The CulinaryWoman Newsletter, 6/26/22
What will this summer bring for restaurants?
Happy Birthday to the CulinaryWoman Newsletter!
This week marks our second anniversary. I started this newsletter during the pandemic, when news organizations everywhere were cutting rates, eliminating jobs and even closing all together. I thought I might be better off by speaking directly with readers instead of relying on a news organization to provide a platform.
Now, CW is turning two, and my goal is to offer even more useful and timely information about the food world as our third year kicks off. The transformation underway is enormous, and with my business journalism background and my love for the culinary profession, I want to tell that story in more depth.
In July, I’m going to roll out two new regular features for our paid subscribers.
Number one: Red Beans and Advice. My tips on things to read and watch, places to eat and visit, even modern restaurant etiquette. If you bought my City Tips Guidebook or remember the City Tips Newsletter, this is its descendant.
Number two: Conversation Days. Substack told its writers on Thursday that it is adding a Polls feature. So, I’ll pose questions, and encourage you to participate in what I hope will be lively discussions (you gave me great answers recently when I asked whether links were still useful).
Also, so that you feel safe in participating, these conversations will be visible only to CulinaryWoman subscribers. They are not available on the Web.
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The Long, Hot Summer
The months between April and September have traditionally been the strongest for restaurants. You have major dining holidays, like Mother’s Day, Easter and Father’s Day, plus commencement festivities, and good weather. In many cities, tourism boosts restaurants’ summer demand.
So, with mask mandates and Covid restrictions declining, the continued ability to dine outside, and people traveling for the first time in years, things should be great, right?
Not exactly. It turns out that restaurant owners in a number of places are dreading summer’s arrival. Even though Covid isn’t as big a threat, inflation has popped up to replace it as a thorn in businesses’ side (as I wrote recently).
Consumers curb spending as prices rise
When I grew up in the late 1900s (doesn’t that make me sound ancient? Maybe I am :) dining out was a special treat. We ate at home 90% of the time as kids. We only ate in restaurants when we went on vacation, otherwise, my parents cooked. (Maxine’s expertise was popcorn and Rice Crispie Treats.)
However, as more families included two-career couples, or as people lived on their own, dining out was less a treat than a necessity. In the 2010s, before the pandemic, only one in five dinners was completely prepared at home. And two-thirds of lunches were eaten elsewhere (that includes meals taken to work).
By the time Covid took hold, half of all dinners were being cooked at home, and many people have continued that practice despite the easing of pandemic restrictions.
I definitely cook more at home here in New Orleans than I was expecting to do. For one thing, there is the expense of eating out, which I’ll return to in a second.
For another, I work from home, so it’s much simpler to step into the kitchen for something quick than to make a trip out. Third, I’ve signed up for a CSA box every other week, and I want to put my produce to good use.
Apparently, a number of people agree that eating out is a place to find savings. I spotted this chart in Elliott Confidential.
But, we do tend to treat ourselves when we go on vacation - although that could be changing, as more people swap hotel stays for apartment and home rentals. I recently got a newsletter from the Graduate hotel group telling me that they can now arrange for private home rentals in the cities where they have properties.
Many of the people I know who rent homes on vacation head to the grocery store as soon as they get to town. Someone once regaled me with the details of the Costco in Cabo San Lucas, which made me ask, “Why would you go to Costco in Mexico?“ “To load up the condo kitchen,” was the response.
Trying to stay afloat until fall
I’m raising this because the restaurant industry here in New Orleans is casting a wary eye at this summer. It’s always been a tough season for hospitality here, mainly because of the dismally hot, humid weather, and because major festivals happen at other times of the year, meaning tourism declines. We’ve had a long run of 90F days already and our first 100F on Friday.
Ian McNulty took a close look at the situation last week in this article. “After absorbing all the hits of the pandemic, restaurants badly need the boost of a busier-than-normal summer season,” he wrote. “But at the same time, most can’t always handle the business. Right now, so many restaurants are running flat out, trying to keep up with demand while short-staffed and while trying to rewrite the old business models around spiraling cost hikes across the operation.”
Even before the pandemic, summer was somewhat dreaded here. A 2018 study found that half of all New Orleans restaurant closures over the prior decade occurred in the summer months, and that revenue at full-service restaurants plunged by 30% in summer from their peak in winter months.
Imagine losing 50 percent of your revenue to Covid already, and then seeing another one-third of your smaller revenue go away from now through October.
Places keep plugging
I’m constantly marveling, though, at the courage of restaurant entrepreneurs to try a new venture, whether it’s expanding an existing business or something completely new. There seems to be plenty of community support for new places, or at least awareness of what’s happening.
My friends and I have been enjoying the ice cream pop up called Lucy Boone that operates out of the Port Orleans Brewing Company on weekends. The business was launched during the pandemic by Abby Boone, who previously worked at Charlie Trotter’s and Blackberry Farm, and her husband Aaron, her business partner. It is named for their daughter Lucy.
The Boones have added service on Thursday to their Friday through Sunday schedule, and they are getting ready to open a free standing shop on Baronne Street, not far from where I live. They originally hoped to launch last year, but the shop is now scheduled to open in the fall.
By then, we’ll have a sense for how places here and elsewhere got through this summer. Hopefully, everyone will remain in business until life dials back up again.
As for other parts of the country, the Independent Restaurant Coalition had warned if dire consequences if it failed to get the Congressional aid it sought. There are much bigger issues on Washington’s plate right now, so restaurants will have to tough it out.
That’s where diners come in. If you are a regular, keep supporting your local. And, try something new when you have a chance. Spread some love - and cash.
A Vintage Podcast Discovery
If you are a radio fan, like me, you probably have scouted the BBC’s vast catalogue of vintage programs. One of my favorites is Desert Island Discs, which has been broadcasting in some form since 1942. There have been more than 3,500 episodes produced.
It’s a simple format. The guest chooses eight recordings, a book and a luxury item that they would take if marooned on a desert island. The recordings generally are played chronologically, to illustrate key moments in the guest’s life.
You can find the catalog online, and many have now been condensed into podcasts. It’s an endless series of entertaining insights. Virtually every British public figure or entertainer in the past 80 years has been a guest, as have many people from other countries. The list includes a number of people from the food world.
Last week, I listened to an episode featuring Dame Prue Leith, the cookbook writer, restaurant owner and judge on The Great British Bake Off. Prue is a living encyclopedia of the food world since the 1960s. She recently turned 82, and yet her energy and love of color are unflagging.
Along Dame Prue, you’ll of course find Dame Mary Berry, Nigella Lawson, and other British culinary notables. The most frequent luxury item among all the guests? Booze.
P.S. this is the kind of item you’ll find in Red Beans and Advice, available soon to our paid subscribers. Upgrade now, and don’t miss any recommendations.
Speaking Of Podcasts…
The CulinaryWoman Podcast returns this week. I’ll give you a heads up when the new episode posts. It has a New Orleans theme.
Keeping Up With CulinaryWoman
Did you get a copy of Satisfaction Guaranteed as a Father’s Day gift? I’m happy to send you a signed bookplate. Just email me at CulinaryWoman at gmail dot com.
You can follow my New Orleans adventures on Instagram @micki_in_nola. My Twitter is @culinarywoman and you’ll find me on Facebook at CulinaryWoman also.
I was so happy to see that Washtenaw County in Michigan is now at a low level of Covid risk. But, people are still getting infected, so please be careful of your health.
CulinaryWoman will take next Sunday off for the Fourth of July weekend, although our new features will kick off during the holiday week. The free newsletter will return on Sunday, July 10. Enjoy your time off, if you get some.