If Boston Chefs Were President...

These food-biz big shots have some important platforms for Boston
February 26, 2016
by Scott Kearnan

It's post—Super Tuesday, meaning the election's in full swing. You're probably already sick of the ads, debates and dinner conversations starting with, "Did you hear what Trump said today?" But in the spirit of politics, we thought it'd be fun to poll Boston chefs and restaurateurs on the state of local dining and their perspectives on what the city could do to become even more vibrant. Our leading question: "If you were president of Boston's restaurant world, what would be your first act?" The feedback was varied and creative:

"I would lobby for the creation of a University of Hospitality to promote the professionalism and prestige of our Boston service and food culture," offers Bertil Jean-Chronberg, co-owner of The Beehive and Beat Brasserie.

"I would only allow a new restaurant to open if another one was closing," suggests Matt Foley, executive chef at The Merchant. "I know the whole industry is feeling how hard it is to fill our restaurants with dedicated, talented people, but it goes further than that: it seems like there aren't enough people to eat in all of these restaurants." 

These experts shared some pretty tasty sound bites, but we've consolidated their thoughts into the three most recurring themes. Read on to their their major concerns and suggested solutions. 

(Care to stand on your own soap box? Give us your two cents in the comment section below.)

#1: Fix the MBTA

From insane snow-day delays, to the potential elimination of late-night service (again), the T produces plenty of frustration. (One recent study, however, says our country's first subway system is still its third best.) But our transportation woes really are relevant to the restaurant industry. 

“If I were president of the Boston Restaurant Industry, my first act would be to try and fix the late-night T service situation," says Michael Schlow, the star chef behind Doretta Taverna & Raw BarTico and Alta Strada. "Boston is a progressive town with so many fantastic options, and our transportation system needs to catch up with the times. If we can create accessibility for our restaurant staff to get home safely and affordably, we would be able to better service the residents of our innovative and exciting city.” 

In a city where parking is at a serious premium (remember when a Beacon Hill parking spot went on sale for $650,000?), restaurants need reliable public transportation to support committed staff. Making sure they can get to work and build careers is a must for building better late-night culture, says Jeffrey Gates, partner in the Aquitaine Group, the team behind AquitaineCinquecentoGaslightLa Motta's and Metropolis. "Before our many bars, restaurants and clubs open to the public, and after they close, staff are busy preparing and cleaning their respective properties," says Gates. "Long before we have a vibrant hospitality industry that runs later into the evening, our industry staff need a dependable, inexpensive public, private or blended transportation solution."

In the meanwhile, Chubby Chickpea chef Avi Shemtov has an idea on how to bring more late-night munchies to the masses: "If I were president of Boston's restaurant scene, I would make it so food trucks could vend late night outside bars!" says Shemtov. Right now, Boston permits food trucks based on four shifts with delineated hours: breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night. But there are far fewer areas that allow later hours, according to a rep from the city's Food Initiatives office, and those hours only run until about midnight anyway. "Boston has become such a cool food-truck city, but it just doesn't have that cool late-night junk-food vibe the way an Austin or LA does," says Shemtov. "It would drive creativity and innovation among chefs in the food-truck world." 

#2: Make the housing market more affordable 

Hey, here's something you already knew: Boston is really, really expensive to live in. In fact, ours is the city with the third-highest apartment rental prices in the country, behind only NYC and San Francisco. The cost of living here is 39.7% above the national average, according to Boston magazine. And the Hub is also the most expensive city in the world for students. And given the glut of luxury condos sprouting up on seemingly every street corner, it's unlikely that this is going to change anytime soon. That's a problem, say chefs. Restaurant staff may not be able to afford to live in the city, which can make it difficult to cultivate a consistent, career-minded workforce that fosters strength of service.  

"My first goal would be to encourage the city to work together with the industry to find creative, realistic and thoughtful solutions to affordable housing," says Scott Jones, the chef de cuisine at Barbara Lynch's Menton. (Menton is, ironically, one of the city's most expensive restaurants). "Part of the much-discussed hiring crisis that exists in the city is brought on by the fact that restaurant employees can't afford to live anywhere near the restaurants we'd like them to work in. It is an incredible difficult and challenging issue that we need to work together in order to find the right solutions."

​"The only thing holding back additional expansion of our vibrant restaurant scene is a lack of available workforce," agrees Bob Luz, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. "Affordable housing...would help increase and retain the great workforce we need to maintain and expand the restaurant scene in greater Boston." 

And what happens when staff can neither afford to live in the city nor count on reliable public transportation? A perfect storm that conspires to make them blow their pay just on getting to work, says Aaron Parson, executive chef at Davis Square's Five Horses Tavern.  "I am concerned about my people: cooks, dishwashers, food runners, bussers, servers, bartenders, the people I love," says Parson. "They are not living in an apartment a block from the restaurant they work in. Nope. They have a trek in front of them after they have finished a long day. My cooks average an hour for their commute. That is, if they are lucky enough to finish their shift while the T is operating. If they miss the T they face a $30 taxi fee, minimum. After taxes that is three hours of work down the drain just to get home." 

And if Boston's housing continues trending upward, it won't just be the restaurant staff that will lose out. So will the diners, says James DiSabatino, owner of Roxy's Grilled Cheese and Whole Heart Provisions. "I would be more stringent with who is permitted to develop this city," he adds. "All of the construction is geared toward high-income individuals...which is forcing low- and middle-income people to move to surrounding suburbs. You can't have a rich and diverse restaurant scene in a city that only caters to people making over $180,000 a year. If things continue down the path they're going, I look forward to finding the most exciting food in the area outside of Boston." 

#3: Give a break to small businesses

Small profit margins make running a restaurant a challenge — so anything the city can do to alleviate financial burden is huge, say industry folks. "I'd also like to see more support for smaller restaurants," says Menton's Jones. "Rents and liquor licenses alone can be enough to break the bank, but some of the best restaurants and greatest ideas are started in small spaces with dedicated teams."

He's not wrong about those licenses: in fact, full liquor licenses might go for as much as $450,000. "There should be a more encouraging system in place to help budding restaurateurs,” says Carla Gomes, owner of Antico Forno and Terramia. If she were president of the local restaurant scene, she says, she'd start by automatically granting beer, wine and cordial licenses to all restaurants. 

Outlandish costs make it difficult for restaurants to offer important benefits to their already-overworked staff, says Rachel Klein, pictured above, who is about to open her first venture as a chef-owner: the hightly anticipated RFK Kitchen. "Culinarians are not second-class citizens — they deserve the right to receive the same types of perks other industries receive: 401(k), paid vacation, healthcare, etc.," says Klein. "However, recently becoming a small-business owner, it’s a challenge as the margins are razor thin...I think it’s important to invest in my colleagues, but there isn't much support."

So where could those breaks come from? Ester owner Eleanor Arpino has some creative solutions. She knows a thing or two about enacting effective policies, having spent more than a decade as VP of operations for the Davio's chain of upscale Italian restaurants. And Arpino says she would "set up a tax credit for restaurants that activity recruit and retain inexperienced workers, effectively educating them as tomorrow's workforce." She'd offer additional financial support, and encourage sustainable food production by "offering tax incentives for anything a restaurant grows itself" — for example, through the type of rooftop garden she has at her Dorchester eatery. And she would "establish a tiered system for minimum wage," one that would be scaled by skill and experience and help restaurants allocate their resources toward restaurant workers who most need them. "The vast majority of 15- and 16-year-olds entering the workforce for a part-time job do not require a living wage," says Arpino. "Nor do they have the skills, experience or training to be considered equal to those that need to support themselves or their families."