Friday, September 23, 2016

Do the laws of supply and demand not apply to the food industry?

Well, Mario Batali’s Eataly is coming to Boston.

For those not among the cognoscenti, Eataly (great name, by the way), is an Italian markeplace: restaurants, food shops, gifts, take out. It’s going in the place where the tired Prudential Food Court drearily lived for years. (Think Panda Express and cookies.) I’ve been by but not into the Eataly in NYC (the other US city that has one is Chicago), and it looks like just the sort of place that will lure me in: all sorts of pasta, all sorts of breads, gelato – I’m guessing. And only a 10 minute walk from my house.

I need a new serving bowl for pasta. I now know where to look.

I hope that Eataly doesn’t cut into the business of the still-standing little mom and pop shops in the North End. And I’ll back that hope with a vow to continue to nip down the alley into Bricco, right off Hanover Street, when I’m in desperate need for some magnificent Italian bread.

Still, I’m quite sure that I’ll get sucked into Eataly sooner rather than later. Just to see what will be on offer in their 44,000 square feet of marketplace.

Meanwhile, the thing that’s got Boston buzzing about this is wondering where they’re going to find the 600 workers they need to staff it.

Boston, it seems, is already suffering from a “massive shortage of food-industry workers.”

“It spreads what’s already in short supply even thinner,” said Jason Santos, a Boston restaurateur who plans to open his new Back Bay restaurant, Buttermilk and Bourbon, around the same time Eataly debuts.

Said Bob Luz, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, “It’ll obviously exacerbate what is already a very delicate ecosystem as it is today. There’s no question it’s going to have an impact.” (Source: Boston Globe)

A side point:

Am I the only one whose stomach gives a heave at the thought of a restaurant called Buttermilk and Bourbon. Buttermilk is for making Irish soda bread and pancakes. What’s that got to do with bourbon? I know it’s been a long time – decades, in fact – since I downed any brown spirits, but I was known to quaff a Jack Daniels or two back in the day. I must admit that I drank Jack in some putrid combinations – with Coke, with cranberry juice (a Scarlett O’Hara?), with (can this be right?) Hires Root Beer (diet) – but bourbon and buttermilk?

I’ll have to peek in when I’m storming past to get to Eataly to buy my pasta bowl, but I suspect I’ll take a pass on dropping in. Probably not aimed at the geezer demographic, no longer able to hold their liquor, anyway.

Why is Boston so strapped for restaurant workers?

It’s the result of a convergence of factors: a public transportation system that isn’t conducive to the late nights and early mornings typically required in restaurant work; and the rise of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, which often pluck from a similar pool of job candidates.

Not to mention that the rents here are sky high, so a “line cook making roughly $13 an hour” is not going to be living anywhere near where they work. (Good thing there’ll be Uber and Lyft drivers to get them back out to the hustings.)

What Eataly has going for it is Batali’s celebrity and its reputation “as a promising place for innovative, ambitious talent.”

There are some minor concerns that they’ll be poaching “talent” from other restaurants, but Eataly doesn’t want to be a disrupter in that sense. And the North End establishments contacted don’t believe that Eataly will be wooing away their employees. (Their business, maybe.)

Anyway, it’s been a while since I took Economics 101, but I did have my own personal economist by my side for all those years, and, let’s face it, when you lie down with an economist, you wake up with supply and demand curves in your head.

And that tells me that the solution to a labor shortage is to pay the workers more.

The alternative seems to be leaving positions unfilled, or hiring folks who are less qualified. (Just how qualified you need to be to sell bags of pasta, I don’t know. I suspect I could do it. But restaurants will need people who know how to cook.) Leaving positions unfilled and/or hiring the unqualified tends to translate into poorer product and service. Which does tend to sent customers packing.

I know that there are those who would argue that raising wages will just get restaurant owners to automate everything, removing the need to have all those greedy, whining, pesky workers around bugging them.

But some places do need real humans. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be waited on by a robot, unless I was completely zonked on bourbon and buttermilk, by which point I probably wouldn’t care. And I may want to talk to a human about which pasta bowl to buy.

So let’s hear it for wages going up in Boston’s food industry. Perhaps coming soon to an Eataly near you.

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