamo St. James since December 2010, and Izkaya in Rotterdam opens in March 2011.

What effect has this had on restaurant experiences where it has been implemented?
Inamo and Inamo St. James continue to get very positive feedback from guests and a lot of repeat business.

The system allows for table-side advertising. Some might argue that in the age of information overload this represents another advertising inroad into a private sphere. How do you respond to that?
A user of the E-Table system can choose how much or how little advertising they wish to deliver through the E-Table platform. It can be used to brand group events such as corporate dinners, parties etc.

What do you think the effect is on the human element of restaurant interaction?
Waiting staff still bring and remove dishes so human interaction continues.


I’m Afraid It’s Too Late to Save Restaurants

Empty tables stand at a covered outdoor area at a cafe in Brooklyn. With coronavirus cases on the rise again in New York, the city is tightening restrictions on restaurants. Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

When Louisville chef Edward Lee was forced to close the doors to his restaurants—610 Magnolia, MilkWood, and Whiskey Dry in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as Succotash in Washington. D.C.—due to Coronavirus, he shifted his focus to helping restaurant workers in need. His small nonprofit, The LEE Initiative, launched the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, serving more than a million meals to industry employees across the country who lost their jobs or had a significant reduction in hours due to the pandemic. The nonprofit has also invested more than $800,000 in small sustainable farms among other initiatives. We talked to him about the struggles the industry faces right now, and what it’s like to run a thriving nonprofit as your own businesses falter.

“This is the end of the independent restaurant era, and I don’t know any chef in their right mind who feels hopeful right now. We have meal kits we’re getting tents and heaters. But at the end of the day, I’m on the Titanic, trying to throw out buckets of water to stay afloat. I’m fighting to save my restaurants and chefs and farmers whom we’ve had relationships with for decades. But part of me is very pragmatic. We’re not getting a bailout from the federal government and we’re not getting leadership—state, federal, even local. We’ve been left to our own devices.

The options for restaurants right now are to go further into debt or to close. If we make 80 percent of our income now, that’s a great day. It’s like a Saturday night with all the tables booked. But then there are days when we’ve done 15 percent of our normal revenue. Those are days where it’s actually cheaper for me to keep the lights off and close the doors.

It’s the fluctuations that really hurt us. We rely on patterns and predictability for inventory, for staffing, for everything. Now we don’t have a clue. Some of it is COVID-related some of it is related to the protests and some of it related to consumer fears about eating out at restaurants. Sometimes it’s just a viral article on Facebook that affects consumer confidence. 610 Magnolia has weathered recessions. Revenue-wise, last year was our best year ever. And we were on pace to beat that in 2020. There’s cold comfort in knowing an entire wave of restaurants will have to close.

Chef and restauranteur Edward Lee.

I devote most of my time now to my nonprofit, The LEE Initiative and the Restaurant Workers Relief Program it’s the only thing keeping me focused, hopeful, and proud. It’s very odd to have one sector of my life be incredibly successful: We’ve served over a million meals to date and opened more than 30 relief kitchens around the country. Yet I’m seeing the other sector of my life crumble before my eyes. It’s an emotional roller coaster—like watching one of your children soar while the other dies in your arms. I feel great sometimes. Then I feel guilty about feeling great. It’s hard to navigate.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami. For every effort we do, it just doesn’t stand a chance against the economic backdrop of what restaurants are going to face this winter. And what we’re seeing now is people who are basically considered middle class—who’ve worked their whole lives and never been on welfare—are suddenly food insecure. That is a whole new demographic that didn’t exist before. Some are too proud, or too ashamed, to admit that they’re food insecure. These are people I know: bartenders, waiters, dishwashers, line cooks.

Unfortunately for restaurant people, our skill set doesn’t translate well to other industries. We’re hyper-focused on one thing: hospitality. And when the industry crumbles, you have an entire population of people not equipped to do other jobs. I’ve devoted 29 years of my life to this I can’t just go sell neckties or insurance. Yet the people in power don’t see that. They don’t see restaurant workers as a valuable sector of our society. Their attitudes are, ‘Well, they can go find other jobs.’ That’s just not the case.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami.

There’s a huge feeling of abandonment. You devote your life to the restaurant business, you pay your taxes, and then you realize there’s no help coming from anywhere. People are suffering through a deep, deep depression. And the last thing you want in the restaurant business is for your restaurant owner, chef, GM, or waiter to be depressed, right? The whole point of the hospitality industry is for you to come to my restaurant and forget about your depression. We’re the ones who supply the entertainment our positive energy is contagious. It makes you feel great to be in a restaurant full of people who execute their jobs with passion and joy.

We’re not professional actors. Everyone’s on the edge of emotional breakdown. It’s heartbreaking to watch dedicated young men and women who’ve honed a craft and made this beautiful thing we call ‘the restaurant renaissance,’ which brought pride and global attention to ‘American cuisine’ and two decades ago didn’t even exist, you know…making $8 cheeseburgers to-go just to make payroll.

But that’s where we’re at. Yet you drive by the local McDonald’s and there are 20 cars lined up for drive-through. It breaks your heart to see that, and to know that by the time all of the independent restaurants go away, it’ll be too late. The customers will say, ‘What a shame.’ The chance to save them is right now.

Old-timers like me can’t pivot I am stuck in what I’m doing. But there are a lot of diverse younger people—so many Black and Latino and Indian chefs who are just starting out—saying, ‘Wait a second, maybe this isn’t the career for me.’ They have the creative energy and the verve and the youthful exuberance that the restaurant industry needs. If we lose them, I don’t see an industry that has anything to offer.

The shell of the restaurant may survive, but the beautiful energy inside may not. If the people are not there, or the people are depressed because they feel like no one cared about them during the pandemic, they’re not going to bring the same passion and energy and joy to it when they come back. It’s just a job—no difference between that and working at a chain restaurant. That, to me, will represent the end of the independent restaurant. We’ll see. I desperately hope I’m wrong.”

We’ve been following how the restaurant industry has been coping with the Coronavirus throughout the year. For more reflections from the people on the inside, read our Restaurant Diaries series.


I’m Afraid It’s Too Late to Save Restaurants

Empty tables stand at a covered outdoor area at a cafe in Brooklyn. With coronavirus cases on the rise again in New York, the city is tightening restrictions on restaurants. Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

When Louisville chef Edward Lee was forced to close the doors to his restaurants—610 Magnolia, MilkWood, and Whiskey Dry in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as Succotash in Washington. D.C.—due to Coronavirus, he shifted his focus to helping restaurant workers in need. His small nonprofit, The LEE Initiative, launched the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, serving more than a million meals to industry employees across the country who lost their jobs or had a significant reduction in hours due to the pandemic. The nonprofit has also invested more than $800,000 in small sustainable farms among other initiatives. We talked to him about the struggles the industry faces right now, and what it’s like to run a thriving nonprofit as your own businesses falter.

“This is the end of the independent restaurant era, and I don’t know any chef in their right mind who feels hopeful right now. We have meal kits we’re getting tents and heaters. But at the end of the day, I’m on the Titanic, trying to throw out buckets of water to stay afloat. I’m fighting to save my restaurants and chefs and farmers whom we’ve had relationships with for decades. But part of me is very pragmatic. We’re not getting a bailout from the federal government and we’re not getting leadership—state, federal, even local. We’ve been left to our own devices.

The options for restaurants right now are to go further into debt or to close. If we make 80 percent of our income now, that’s a great day. It’s like a Saturday night with all the tables booked. But then there are days when we’ve done 15 percent of our normal revenue. Those are days where it’s actually cheaper for me to keep the lights off and close the doors.

It’s the fluctuations that really hurt us. We rely on patterns and predictability for inventory, for staffing, for everything. Now we don’t have a clue. Some of it is COVID-related some of it is related to the protests and some of it related to consumer fears about eating out at restaurants. Sometimes it’s just a viral article on Facebook that affects consumer confidence. 610 Magnolia has weathered recessions. Revenue-wise, last year was our best year ever. And we were on pace to beat that in 2020. There’s cold comfort in knowing an entire wave of restaurants will have to close.

Chef and restauranteur Edward Lee.

I devote most of my time now to my nonprofit, The LEE Initiative and the Restaurant Workers Relief Program it’s the only thing keeping me focused, hopeful, and proud. It’s very odd to have one sector of my life be incredibly successful: We’ve served over a million meals to date and opened more than 30 relief kitchens around the country. Yet I’m seeing the other sector of my life crumble before my eyes. It’s an emotional roller coaster—like watching one of your children soar while the other dies in your arms. I feel great sometimes. Then I feel guilty about feeling great. It’s hard to navigate.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami. For every effort we do, it just doesn’t stand a chance against the economic backdrop of what restaurants are going to face this winter. And what we’re seeing now is people who are basically considered middle class—who’ve worked their whole lives and never been on welfare—are suddenly food insecure. That is a whole new demographic that didn’t exist before. Some are too proud, or too ashamed, to admit that they’re food insecure. These are people I know: bartenders, waiters, dishwashers, line cooks.

Unfortunately for restaurant people, our skill set doesn’t translate well to other industries. We’re hyper-focused on one thing: hospitality. And when the industry crumbles, you have an entire population of people not equipped to do other jobs. I’ve devoted 29 years of my life to this I can’t just go sell neckties or insurance. Yet the people in power don’t see that. They don’t see restaurant workers as a valuable sector of our society. Their attitudes are, ‘Well, they can go find other jobs.’ That’s just not the case.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami.

There’s a huge feeling of abandonment. You devote your life to the restaurant business, you pay your taxes, and then you realize there’s no help coming from anywhere. People are suffering through a deep, deep depression. And the last thing you want in the restaurant business is for your restaurant owner, chef, GM, or waiter to be depressed, right? The whole point of the hospitality industry is for you to come to my restaurant and forget about your depression. We’re the ones who supply the entertainment our positive energy is contagious. It makes you feel great to be in a restaurant full of people who execute their jobs with passion and joy.

We’re not professional actors. Everyone’s on the edge of emotional breakdown. It’s heartbreaking to watch dedicated young men and women who’ve honed a craft and made this beautiful thing we call ‘the restaurant renaissance,’ which brought pride and global attention to ‘American cuisine’ and two decades ago didn’t even exist, you know…making $8 cheeseburgers to-go just to make payroll.

But that’s where we’re at. Yet you drive by the local McDonald’s and there are 20 cars lined up for drive-through. It breaks your heart to see that, and to know that by the time all of the independent restaurants go away, it’ll be too late. The customers will say, ‘What a shame.’ The chance to save them is right now.

Old-timers like me can’t pivot I am stuck in what I’m doing. But there are a lot of diverse younger people—so many Black and Latino and Indian chefs who are just starting out—saying, ‘Wait a second, maybe this isn’t the career for me.’ They have the creative energy and the verve and the youthful exuberance that the restaurant industry needs. If we lose them, I don’t see an industry that has anything to offer.

The shell of the restaurant may survive, but the beautiful energy inside may not. If the people are not there, or the people are depressed because they feel like no one cared about them during the pandemic, they’re not going to bring the same passion and energy and joy to it when they come back. It’s just a job—no difference between that and working at a chain restaurant. That, to me, will represent the end of the independent restaurant. We’ll see. I desperately hope I’m wrong.”

We’ve been following how the restaurant industry has been coping with the Coronavirus throughout the year. For more reflections from the people on the inside, read our Restaurant Diaries series.


I’m Afraid It’s Too Late to Save Restaurants

Empty tables stand at a covered outdoor area at a cafe in Brooklyn. With coronavirus cases on the rise again in New York, the city is tightening restrictions on restaurants. Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

When Louisville chef Edward Lee was forced to close the doors to his restaurants—610 Magnolia, MilkWood, and Whiskey Dry in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as Succotash in Washington. D.C.—due to Coronavirus, he shifted his focus to helping restaurant workers in need. His small nonprofit, The LEE Initiative, launched the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, serving more than a million meals to industry employees across the country who lost their jobs or had a significant reduction in hours due to the pandemic. The nonprofit has also invested more than $800,000 in small sustainable farms among other initiatives. We talked to him about the struggles the industry faces right now, and what it’s like to run a thriving nonprofit as your own businesses falter.

“This is the end of the independent restaurant era, and I don’t know any chef in their right mind who feels hopeful right now. We have meal kits we’re getting tents and heaters. But at the end of the day, I’m on the Titanic, trying to throw out buckets of water to stay afloat. I’m fighting to save my restaurants and chefs and farmers whom we’ve had relationships with for decades. But part of me is very pragmatic. We’re not getting a bailout from the federal government and we’re not getting leadership—state, federal, even local. We’ve been left to our own devices.

The options for restaurants right now are to go further into debt or to close. If we make 80 percent of our income now, that’s a great day. It’s like a Saturday night with all the tables booked. But then there are days when we’ve done 15 percent of our normal revenue. Those are days where it’s actually cheaper for me to keep the lights off and close the doors.

It’s the fluctuations that really hurt us. We rely on patterns and predictability for inventory, for staffing, for everything. Now we don’t have a clue. Some of it is COVID-related some of it is related to the protests and some of it related to consumer fears about eating out at restaurants. Sometimes it’s just a viral article on Facebook that affects consumer confidence. 610 Magnolia has weathered recessions. Revenue-wise, last year was our best year ever. And we were on pace to beat that in 2020. There’s cold comfort in knowing an entire wave of restaurants will have to close.

Chef and restauranteur Edward Lee.

I devote most of my time now to my nonprofit, The LEE Initiative and the Restaurant Workers Relief Program it’s the only thing keeping me focused, hopeful, and proud. It’s very odd to have one sector of my life be incredibly successful: We’ve served over a million meals to date and opened more than 30 relief kitchens around the country. Yet I’m seeing the other sector of my life crumble before my eyes. It’s an emotional roller coaster—like watching one of your children soar while the other dies in your arms. I feel great sometimes. Then I feel guilty about feeling great. It’s hard to navigate.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami. For every effort we do, it just doesn’t stand a chance against the economic backdrop of what restaurants are going to face this winter. And what we’re seeing now is people who are basically considered middle class—who’ve worked their whole lives and never been on welfare—are suddenly food insecure. That is a whole new demographic that didn’t exist before. Some are too proud, or too ashamed, to admit that they’re food insecure. These are people I know: bartenders, waiters, dishwashers, line cooks.

Unfortunately for restaurant people, our skill set doesn’t translate well to other industries. We’re hyper-focused on one thing: hospitality. And when the industry crumbles, you have an entire population of people not equipped to do other jobs. I’ve devoted 29 years of my life to this I can’t just go sell neckties or insurance. Yet the people in power don’t see that. They don’t see restaurant workers as a valuable sector of our society. Their attitudes are, ‘Well, they can go find other jobs.’ That’s just not the case.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami.

There’s a huge feeling of abandonment. You devote your life to the restaurant business, you pay your taxes, and then you realize there’s no help coming from anywhere. People are suffering through a deep, deep depression. And the last thing you want in the restaurant business is for your restaurant owner, chef, GM, or waiter to be depressed, right? The whole point of the hospitality industry is for you to come to my restaurant and forget about your depression. We’re the ones who supply the entertainment our positive energy is contagious. It makes you feel great to be in a restaurant full of people who execute their jobs with passion and joy.

We’re not professional actors. Everyone’s on the edge of emotional breakdown. It’s heartbreaking to watch dedicated young men and women who’ve honed a craft and made this beautiful thing we call ‘the restaurant renaissance,’ which brought pride and global attention to ‘American cuisine’ and two decades ago didn’t even exist, you know…making $8 cheeseburgers to-go just to make payroll.

But that’s where we’re at. Yet you drive by the local McDonald’s and there are 20 cars lined up for drive-through. It breaks your heart to see that, and to know that by the time all of the independent restaurants go away, it’ll be too late. The customers will say, ‘What a shame.’ The chance to save them is right now.

Old-timers like me can’t pivot I am stuck in what I’m doing. But there are a lot of diverse younger people—so many Black and Latino and Indian chefs who are just starting out—saying, ‘Wait a second, maybe this isn’t the career for me.’ They have the creative energy and the verve and the youthful exuberance that the restaurant industry needs. If we lose them, I don’t see an industry that has anything to offer.

The shell of the restaurant may survive, but the beautiful energy inside may not. If the people are not there, or the people are depressed because they feel like no one cared about them during the pandemic, they’re not going to bring the same passion and energy and joy to it when they come back. It’s just a job—no difference between that and working at a chain restaurant. That, to me, will represent the end of the independent restaurant. We’ll see. I desperately hope I’m wrong.”

We’ve been following how the restaurant industry has been coping with the Coronavirus throughout the year. For more reflections from the people on the inside, read our Restaurant Diaries series.


I’m Afraid It’s Too Late to Save Restaurants

Empty tables stand at a covered outdoor area at a cafe in Brooklyn. With coronavirus cases on the rise again in New York, the city is tightening restrictions on restaurants. Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

When Louisville chef Edward Lee was forced to close the doors to his restaurants—610 Magnolia, MilkWood, and Whiskey Dry in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as Succotash in Washington. D.C.—due to Coronavirus, he shifted his focus to helping restaurant workers in need. His small nonprofit, The LEE Initiative, launched the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, serving more than a million meals to industry employees across the country who lost their jobs or had a significant reduction in hours due to the pandemic. The nonprofit has also invested more than $800,000 in small sustainable farms among other initiatives. We talked to him about the struggles the industry faces right now, and what it’s like to run a thriving nonprofit as your own businesses falter.

“This is the end of the independent restaurant era, and I don’t know any chef in their right mind who feels hopeful right now. We have meal kits we’re getting tents and heaters. But at the end of the day, I’m on the Titanic, trying to throw out buckets of water to stay afloat. I’m fighting to save my restaurants and chefs and farmers whom we’ve had relationships with for decades. But part of me is very pragmatic. We’re not getting a bailout from the federal government and we’re not getting leadership—state, federal, even local. We’ve been left to our own devices.

The options for restaurants right now are to go further into debt or to close. If we make 80 percent of our income now, that’s a great day. It’s like a Saturday night with all the tables booked. But then there are days when we’ve done 15 percent of our normal revenue. Those are days where it’s actually cheaper for me to keep the lights off and close the doors.

It’s the fluctuations that really hurt us. We rely on patterns and predictability for inventory, for staffing, for everything. Now we don’t have a clue. Some of it is COVID-related some of it is related to the protests and some of it related to consumer fears about eating out at restaurants. Sometimes it’s just a viral article on Facebook that affects consumer confidence. 610 Magnolia has weathered recessions. Revenue-wise, last year was our best year ever. And we were on pace to beat that in 2020. There’s cold comfort in knowing an entire wave of restaurants will have to close.

Chef and restauranteur Edward Lee.

I devote most of my time now to my nonprofit, The LEE Initiative and the Restaurant Workers Relief Program it’s the only thing keeping me focused, hopeful, and proud. It’s very odd to have one sector of my life be incredibly successful: We’ve served over a million meals to date and opened more than 30 relief kitchens around the country. Yet I’m seeing the other sector of my life crumble before my eyes. It’s an emotional roller coaster—like watching one of your children soar while the other dies in your arms. I feel great sometimes. Then I feel guilty about feeling great. It’s hard to navigate.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami. For every effort we do, it just doesn’t stand a chance against the economic backdrop of what restaurants are going to face this winter. And what we’re seeing now is people who are basically considered middle class—who’ve worked their whole lives and never been on welfare—are suddenly food insecure. That is a whole new demographic that didn’t exist before. Some are too proud, or too ashamed, to admit that they’re food insecure. These are people I know: bartenders, waiters, dishwashers, line cooks.

Unfortunately for restaurant people, our skill set doesn’t translate well to other industries. We’re hyper-focused on one thing: hospitality. And when the industry crumbles, you have an entire population of people not equipped to do other jobs. I’ve devoted 29 years of my life to this I can’t just go sell neckties or insurance. Yet the people in power don’t see that. They don’t see restaurant workers as a valuable sector of our society. Their attitudes are, ‘Well, they can go find other jobs.’ That’s just not the case.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami.

There’s a huge feeling of abandonment. You devote your life to the restaurant business, you pay your taxes, and then you realize there’s no help coming from anywhere. People are suffering through a deep, deep depression. And the last thing you want in the restaurant business is for your restaurant owner, chef, GM, or waiter to be depressed, right? The whole point of the hospitality industry is for you to come to my restaurant and forget about your depression. We’re the ones who supply the entertainment our positive energy is contagious. It makes you feel great to be in a restaurant full of people who execute their jobs with passion and joy.

We’re not professional actors. Everyone’s on the edge of emotional breakdown. It’s heartbreaking to watch dedicated young men and women who’ve honed a craft and made this beautiful thing we call ‘the restaurant renaissance,’ which brought pride and global attention to ‘American cuisine’ and two decades ago didn’t even exist, you know…making $8 cheeseburgers to-go just to make payroll.

But that’s where we’re at. Yet you drive by the local McDonald’s and there are 20 cars lined up for drive-through. It breaks your heart to see that, and to know that by the time all of the independent restaurants go away, it’ll be too late. The customers will say, ‘What a shame.’ The chance to save them is right now.

Old-timers like me can’t pivot I am stuck in what I’m doing. But there are a lot of diverse younger people—so many Black and Latino and Indian chefs who are just starting out—saying, ‘Wait a second, maybe this isn’t the career for me.’ They have the creative energy and the verve and the youthful exuberance that the restaurant industry needs. If we lose them, I don’t see an industry that has anything to offer.

The shell of the restaurant may survive, but the beautiful energy inside may not. If the people are not there, or the people are depressed because they feel like no one cared about them during the pandemic, they’re not going to bring the same passion and energy and joy to it when they come back. It’s just a job—no difference between that and working at a chain restaurant. That, to me, will represent the end of the independent restaurant. We’ll see. I desperately hope I’m wrong.”

We’ve been following how the restaurant industry has been coping with the Coronavirus throughout the year. For more reflections from the people on the inside, read our Restaurant Diaries series.


I’m Afraid It’s Too Late to Save Restaurants

Empty tables stand at a covered outdoor area at a cafe in Brooklyn. With coronavirus cases on the rise again in New York, the city is tightening restrictions on restaurants. Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

When Louisville chef Edward Lee was forced to close the doors to his restaurants—610 Magnolia, MilkWood, and Whiskey Dry in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as Succotash in Washington. D.C.—due to Coronavirus, he shifted his focus to helping restaurant workers in need. His small nonprofit, The LEE Initiative, launched the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, serving more than a million meals to industry employees across the country who lost their jobs or had a significant reduction in hours due to the pandemic. The nonprofit has also invested more than $800,000 in small sustainable farms among other initiatives. We talked to him about the struggles the industry faces right now, and what it’s like to run a thriving nonprofit as your own businesses falter.

“This is the end of the independent restaurant era, and I don’t know any chef in their right mind who feels hopeful right now. We have meal kits we’re getting tents and heaters. But at the end of the day, I’m on the Titanic, trying to throw out buckets of water to stay afloat. I’m fighting to save my restaurants and chefs and farmers whom we’ve had relationships with for decades. But part of me is very pragmatic. We’re not getting a bailout from the federal government and we’re not getting leadership—state, federal, even local. We’ve been left to our own devices.

The options for restaurants right now are to go further into debt or to close. If we make 80 percent of our income now, that’s a great day. It’s like a Saturday night with all the tables booked. But then there are days when we’ve done 15 percent of our normal revenue. Those are days where it’s actually cheaper for me to keep the lights off and close the doors.

It’s the fluctuations that really hurt us. We rely on patterns and predictability for inventory, for staffing, for everything. Now we don’t have a clue. Some of it is COVID-related some of it is related to the protests and some of it related to consumer fears about eating out at restaurants. Sometimes it’s just a viral article on Facebook that affects consumer confidence. 610 Magnolia has weathered recessions. Revenue-wise, last year was our best year ever. And we were on pace to beat that in 2020. There’s cold comfort in knowing an entire wave of restaurants will have to close.

Chef and restauranteur Edward Lee.

I devote most of my time now to my nonprofit, The LEE Initiative and the Restaurant Workers Relief Program it’s the only thing keeping me focused, hopeful, and proud. It’s very odd to have one sector of my life be incredibly successful: We’ve served over a million meals to date and opened more than 30 relief kitchens around the country. Yet I’m seeing the other sector of my life crumble before my eyes. It’s an emotional roller coaster—like watching one of your children soar while the other dies in your arms. I feel great sometimes. Then I feel guilty about feeling great. It’s hard to navigate.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami. For every effort we do, it just doesn’t stand a chance against the economic backdrop of what restaurants are going to face this winter. And what we’re seeing now is people who are basically considered middle class—who’ve worked their whole lives and never been on welfare—are suddenly food insecure. That is a whole new demographic that didn’t exist before. Some are too proud, or too ashamed, to admit that they’re food insecure. These are people I know: bartenders, waiters, dishwashers, line cooks.

Unfortunately for restaurant people, our skill set doesn’t translate well to other industries. We’re hyper-focused on one thing: hospitality. And when the industry crumbles, you have an entire population of people not equipped to do other jobs. I’ve devoted 29 years of my life to this I can’t just go sell neckties or insurance. Yet the people in power don’t see that. They don’t see restaurant workers as a valuable sector of our society. Their attitudes are, ‘Well, they can go find other jobs.’ That’s just not the case.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami.

There’s a huge feeling of abandonment. You devote your life to the restaurant business, you pay your taxes, and then you realize there’s no help coming from anywhere. People are suffering through a deep, deep depression. And the last thing you want in the restaurant business is for your restaurant owner, chef, GM, or waiter to be depressed, right? The whole point of the hospitality industry is for you to come to my restaurant and forget about your depression. We’re the ones who supply the entertainment our positive energy is contagious. It makes you feel great to be in a restaurant full of people who execute their jobs with passion and joy.

We’re not professional actors. Everyone’s on the edge of emotional breakdown. It’s heartbreaking to watch dedicated young men and women who’ve honed a craft and made this beautiful thing we call ‘the restaurant renaissance,’ which brought pride and global attention to ‘American cuisine’ and two decades ago didn’t even exist, you know…making $8 cheeseburgers to-go just to make payroll.

But that’s where we’re at. Yet you drive by the local McDonald’s and there are 20 cars lined up for drive-through. It breaks your heart to see that, and to know that by the time all of the independent restaurants go away, it’ll be too late. The customers will say, ‘What a shame.’ The chance to save them is right now.

Old-timers like me can’t pivot I am stuck in what I’m doing. But there are a lot of diverse younger people—so many Black and Latino and Indian chefs who are just starting out—saying, ‘Wait a second, maybe this isn’t the career for me.’ They have the creative energy and the verve and the youthful exuberance that the restaurant industry needs. If we lose them, I don’t see an industry that has anything to offer.

The shell of the restaurant may survive, but the beautiful energy inside may not. If the people are not there, or the people are depressed because they feel like no one cared about them during the pandemic, they’re not going to bring the same passion and energy and joy to it when they come back. It’s just a job—no difference between that and working at a chain restaurant. That, to me, will represent the end of the independent restaurant. We’ll see. I desperately hope I’m wrong.”

We’ve been following how the restaurant industry has been coping with the Coronavirus throughout the year. For more reflections from the people on the inside, read our Restaurant Diaries series.


I’m Afraid It’s Too Late to Save Restaurants

Empty tables stand at a covered outdoor area at a cafe in Brooklyn. With coronavirus cases on the rise again in New York, the city is tightening restrictions on restaurants. Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

When Louisville chef Edward Lee was forced to close the doors to his restaurants—610 Magnolia, MilkWood, and Whiskey Dry in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as Succotash in Washington. D.C.—due to Coronavirus, he shifted his focus to helping restaurant workers in need. His small nonprofit, The LEE Initiative, launched the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, serving more than a million meals to industry employees across the country who lost their jobs or had a significant reduction in hours due to the pandemic. The nonprofit has also invested more than $800,000 in small sustainable farms among other initiatives. We talked to him about the struggles the industry faces right now, and what it’s like to run a thriving nonprofit as your own businesses falter.

“This is the end of the independent restaurant era, and I don’t know any chef in their right mind who feels hopeful right now. We have meal kits we’re getting tents and heaters. But at the end of the day, I’m on the Titanic, trying to throw out buckets of water to stay afloat. I’m fighting to save my restaurants and chefs and farmers whom we’ve had relationships with for decades. But part of me is very pragmatic. We’re not getting a bailout from the federal government and we’re not getting leadership—state, federal, even local. We’ve been left to our own devices.

The options for restaurants right now are to go further into debt or to close. If we make 80 percent of our income now, that’s a great day. It’s like a Saturday night with all the tables booked. But then there are days when we’ve done 15 percent of our normal revenue. Those are days where it’s actually cheaper for me to keep the lights off and close the doors.

It’s the fluctuations that really hurt us. We rely on patterns and predictability for inventory, for staffing, for everything. Now we don’t have a clue. Some of it is COVID-related some of it is related to the protests and some of it related to consumer fears about eating out at restaurants. Sometimes it’s just a viral article on Facebook that affects consumer confidence. 610 Magnolia has weathered recessions. Revenue-wise, last year was our best year ever. And we were on pace to beat that in 2020. There’s cold comfort in knowing an entire wave of restaurants will have to close.

Chef and restauranteur Edward Lee.

I devote most of my time now to my nonprofit, The LEE Initiative and the Restaurant Workers Relief Program it’s the only thing keeping me focused, hopeful, and proud. It’s very odd to have one sector of my life be incredibly successful: We’ve served over a million meals to date and opened more than 30 relief kitchens around the country. Yet I’m seeing the other sector of my life crumble before my eyes. It’s an emotional roller coaster—like watching one of your children soar while the other dies in your arms. I feel great sometimes. Then I feel guilty about feeling great. It’s hard to navigate.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami. For every effort we do, it just doesn’t stand a chance against the economic backdrop of what restaurants are going to face this winter. And what we’re seeing now is people who are basically considered middle class—who’ve worked their whole lives and never been on welfare—are suddenly food insecure. That is a whole new demographic that didn’t exist before. Some are too proud, or too ashamed, to admit that they’re food insecure. These are people I know: bartenders, waiters, dishwashers, line cooks.

Unfortunately for restaurant people, our skill set doesn’t translate well to other industries. We’re hyper-focused on one thing: hospitality. And when the industry crumbles, you have an entire population of people not equipped to do other jobs. I’ve devoted 29 years of my life to this I can’t just go sell neckties or insurance. Yet the people in power don’t see that. They don’t see restaurant workers as a valuable sector of our society. Their attitudes are, ‘Well, they can go find other jobs.’ That’s just not the case.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami.

There’s a huge feeling of abandonment. You devote your life to the restaurant business, you pay your taxes, and then you realize there’s no help coming from anywhere. People are suffering through a deep, deep depression. And the last thing you want in the restaurant business is for your restaurant owner, chef, GM, or waiter to be depressed, right? The whole point of the hospitality industry is for you to come to my restaurant and forget about your depression. We’re the ones who supply the entertainment our positive energy is contagious. It makes you feel great to be in a restaurant full of people who execute their jobs with passion and joy.

We’re not professional actors. Everyone’s on the edge of emotional breakdown. It’s heartbreaking to watch dedicated young men and women who’ve honed a craft and made this beautiful thing we call ‘the restaurant renaissance,’ which brought pride and global attention to ‘American cuisine’ and two decades ago didn’t even exist, you know…making $8 cheeseburgers to-go just to make payroll.

But that’s where we’re at. Yet you drive by the local McDonald’s and there are 20 cars lined up for drive-through. It breaks your heart to see that, and to know that by the time all of the independent restaurants go away, it’ll be too late. The customers will say, ‘What a shame.’ The chance to save them is right now.

Old-timers like me can’t pivot I am stuck in what I’m doing. But there are a lot of diverse younger people—so many Black and Latino and Indian chefs who are just starting out—saying, ‘Wait a second, maybe this isn’t the career for me.’ They have the creative energy and the verve and the youthful exuberance that the restaurant industry needs. If we lose them, I don’t see an industry that has anything to offer.

The shell of the restaurant may survive, but the beautiful energy inside may not. If the people are not there, or the people are depressed because they feel like no one cared about them during the pandemic, they’re not going to bring the same passion and energy and joy to it when they come back. It’s just a job—no difference between that and working at a chain restaurant. That, to me, will represent the end of the independent restaurant. We’ll see. I desperately hope I’m wrong.”

We’ve been following how the restaurant industry has been coping with the Coronavirus throughout the year. For more reflections from the people on the inside, read our Restaurant Diaries series.


I’m Afraid It’s Too Late to Save Restaurants

Empty tables stand at a covered outdoor area at a cafe in Brooklyn. With coronavirus cases on the rise again in New York, the city is tightening restrictions on restaurants. Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

When Louisville chef Edward Lee was forced to close the doors to his restaurants—610 Magnolia, MilkWood, and Whiskey Dry in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as Succotash in Washington. D.C.—due to Coronavirus, he shifted his focus to helping restaurant workers in need. His small nonprofit, The LEE Initiative, launched the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, serving more than a million meals to industry employees across the country who lost their jobs or had a significant reduction in hours due to the pandemic. The nonprofit has also invested more than $800,000 in small sustainable farms among other initiatives. We talked to him about the struggles the industry faces right now, and what it’s like to run a thriving nonprofit as your own businesses falter.

“This is the end of the independent restaurant era, and I don’t know any chef in their right mind who feels hopeful right now. We have meal kits we’re getting tents and heaters. But at the end of the day, I’m on the Titanic, trying to throw out buckets of water to stay afloat. I’m fighting to save my restaurants and chefs and farmers whom we’ve had relationships with for decades. But part of me is very pragmatic. We’re not getting a bailout from the federal government and we’re not getting leadership—state, federal, even local. We’ve been left to our own devices.

The options for restaurants right now are to go further into debt or to close. If we make 80 percent of our income now, that’s a great day. It’s like a Saturday night with all the tables booked. But then there are days when we’ve done 15 percent of our normal revenue. Those are days where it’s actually cheaper for me to keep the lights off and close the doors.

It’s the fluctuations that really hurt us. We rely on patterns and predictability for inventory, for staffing, for everything. Now we don’t have a clue. Some of it is COVID-related some of it is related to the protests and some of it related to consumer fears about eating out at restaurants. Sometimes it’s just a viral article on Facebook that affects consumer confidence. 610 Magnolia has weathered recessions. Revenue-wise, last year was our best year ever. And we were on pace to beat that in 2020. There’s cold comfort in knowing an entire wave of restaurants will have to close.

Chef and restauranteur Edward Lee.

I devote most of my time now to my nonprofit, The LEE Initiative and the Restaurant Workers Relief Program it’s the only thing keeping me focused, hopeful, and proud. It’s very odd to have one sector of my life be incredibly successful: We’ve served over a million meals to date and opened more than 30 relief kitchens around the country. Yet I’m seeing the other sector of my life crumble before my eyes. It’s an emotional roller coaster—like watching one of your children soar while the other dies in your arms. I feel great sometimes. Then I feel guilty about feeling great. It’s hard to navigate.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami. For every effort we do, it just doesn’t stand a chance against the economic backdrop of what restaurants are going to face this winter. And what we’re seeing now is people who are basically considered middle class—who’ve worked their whole lives and never been on welfare—are suddenly food insecure. That is a whole new demographic that didn’t exist before. Some are too proud, or too ashamed, to admit that they’re food insecure. These are people I know: bartenders, waiters, dishwashers, line cooks.

Unfortunately for restaurant people, our skill set doesn’t translate well to other industries. We’re hyper-focused on one thing: hospitality. And when the industry crumbles, you have an entire population of people not equipped to do other jobs. I’ve devoted 29 years of my life to this I can’t just go sell neckties or insurance. Yet the people in power don’t see that. They don’t see restaurant workers as a valuable sector of our society. Their attitudes are, ‘Well, they can go find other jobs.’ That’s just not the case.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami.

There’s a huge feeling of abandonment. You devote your life to the restaurant business, you pay your taxes, and then you realize there’s no help coming from anywhere. People are suffering through a deep, deep depression. And the last thing you want in the restaurant business is for your restaurant owner, chef, GM, or waiter to be depressed, right? The whole point of the hospitality industry is for you to come to my restaurant and forget about your depression. We’re the ones who supply the entertainment our positive energy is contagious. It makes you feel great to be in a restaurant full of people who execute their jobs with passion and joy.

We’re not professional actors. Everyone’s on the edge of emotional breakdown. It’s heartbreaking to watch dedicated young men and women who’ve honed a craft and made this beautiful thing we call ‘the restaurant renaissance,’ which brought pride and global attention to ‘American cuisine’ and two decades ago didn’t even exist, you know…making $8 cheeseburgers to-go just to make payroll.

But that’s where we’re at. Yet you drive by the local McDonald’s and there are 20 cars lined up for drive-through. It breaks your heart to see that, and to know that by the time all of the independent restaurants go away, it’ll be too late. The customers will say, ‘What a shame.’ The chance to save them is right now.

Old-timers like me can’t pivot I am stuck in what I’m doing. But there are a lot of diverse younger people—so many Black and Latino and Indian chefs who are just starting out—saying, ‘Wait a second, maybe this isn’t the career for me.’ They have the creative energy and the verve and the youthful exuberance that the restaurant industry needs. If we lose them, I don’t see an industry that has anything to offer.

The shell of the restaurant may survive, but the beautiful energy inside may not. If the people are not there, or the people are depressed because they feel like no one cared about them during the pandemic, they’re not going to bring the same passion and energy and joy to it when they come back. It’s just a job—no difference between that and working at a chain restaurant. That, to me, will represent the end of the independent restaurant. We’ll see. I desperately hope I’m wrong.”

We’ve been following how the restaurant industry has been coping with the Coronavirus throughout the year. For more reflections from the people on the inside, read our Restaurant Diaries series.


I’m Afraid It’s Too Late to Save Restaurants

Empty tables stand at a covered outdoor area at a cafe in Brooklyn. With coronavirus cases on the rise again in New York, the city is tightening restrictions on restaurants. Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

When Louisville chef Edward Lee was forced to close the doors to his restaurants—610 Magnolia, MilkWood, and Whiskey Dry in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as Succotash in Washington. D.C.—due to Coronavirus, he shifted his focus to helping restaurant workers in need. His small nonprofit, The LEE Initiative, launched the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, serving more than a million meals to industry employees across the country who lost their jobs or had a significant reduction in hours due to the pandemic. The nonprofit has also invested more than $800,000 in small sustainable farms among other initiatives. We talked to him about the struggles the industry faces right now, and what it’s like to run a thriving nonprofit as your own businesses falter.

“This is the end of the independent restaurant era, and I don’t know any chef in their right mind who feels hopeful right now. We have meal kits we’re getting tents and heaters. But at the end of the day, I’m on the Titanic, trying to throw out buckets of water to stay afloat. I’m fighting to save my restaurants and chefs and farmers whom we’ve had relationships with for decades. But part of me is very pragmatic. We’re not getting a bailout from the federal government and we’re not getting leadership—state, federal, even local. We’ve been left to our own devices.

The options for restaurants right now are to go further into debt or to close. If we make 80 percent of our income now, that’s a great day. It’s like a Saturday night with all the tables booked. But then there are days when we’ve done 15 percent of our normal revenue. Those are days where it’s actually cheaper for me to keep the lights off and close the doors.

It’s the fluctuations that really hurt us. We rely on patterns and predictability for inventory, for staffing, for everything. Now we don’t have a clue. Some of it is COVID-related some of it is related to the protests and some of it related to consumer fears about eating out at restaurants. Sometimes it’s just a viral article on Facebook that affects consumer confidence. 610 Magnolia has weathered recessions. Revenue-wise, last year was our best year ever. And we were on pace to beat that in 2020. There’s cold comfort in knowing an entire wave of restaurants will have to close.

Chef and restauranteur Edward Lee.

I devote most of my time now to my nonprofit, The LEE Initiative and the Restaurant Workers Relief Program it’s the only thing keeping me focused, hopeful, and proud. It’s very odd to have one sector of my life be incredibly successful: We’ve served over a million meals to date and opened more than 30 relief kitchens around the country. Yet I’m seeing the other sector of my life crumble before my eyes. It’s an emotional roller coaster—like watching one of your children soar while the other dies in your arms. I feel great sometimes. Then I feel guilty about feeling great. It’s hard to navigate.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami. For every effort we do, it just doesn’t stand a chance against the economic backdrop of what restaurants are going to face this winter. And what we’re seeing now is people who are basically considered middle class—who’ve worked their whole lives and never been on welfare—are suddenly food insecure. That is a whole new demographic that didn’t exist before. Some are too proud, or too ashamed, to admit that they’re food insecure. These are people I know: bartenders, waiters, dishwashers, line cooks.

Unfortunately for restaurant people, our skill set doesn’t translate well to other industries. We’re hyper-focused on one thing: hospitality. And when the industry crumbles, you have an entire population of people not equipped to do other jobs. I’ve devoted 29 years of my life to this I can’t just go sell neckties or insurance. Yet the people in power don’t see that. They don’t see restaurant workers as a valuable sector of our society. Their attitudes are, ‘Well, they can go find other jobs.’ That’s just not the case.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami.

There’s a huge feeling of abandonment. You devote your life to the restaurant business, you pay your taxes, and then you realize there’s no help coming from anywhere. People are suffering through a deep, deep depression. And the last thing you want in the restaurant business is for your restaurant owner, chef, GM, or waiter to be depressed, right? The whole point of the hospitality industry is for you to come to my restaurant and forget about your depression. We’re the ones who supply the entertainment our positive energy is contagious. It makes you feel great to be in a restaurant full of people who execute their jobs with passion and joy.

We’re not professional actors. Everyone’s on the edge of emotional breakdown. It’s heartbreaking to watch dedicated young men and women who’ve honed a craft and made this beautiful thing we call ‘the restaurant renaissance,’ which brought pride and global attention to ‘American cuisine’ and two decades ago didn’t even exist, you know…making $8 cheeseburgers to-go just to make payroll.

But that’s where we’re at. Yet you drive by the local McDonald’s and there are 20 cars lined up for drive-through. It breaks your heart to see that, and to know that by the time all of the independent restaurants go away, it’ll be too late. The customers will say, ‘What a shame.’ The chance to save them is right now.

Old-timers like me can’t pivot I am stuck in what I’m doing. But there are a lot of diverse younger people—so many Black and Latino and Indian chefs who are just starting out—saying, ‘Wait a second, maybe this isn’t the career for me.’ They have the creative energy and the verve and the youthful exuberance that the restaurant industry needs. If we lose them, I don’t see an industry that has anything to offer.

The shell of the restaurant may survive, but the beautiful energy inside may not. If the people are not there, or the people are depressed because they feel like no one cared about them during the pandemic, they’re not going to bring the same passion and energy and joy to it when they come back. It’s just a job—no difference between that and working at a chain restaurant. That, to me, will represent the end of the independent restaurant. We’ll see. I desperately hope I’m wrong.”

We’ve been following how the restaurant industry has been coping with the Coronavirus throughout the year. For more reflections from the people on the inside, read our Restaurant Diaries series.


I’m Afraid It’s Too Late to Save Restaurants

Empty tables stand at a covered outdoor area at a cafe in Brooklyn. With coronavirus cases on the rise again in New York, the city is tightening restrictions on restaurants. Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

When Louisville chef Edward Lee was forced to close the doors to his restaurants—610 Magnolia, MilkWood, and Whiskey Dry in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as Succotash in Washington. D.C.—due to Coronavirus, he shifted his focus to helping restaurant workers in need. His small nonprofit, The LEE Initiative, launched the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, serving more than a million meals to industry employees across the country who lost their jobs or had a significant reduction in hours due to the pandemic. The nonprofit has also invested more than $800,000 in small sustainable farms among other initiatives. We talked to him about the struggles the industry faces right now, and what it’s like to run a thriving nonprofit as your own businesses falter.

“This is the end of the independent restaurant era, and I don’t know any chef in their right mind who feels hopeful right now. We have meal kits we’re getting tents and heaters. But at the end of the day, I’m on the Titanic, trying to throw out buckets of water to stay afloat. I’m fighting to save my restaurants and chefs and farmers whom we’ve had relationships with for decades. But part of me is very pragmatic. We’re not getting a bailout from the federal government and we’re not getting leadership—state, federal, even local. We’ve been left to our own devices.

The options for restaurants right now are to go further into debt or to close. If we make 80 percent of our income now, that’s a great day. It’s like a Saturday night with all the tables booked. But then there are days when we’ve done 15 percent of our normal revenue. Those are days where it’s actually cheaper for me to keep the lights off and close the doors.

It’s the fluctuations that really hurt us. We rely on patterns and predictability for inventory, for staffing, for everything. Now we don’t have a clue. Some of it is COVID-related some of it is related to the protests and some of it related to consumer fears about eating out at restaurants. Sometimes it’s just a viral article on Facebook that affects consumer confidence. 610 Magnolia has weathered recessions. Revenue-wise, last year was our best year ever. And we were on pace to beat that in 2020. There’s cold comfort in knowing an entire wave of restaurants will have to close.

Chef and restauranteur Edward Lee.

I devote most of my time now to my nonprofit, The LEE Initiative and the Restaurant Workers Relief Program it’s the only thing keeping me focused, hopeful, and proud. It’s very odd to have one sector of my life be incredibly successful: We’ve served over a million meals to date and opened more than 30 relief kitchens around the country. Yet I’m seeing the other sector of my life crumble before my eyes. It’s an emotional roller coaster—like watching one of your children soar while the other dies in your arms. I feel great sometimes. Then I feel guilty about feeling great. It’s hard to navigate.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami. For every effort we do, it just doesn’t stand a chance against the economic backdrop of what restaurants are going to face this winter. And what we’re seeing now is people who are basically considered middle class—who’ve worked their whole lives and never been on welfare—are suddenly food insecure. That is a whole new demographic that didn’t exist before. Some are too proud, or too ashamed, to admit that they’re food insecure. These are people I know: bartenders, waiters, dishwashers, line cooks.

Unfortunately for restaurant people, our skill set doesn’t translate well to other industries. We’re hyper-focused on one thing: hospitality. And when the industry crumbles, you have an entire population of people not equipped to do other jobs. I’ve devoted 29 years of my life to this I can’t just go sell neckties or insurance. Yet the people in power don’t see that. They don’t see restaurant workers as a valuable sector of our society. Their attitudes are, ‘Well, they can go find other jobs.’ That’s just not the case.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami.

There’s a huge feeling of abandonment. You devote your life to the restaurant business, you pay your taxes, and then you realize there’s no help coming from anywhere. People are suffering through a deep, deep depression. And the last thing you want in the restaurant business is for your restaurant owner, chef, GM, or waiter to be depressed, right? The whole point of the hospitality industry is for you to come to my restaurant and forget about your depression. We’re the ones who supply the entertainment our positive energy is contagious. It makes you feel great to be in a restaurant full of people who execute their jobs with passion and joy.

We’re not professional actors. Everyone’s on the edge of emotional breakdown. It’s heartbreaking to watch dedicated young men and women who’ve honed a craft and made this beautiful thing we call ‘the restaurant renaissance,’ which brought pride and global attention to ‘American cuisine’ and two decades ago didn’t even exist, you know…making $8 cheeseburgers to-go just to make payroll.

But that’s where we’re at. Yet you drive by the local McDonald’s and there are 20 cars lined up for drive-through. It breaks your heart to see that, and to know that by the time all of the independent restaurants go away, it’ll be too late. The customers will say, ‘What a shame.’ The chance to save them is right now.

Old-timers like me can’t pivot I am stuck in what I’m doing. But there are a lot of diverse younger people—so many Black and Latino and Indian chefs who are just starting out—saying, ‘Wait a second, maybe this isn’t the career for me.’ They have the creative energy and the verve and the youthful exuberance that the restaurant industry needs. If we lose them, I don’t see an industry that has anything to offer.

The shell of the restaurant may survive, but the beautiful energy inside may not. If the people are not there, or the people are depressed because they feel like no one cared about them during the pandemic, they’re not going to bring the same passion and energy and joy to it when they come back. It’s just a job—no difference between that and working at a chain restaurant. That, to me, will represent the end of the independent restaurant. We’ll see. I desperately hope I’m wrong.”

We’ve been following how the restaurant industry has been coping with the Coronavirus throughout the year. For more reflections from the people on the inside, read our Restaurant Diaries series.


I’m Afraid It’s Too Late to Save Restaurants

Empty tables stand at a covered outdoor area at a cafe in Brooklyn. With coronavirus cases on the rise again in New York, the city is tightening restrictions on restaurants. Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

When Louisville chef Edward Lee was forced to close the doors to his restaurants—610 Magnolia, MilkWood, and Whiskey Dry in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as Succotash in Washington. D.C.—due to Coronavirus, he shifted his focus to helping restaurant workers in need. His small nonprofit, The LEE Initiative, launched the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, serving more than a million meals to industry employees across the country who lost their jobs or had a significant reduction in hours due to the pandemic. The nonprofit has also invested more than $800,000 in small sustainable farms among other initiatives. We talked to him about the struggles the industry faces right now, and what it’s like to run a thriving nonprofit as your own businesses falter.

“This is the end of the independent restaurant era, and I don’t know any chef in their right mind who feels hopeful right now. We have meal kits we’re getting tents and heaters. But at the end of the day, I’m on the Titanic, trying to throw out buckets of water to stay afloat. I’m fighting to save my restaurants and chefs and farmers whom we’ve had relationships with for decades. But part of me is very pragmatic. We’re not getting a bailout from the federal government and we’re not getting leadership—state, federal, even local. We’ve been left to our own devices.

The options for restaurants right now are to go further into debt or to close. If we make 80 percent of our income now, that’s a great day. It’s like a Saturday night with all the tables booked. But then there are days when we’ve done 15 percent of our normal revenue. Those are days where it’s actually cheaper for me to keep the lights off and close the doors.

It’s the fluctuations that really hurt us. We rely on patterns and predictability for inventory, for staffing, for everything. Now we don’t have a clue. Some of it is COVID-related some of it is related to the protests and some of it related to consumer fears about eating out at restaurants. Sometimes it’s just a viral article on Facebook that affects consumer confidence. 610 Magnolia has weathered recessions. Revenue-wise, last year was our best year ever. And we were on pace to beat that in 2020. There’s cold comfort in knowing an entire wave of restaurants will have to close.

Chef and restauranteur Edward Lee.

I devote most of my time now to my nonprofit, The LEE Initiative and the Restaurant Workers Relief Program it’s the only thing keeping me focused, hopeful, and proud. It’s very odd to have one sector of my life be incredibly successful: We’ve served over a million meals to date and opened more than 30 relief kitchens around the country. Yet I’m seeing the other sector of my life crumble before my eyes. It’s an emotional roller coaster—like watching one of your children soar while the other dies in your arms. I feel great sometimes. Then I feel guilty about feeling great. It’s hard to navigate.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami. For every effort we do, it just doesn’t stand a chance against the economic backdrop of what restaurants are going to face this winter. And what we’re seeing now is people who are basically considered middle class—who’ve worked their whole lives and never been on welfare—are suddenly food insecure. That is a whole new demographic that didn’t exist before. Some are too proud, or too ashamed, to admit that they’re food insecure. These are people I know: bartenders, waiters, dishwashers, line cooks.

Unfortunately for restaurant people, our skill set doesn’t translate well to other industries. We’re hyper-focused on one thing: hospitality. And when the industry crumbles, you have an entire population of people not equipped to do other jobs. I’ve devoted 29 years of my life to this I can’t just go sell neckties or insurance. Yet the people in power don’t see that. They don’t see restaurant workers as a valuable sector of our society. Their attitudes are, ‘Well, they can go find other jobs.’ That’s just not the case.

We’re trying our best to keep everyone hopeful, but at the end of the day, it feels like piling sandbags against the tsunami.

There’s a huge feeling of abandonment. You devote your life to the restaurant business, you pay your taxes, and then you realize there’s no help coming from anywhere. People are suffering through a deep, deep depression. And the last thing you want in the restaurant business is for your restaurant owner, chef, GM, or waiter to be depressed, right? The whole point of the hospitality industry is for you to come to my restaurant and forget about your depression. We’re the ones who supply the entertainment our positive energy is contagious. It makes you feel great to be in a restaurant full of people who execute their jobs with passion and joy.

We’re not professional actors. Everyone’s on the edge of emotional breakdown. It’s heartbreaking to watch dedicated young men and women who’ve honed a craft and made this beautiful thing we call ‘the restaurant renaissance,’ which brought pride and global attention to ‘American cuisine’ and two decades ago didn’t even exist, you know…making $8 cheeseburgers to-go just to make payroll.

But that’s where we’re at. Yet you drive by the local McDonald’s and there are 20 cars lined up for drive-through. It breaks your heart to see that, and to know that by the time all of the independent restaurants go away, it’ll be too late. The customers will say, ‘What a shame.’ The chance to save them is right now.

Old-timers like me can’t pivot I am stuck in what I’m doing. But there are a lot of diverse younger people—so many Black and Latino and Indian chefs who are just starting out—saying, ‘Wait a second, maybe this isn’t the career for me.’ They have the creative energy and the verve and the youthful exuberance that the restaurant industry needs. If we lose them, I don’t see an industry that has anything to offer.

The shell of the restaurant may survive, but the beautiful energy inside may not. If the people are not there, or the people are depressed because they feel like no one cared about them during the pandemic, they’re not going to bring the same passion and energy and joy to it when they come back. It’s just a job—no difference between that and working at a chain restaurant. That, to me, will represent the end of the independent restaurant. We’ll see. I desperately hope I’m wrong.”

We’ve been following how the restaurant industry has been coping with the Coronavirus throughout the year. For more reflections from the people on the inside, read our Restaurant Diaries series.


Watch the video: What is the Restaurant of the Future? (December 2021).