Cover Image: The Next Supper

The Next Supper

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Interesting read for those in the restaurant industry, talks about the effects of COVID19, dining at home and the super app industry.
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Nonfiction | Adult
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Until the pandemic disrupted our lives, most of us spent as much eating out as we did on meals we made ourselves. In fact, the scales had already tipped toward eating out. Coffee and breakfast at Tim’s, lunch from the cafeteria, dinner out with friends, a weekend lunch from a food truck, our weekly brunch at a restaurant. But the restaurant industry is an ugly one, filled with workers who are underpaid and overworked, abused by chefs, owners, and customers, offering food that is in many cases unbelievably cheap. Well, friends, someone’s paying for it, if not you the diner. In this massive undertaking, restaurant critic and food writer Mintz, a Torontonian now living in Winnipeg, pulls away the curtain and reveals unpleasant truths as he seeks to encourage us to make better choices when eating out. Or when ordering in. (Step one – delete the third-party delivery app from your phone, and phone in — gasp! — your order directly from your local restaurateur.) Mintz tackles every aspect of the restaurant world, from those delicious dhosas your friend took you to eat in some out-of-the-way strip mall to the luxurious Michelin star meals, from food trucks to fast food to chain restaurants. He explains how workers are paid sub-minimum, how tipping hurts workers and why North American diners don’t like restaurants that ban tipping. He delves into the food supply chain, and the toxic practices that keep prices artificially low. He examines a number of ethical, socially responsible restaurant experiments, and explores why they are struggling. Finally, he exhorts us to choose our meals away from home with care, with compassion for workers, and with respect for those who are trying hard to change the system. It’s a big book and Mintz tries to deliver a lot of information. I kept having to put the book down, to let the ideas percolate, as there’s a lot to (sorry!) digest. It’s a big topic, all intertwined, and it can easily overwhelm, as Mintz himself admits. The pandemic has upended the restaurant industry, and Mintz exhorts foodies to take advantage of this to foment a change that results in workers who are well treated, from those who pick the tomatoes for your BLT to those who deliver it to you and clean the table after you leave. It’s a reasonable goal, right? He’s certainly made a strong case that as we are witnessing a rise in the cost of restaurant food, it could be a good thing. We all benefit when workers earn a fair wage. If that means we eat out just a little less often, and pay more for it when we do, so be it. I’m convinced. My thanks to Perseus Books for the digital reading copy provided through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
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In The Next Supper: The End of Restaurants as We Knew Them, and What Comes After (PublicAffairs), Corey Mintz looks at the myriad changes that hit the restaurant industry suddenly at the start of the pandemic, necessitating rapid change in order to survive. And as the pandemic continues to affect indoor dining — sometimes more, sometimes less depending on season, tourism, Covid waves — and these fluctuations are expected to continue, how to adapt continues to be a major issue for the restaurant industry.

Mintz had his lightbulb moment thanks to Ruth Reichl, who I’m always happy to see even in a brief cameo. Mintz worked as a restaurant critic and food journalist, and got to interview Reichl while she was at Gourmet. He cooked dinner for her at his home, and she “grilled” him about where he’d sourced his ingredients, which got him thinking.

Suddenly, all I could see were the systemic problems in food that I’d spent years ignoring — in our restaurants, fields, oceans, classrooms, hospitals, prisons, boardrooms, and chambers of government.

Mintz examines the restaurant industry from many angles: the cult of personality around “chef-driven” restaurants, the pressure for faddish Instagrammable dishes, the paradox of the immigrant restaurant whose cuisine is expected to cost less, and the pricey problem of food delivery apps.

These all end up fascinating topics, although you could probably guess the outcomes of each: we shouldn’t support restaurants built around a superstar chef, where employees are often underpaid and treated terribly; the need to create Instagrammable atmospheres and special dishes is immense but costly, generally resulting in food that’s barely edible, only meant to be photographed and drive traffic; and perhaps what floored me most: we inherently expect certain “immigrant” cuisines to be cheaper and aren’t willing to pay more for them despite the expense and number of their ingredients, not to mention the effort of these cooking methods. As examples, we expect Mexican and Thai to be cheap and aren’t willing to pay much more for them, but we are willing to shell out for Japanese and French restaurants.

This is generally bad news all around, and we haven’t even gotten to the delivery apps, which “extract value by charging the restaurant, which can range from 10 to 40 percent, usually hovering around 25 to 30 percent. How can you take 30 percent off the top from a business with such thin margins? You can’t.”

Although I did end this with the feeling that the problems are far more numerous than the solutions, Mintz does make a lot of effort to provide his solutions and suggestions, while admitting that this is very hard and imperfect. It can also be a bit businessy, which was often helpful and of course important for understanding how exactly the industry functions and how it’s so messed up, but elsewhere I was bored with it.

I’m also unsure I agree with all his conclusions, and it’s still too early to tell how the restaurant industry is going to fundamentally change post-pandemic — whenever that might be. I think that the subtitle could end up being inaccurate – I’m just not convinced it’s the end of restaurants as we know them, I think it’s more likely that the current problems — low pay and bad hours/treatment, dependence on tips, more encroachment by tech companies at the restaurant’s expense — will just get worse behind the scenes. So it’s even more important to be aware of how this industry works and how you can try to make the right choices.

It’s comprehensive too, sometimes surprisingly so — you know how every cafe and cookie shop now offers the opportunity to tip on the credit card screen? This isn’t as straightforward as you might think, and Mintz says there are points to be taken into consideration here, including just asking employees if they’re making a living wage or dependent on such tips, which they may not even be receiving. On the whole it’s very good and undeniably important, and I think anyone who dines out or orders frequently has a responsibility to be aware of these issues and how you can help or at least not actively make them worse.
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A review of The Next Supper with a side of Portland context

Content notes: Discussions of deaths due to COVID-19, abusive behavior (including sexual abuse), racism

I read The Next Supper by Corey Mintz recently and it’s been stuck in my brain. I tweeted about the book, hoping that someone would write a review of The Next Supper, contextualizing the information it contains for Portland, Oregon. And then I remembered that sometimes you just have to write the article you want to see out in the world. So this review is kind of that, with the caveat that I’m not a food journalist and haven’t really set foot in a restaurant in almost two years. Another caveat worth noting is that I received a free copy of the book through NetGalley. I don’t think that influenced this review — but if you are at all worried, please note that the link above goes to the WorldCat entry for The Next Supper. You should be able to find a library near you with a copy rather than spending money based on my potentially biased opinion.

I found The Next Supper very readable, especially for a book telling me that everything about how we eat is probably bad. Mintz shares anecdotes showing that he’s not judging other eaters. He has committed the same sins as the rest of us — including eating at Taco Bell.

It’s comforting to know that none of us are alone in struggling to eat in a way that goes beyond stuffing the nearest calories down our gullets. I know I have terrible eating habits, but I’m not the only one. I’m trying to cut back on takeout after basically living on it for the last few years. I’ve been wondering how other people eat without relying on picking up prepared food from restaurants. Turns out that I’m part of a trend! The Next Supper documents a massive trend in relying on restaurants (as well as other sources of prepared foods, like supermarkets) — in 2018, US consumers spent more money on dining out than on groceries.

In The Next Supper, Mintz planned to cover the future of restaurants — and he did so, but not in the way he planned. Mintz began writing the book before the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the restaurant industry crumbled. From Mintz’s research, it’s clear that key trends around staffing, sustainability, and finances were dramatically escalated by pandemic lockdowns.

Key Topics in Context
Mintz covers a lot of ground in The Next Supper and I certainly don’t want to just repeat what he’s written. But Mintz wrote about national numbers (and international in many cases, given that he covers the restaurant industry in both Canada and the US). Since I live in Portland, Oregon, a city known for its food culture and wealth of local restaurants, I’m interested in what The Next Supper implies for the restaurants around here. To that end, I’m going to cover a couple of key topics from the book.

One fact stood out to me: Mintz says that there are far more restaurants in the US than can be supported by the number of diners. Partially due to big brands constantly pushing growth, the US had roughly one restaurant per 500 people before COVID. There’s just no way that consumers can support that many restaurants based on math Mintz presents. Portland’s restaurants tend to be independent, but the numbers are even more extreme here. I’m not sure how many restaurants are in Portland, but OpenTable currently lists over 5,000 restaurants in this city. That number is definitely low since there are plenty of restaurants that don’t use that site. Portland’s metro-area population in the last census was roughly 2.5 million. With just the 5,000 restaurants on Open Table, we already hit the level of one restaurant per 500 people. If we had a comprehensive list of restaurants in the Portland metro area, I bet we’d actually find that Portland’s ratio is closer to one restaurant per 300 people. That’s unsustainable unless we dramatically transform the relationship between consumers and restaurants.

Wages and Tipping
Staffing is a thread that runs throughout The Next Supper through sections on tipping, wages, abuse, and immigration. Portland-area restaurant staffing is a little different than what you may see in other cities. Oregon requires that restaurants pay full minimum wage of $12 per hour to servers, rather than allowing bullshit like paying a server $2.13 and counting on tips to bring that rate up to something someone might be able to live on. Furthermore, Portland itself has a higher minimum wage than surrounding areas, with a rate of $14 per hour.

Tipping is still common here (although I think it’s past time for us to find a way to eliminate tipping and actually pay everyone a fair wage). Mintz’s inclusion of Michael Lynn’s research on tipping caught my eye, especially given the racism built into Oregon’s governance from the first state constitution onward. Lynn’s research has demonstrated racial disparities in the tips diners give to servers. The disparity hits the point that forcing servers to rely on tips feels like an actionable civil rights violation. I’m not a lawyer, of course, but I doubt we’ll see substantial changes to tipping culture without that kind of in-depth examination and refutation.

Of course, tipping is only one way restaurant employees are compensated for their labor. As I browsed through job listings for restaurant staff here in Portland, I noticed that the listings didn’t quite match up with Mintz’s discussion. Many of these jobs list benefits like paid-time off and offer hourly rates above minimum wage. That’s a good sign for local food culture, although what job listings offer often doesn’t match the reality of working for a given restaurant. It’s easy to find lots of posts like this one about applying to multiple jobs offering one wage and then actually offering significantly less to new hires. Bait-and-switch techniques are common in hiring restaurant staff right now. There’s also a long history of wage theft in the form of unpaid training, paying day rates (rather than hourly wages), unpaid overtime, etc. in the restaurant industry, which Mintz goes into in more depth.

Mintz doesn’t touch on one factor in restaurant hiring that I think is crucial: line cooks had the highest COVID mortality level in 2020 of any profession. No fault to Mintz — I doubt that this information was available before The Next Supper’s content was finalized — but the reality is that an almost incomprehensible number of skilled servers and cooks died or became disabled since early 2020. When we see claims that restaurants are understaffed, we need to push back. We need to talk about the many reasons why restaurant staff aren’t prepared to work for businesses that exploit and endanger them.

Employee Abuse
When discussing staffing, Mintz also covers a wide variety of abuses that are commonplace in the restaurant industry. Portland’s restaurants are no exception. During the summer of 2020, many restaurant owners and chefs faced calls for accountability for sexual harassment, abusive work environments, and other types of harm. In Portland, many of those calls were channeled through an Instagram account operated by Maya Lovelace, who owns Yonder. They were latercataloged by Eater PDX, including concerns about Yonder. While some of the people responsible for these harms are no longer running restaurants, there are still plenty of similar problems in the kitchens around town.

These problems are compounded by a variety of larger social issues. There’s an underlying misogyny that enables business owners to sexually assault staff members, an underlying racism that allows business owners to take advantage of undocumented workers, and an underlying devotion to capitalism that makes wage theft a standard business practice.

Personally, I’m unconvinced that call-out posts will reform these problems at an industry-level. Collective action, such as unionization, is the only strategy that I’ve seen work. Unionizing both independent restaurants and local chains is likely the most useful strategy, and one that Portland may be able to rely on. With the recognition of the Burgerville Workers Union, we have the first unionized fast food chain in the country. We just need to build on that success.

Third-Party Delivery Apps
Third-party delivery apps — which around here includes Uber Eats, Postmates (owned by Uber), DoorDash, and Caviar (owned by DoorDash) — are notoriously bad for restaurants and delivery drivers alike. There are plenty of examples, from pocketing delivery drivers’ tips to charging fees to restaurants for orders that don’t go through the apps. Independent restaurants get the worst deals, as big brands like Applebees negotiate with delivery providers to keep costs down. The Next Supper points out venture capitalists with long-term plans fund these apps. They subsidize the cost of destroying other delivery options as well as keeping prices down long enough to get consumers reliant on these apps. Third-party apps can afford lobbying efforts or they can punish users with local fees when local governments are willing to push back against their practices.

Communities (including restaurants, delivery staff, and diners) need to plan for the long term. We need plans for both minimizing how capitalistic interests can mix extra costs into our food budgets and for building better systems for getting food in the hands of hungry people. I see organizations like CCC PDX as a start to that discussion. Local bicyclists formed a collective to deliver food and other products in partnerships with local restaurants and retailers. A logical next step might be building an app that handles handles local deliveries for local brands. It could offer equitable splits of both expenses and profits without sending money outside the Portland ecosystem. I don’t think that’s enough, long term, but the conversation has to start somewhere. Only once we’re actively talking about these issues will we be able to bring up options like collective purchasing, neighborhood-based food systems, and other options that move us towards radical change.                  

Portland does make an appearance in The Next Supper, or rather there’s a discussion of the Portlandia sketch during which two restaurant diners learn about their locally sourced chicken, Colin. There is, of course, plenty of truth in Portlandia’s comedy. Many Portland restaurants make a point of discussing where they get meat, produce, and other supplies from. But Mintz points out that we don’t have a system for confirming those claims, especially for independent restaurants.

McDonald’s — which I learned is the world’s largest buyer of beef, pork, potatoes, lettuce, and tomatoes during my reading — has a variety of mechanisms for auditing their supply chain for reducing harm. There are also a variety of NGOs that work to hold McDonald’s and other large chains accountable. But there’s virtually nothing in place for smaller businesses. Mintz catalogues different ways restaurants can lie or stretch the truth about the sources of their ingredients. As we look at our local dining options, we are responsible for deciding who we trust. But, frankly, none of us have the resources to check whether a given restaurant might be lying. There’s no easy solution to this problem and it will only grow as climate change advances and diminishes the quality of certain crops.

Ultimately, many of the problems with the restaurant industry grow out of problems with ownership, especially of large chains that can make decisions that move the market for everyone else. It’s tempting to ignore problems with big chains if you live inside Portland’s city limits: Red Lobster and Outback Steakhouse are only in the suburbs (due in part to minimum wage laws), so there’s a sense that their problems are better dealt with by the residents and governments of Beaverton, Lake Oswego, or Vancouver. But these big companies make plenty of decisions that impact folks inside city limits and we need to pay attention.

The National Restaurant Association (or, as Mintz calls them, the “other NRA”) is a major lobby in Washington DC. The “other NRA” is one of the chief lobbyers preventing paid sick leave legislation from passing at a federal level. They don’t just harm restaurant employees with their political goals, but every employee in the country. Paid sick leave should be a right for every employee. The state of Oregon has legislation granting paid sick leave, but only for full-time employees of companies with more than 10 full-time employees.

Taking Action
While the problems Mintz discusses are national or even international, few of us have the resources to work on that level. But we can work on those issues on a local level, improving Portland’s share of the restaurant industry. One key step is encouraging local food journalism that goes beyond restaurant reviews. If we have local food media that covers supply chains, staffing, and other facets of the restaurant business, individuals don’t need to try to figure out those details on our own. Of course, local journalism has issues of its own. Eater PDX’s staff works hard, as do the writers in charge of covering food at publications like the Portland Mercury and Portland Monthly, but those publications all have clear goals that don’t prioritize critiquing the restaurant industry. We need something closer to the Racist Sandwich podcast, with a more explicit focus on Portland. (Fingers crossed for another season of Racist Sandwich soon.)

Getting good information is only part of the equation. We need to act on that information. We all want to make good choices about what we eat, including choosing restaurants that minimize harm. Mintz sees the need for more action, telling us “Don’t just vote with your fork, vote with your vote.” We need collective action, which can include voting for local candidates as well as unionization drives at restaurants, getting off of third-party delivery apps, and believing folks about sexual harassment and other abuses they’ve experienced. The problems within the restaurant industry are the same problems we see throughout society — perhaps written small enough that we can create real change on a practical timeline.

In closing, I found The Next Supper to provide a good lens on the restaurant industry, including some of the changes wrought by COVID. I’ve only covered a small chunk of the material in the book and how it relates to Portland’s restaurants — to cover it all would take, well, a full book.
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The Next Supper is an eye-opening read to get an understanding of the behind the scenes effects on the restaurant industry from the many so-called recent technological "advances". Like other works examining the impact of technology on our lives, this book provides a deep dive into the restaurant business. Reading this will make you think twice about the third-party delivery apps, especially regarding the impact upon kitchen and waiting staff. The unpaid internships that restaurants use is anger-provoking. Exploitation in the name of "joining the guild". What Mintz does best in this book is humanize the people behind the food we enjoy and by doing so, increase our awareness of the complex ethical considerations we should be thinking about regarding food prepared in restaurants.

Note: I voluntarily requested, read, and reviewed this book. Thank you to the author, publisher, and NetGalley for sending me a temporary digital advance reading copy/advance review (ARC) galley of this book in exchange for an honest review. As always, my opinions are my own and do not represent my co-host or the podcast. I request, read, and review many books prior to publication to explore possible future guests for the podcast. I wish we could interview the author of every one of these books because I'm so impressed by the creativity, thoughtfulness, and wisdom shared through the temporary books I get through NetGalley. I find the idea of simplifying any book into 1-5 stars to be quite silly and reductionist, so I don't participate in that game and instead, just give five stars to each book.
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Read if you: Want a no-holds-barred look at the restaurant industry, including the problematic apps, kitchen culture, immigrant restaurants and the assumption that servings should be cheap and plentiful, the impact of COVID-19, tipping, and the industry's future. 

Librarians/booksellers: Purchase for readers that enjoy books on contemporary culture/business.

Many thanks to Perseus Books/PublicAffairs for a digital review copy in exchange for an honest review.
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This book was received as an ARC from Perseus Books, PublicAffairs in exchange for an honest review. Opinions and thoughts expressed in this review are completely my own.

I am a huge supporter of restaurants especially local restaurants and now with COVID-19 just ending, it's so important for the restaurant industry to keep on growing and be resilient as ever. Corey Mintz does a phenomenal job telling the story of some restaurants suffering because of the rise of DoorDash and Curbside Pickup and being forced to close and/or only remain takeout made the industry take a major hit. I also love the tips Corey suggested to make sure that the chefs and waitstaff know that you have their full support and help restore the restaurant industry to its former glory. I myself along with my husband try to support the local restaurants as often as we can and now after reading the Next Supper, I am inspired to continue showing my support.

We will consider adding this title to our Business collection at our library. That is why we give this book 5 stars.
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There is SO MUCH to digest in this book. In a good way, though! With this book, I was hungry to find out more about the apps driving not only our food, but also our restaurants, I wanted to satiate a craving for knowledge that I had, and hoped it wouldn’t leave me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

I realized very early on that I was going to be in for quite a shocking adventure. Right away, The Last Supper made me think twice about ever using a third party food delivery app again. I felt an anger welling within me at certain points of the book, as though I had been cheated by these delivery apps. But like Corey says, we learn as we go. 

It’s clear from The Next Supper that Corey Mintz has an incredible wealth of restaurant industry knowledge. I gained insight into a topic that I had no idea about before, taking something away with me from each chapter. 

I experienced a lot of emotions while reading this book. Mostly I was shocked. I was extremely moved. I deleted the Uber Eats app from my phone and vowed not to use it again.

Absolutely worth the read.
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