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A letter to the restaurant industry…but, what if we could?

A letter to the restaurant industry…but, what if we could?

Headline after headline…

…simply reinforce the dirty little secret that you’ve been hiding for a while now…the restaurant “model” is broken.  It’s been bleeding and hurting for years.  You are an industry of independent manufacturers of highly perishable raw materials that you peddle to an increasingly discerning clientele base.  In a day’s work, the Owner/General Manager of an independent 100’ish seat restaurant wears ALL of the following hats:  leader, scheduler, friend, therapist, philanthropist, payroll manager, account receivable manager, account payable manager, general accounting specialist, office administrator, trainer, sanitation expert, bartender, host, server, busser, raw material receiver, inventory manager, order placer, marketer, social media generator, coat checker, customer service expert, the list rambles on…and I haven’t even touched on their personal lives…the long hours (between 60 – 80), the punishing physical nature of the job, the stress…all for a net profit of less than 10%. Clearly, the VAST majority are not in it for the money.

Like everything else in life, there is no one reason why this picture is so grim…

You’re too busy to coalesce.  You’re forced to expand to drive the top line in order to keep up with ever shrinking margins on the bottom line.  You rose to the call to support the community that supported you by donating to worthy causes. You explored expensive partnerships with 3rd parties in an effort to serve your customers, almost always detrimental to your bottom line.   You planned and prepared for our reservations on your “big days” (New Year’s Eve, Easter, Mother’s Day, etc.).  When either we called to cancel our reservations at the last minute because we have booked multiple reservations and decided to go elsewhere or we didn’t even bother to call, you were left hanging on to highly perishable assembled widgets.  In your desire to accommodate our requests and critically our allergies, increasingly you were manufacturers of either “customized” (think Sally in “When Harry met Sally”) widgets in the blink of an eye or 100% custom widgets due to an allergy…all for a net profit of less than 10%.  The restaurant model as we all know it is broken.  It is a reality that Joe and I had been discussing and pondering for the last couple of years.

There is a silver lining here…

…because it takes catastrophic failure for human nature to change, I would like to point out that this is your moment as an industry.  You have been gifted the golden goose of our life-time.  There’s a short, medium and long game here.  As you ponder viability and sustainability, it HAS TO BE with a new model where you have coalesced to offer your employees fair compensation, 40-hour work weeks, meaningful benefits, AND solutions that offer the entrepreneurial owners better than “less than 10% net profit”.

Back in the day, dining out was a special occasion.  It wasn’t something my family did multiple times a day, week or even month.  Over time, dining out became something that your customers grew accustomed to and even took for granted.  I know I fall in that camp.  For the last 8 weeks, I’ve had 6 people living with me and I’m the cook. This past Friday night, we THOROUGHLY enjoyed curbside pick-up.  I was SO EXCITED at the prospect of not having to think about a meal, order the groceries, receive and wash them, prep and make the meal!   I shared with my family, I quite literally felt like a little kid on Christmas morning.  In fact, I can’t remember the last time I was so excited about anything.  One of the most challenging lessons I’m processing from COVID is how busy I was, how little I appreciated, how much I took for granted.  I’m emerging knowing I need to balance those deficits with how incredible it felt to truly anticipate and savor life…I doubt I’m alone here.

My silver lining is having the capacity to imagine and realize the potential of a unified industry, long a dream that Joe and I shared.   By stepping into a leadership role with The MKE Food School, I look forward to expanding my scope by leading and inspiring an industry that courses my through my veins.

Which brings me back to your opportunity…

…the public you knew and served isn’t the same today.  We’ve changed.  Our perspective has shifted, as I’m imagining is true for all of you.  We’ve missed you as much as you have missed serving us.  Which is why it’s time to break the model that kept you awake at night.  Come back on-line telling your stories of why you’re in the business and that in order to have a business and sustain it you’ve made some changes.

Yes, change requires time, talent and treasure.  You surely have the time and talent, it’s the “treasure” that is illusive.  You’re going to have to face that ginormous dragon that has kept so many of you awake for so many nights.  That thing that scared you the most happened…”what if they stop coming?”, well…we stopped coming.  The “thing” happened, and you’ve been living that nightmare for approximately 8 weeks.  So now it’s time to slay that dragon, let’s put that nightmare to bed once and for all.  I know, it surely feels like David slaying Goliath (by the way, a good resource as you consider the future, David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell).  PLEASE coalesce and build your new model (there are plenty of industry veterans and business-savvy customers, myself included who’d happily idea-jam with you) consider:

  • Joe was famous for saying his most expensive cost was an empty seat – and that is more true today that it ever has been – SEE each seat that way by maximizing its potential
  • train, train and train.  Make sure that “the experience” is the best you can offer.  It’s true that the best server can make up for the worst food, but the BEST food can’t make up for even an average server.
  • 5 day a week operations, requiring only one crew
  • only opening for one service a day, instead of 2 or 3
  • smaller menus, find your niche and settle in there
  • look to the theater industry and copy “set” performances/showings.  Consider having “performances” at 5pm (and like grocery stores, the earliest seating for vulnerable populations), 7pm, and 9pm
  • go back to “the book” and manage your own reservations
  • only take paid reservations, or at least a per-person deposit of your check average
  • offering in-unit diners preordered and pre-paid food “to go” for the services you do and don’t offer (breakfast and lunch as an example) – you’re now in competition with delivery services offering meals and meal kits, AND we want to support local!
  • collaborate to form groups to leverage your buying power (take a look at the consolidation of the lodging market that began about 20 years ago)
  • further collaborate to share adminsitrative costs
  • consider forming a trade association (think electrical and plumbing) that vets candidates, trains and certifies them and through an annual membership affords them on-going training (safety, etc.) and access to health insurance – ALL benefits to you.

MOST important…raise your prices…we’ll come because COVID gave us a glimpse into your world.  We’re armed with new perspective on what it takes to create the experiences and sustainance you offer.  While we won’t likely come as often, when we do, we’ll have a far greater appreciation for you and the much-needed respite you offer.

I leave you as I began with one of my huband’s most famous challenges….”But, what if we could?”  I know you can, this industry punts and pivots better than any other, and I can hardly wait to meet you at your table again!

In loving kindness,

Jennifer Bartolotta, formerly with the Bartolotta Restaurants

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  1. Brava, Jen! This is a perspective that could be applied across so many service industries where we pour blood, sweat and tears into serving. I hope the restaurant industry makes a shift. I would wholeheartedly support it as a patron.

  2. This 🙌🏽🙌🏽🙌🏽
    So much truth… so much brilliance… I love it.
    I am not a restaurant owner, yet but I have worked in the industry and I love your perspective. This is the new norm.

  3. Thank-you Jennifer for a wonderfully written article. Your thoughts definitely add clarity to things I have been thinking/feeling during this pandemic crisis. I love the thought of …but what if we could. Thank-you so much for sharing.

  4. Great article & perspectives! I can totally hear Joe through your words. I look forward to the New Normal.
    -Susan Hartman

  5. Spot on, bravo!!!! So poignant, still direct & profoundly true. Just awesome. So much to learn & not forget & take for granted, ever. Thank you for giving this industry permission, I hope it resonates loudly. Take wonderful care of yourselves.

  6. Great article Jennifer! Comes from a wealth of knowledge, blood, sweat and tears for this great industry. Keep the posts coming, love your unique perspective!

  7. What an excellent post. I am a “lifer” in the industry, 42 years so far. I can’t wait to get back to work and do what I do best….take care of people. Your message is very inspiring. Best wishes to you and the Bartolotta family.

  8. Jen, what a beautiful article. It brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for being so well spoken. I hope many take this to heart. I would love to take you up on your offer

  9. While there are some really good insights in this article that can definitely work for “destination dining” locations I’m so confused why the article has a picture of The Tandem restaurant when it’s written by a former Bartolotta’s associate? I read the whole article looking for a connection to The Tandem and never found it. Bartolotta’s has several restaurants and in business locations that could have been shown instead. Does anyone know the correlation between The Tandem and Jennifer Bartolotta?

    • Hi Rachel,
      You’re absolutely correct. While I am no longer associated directly with the Bartolotta Restaurants, I will forever be a ardent supporter and ambassador – in fact, they have 17 locations. I chose an image of The Tandem to lift and shed light on the extraordinary work that Caitlin is doing to support her community.

  10. Absolutely spot on. I love the business ideas. As someone who has two extra mouths home because of COVID and is still working full time, my favorite night of the week is when we get to do curb side pick up from a local restaurant! Prior to this, we only ate out once a month or so. Now we won’t go back. The break this gives me is huge and the family loves picking and trying new local places. We are so grateful for the restaurant industry that helps us to celebrate the special times. Thank you for all you do and know that the community you serve understands and doesn’t want to loose you!

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