Dining News

How White Purveyors Came to Dominate the Fermented Foods Industry

The first time I tasted kombucha was in 2010, at a Whole Foods in San Francisco. As I drank the ice-cold bottle of GT’s Multi-Green, I was surprised by how familiar it was: Its sharpness reminded me of long-fermented Taiwanese fruit vinegars and suan cai, while its funk called to mind the diverse array of ferments, such as furu, tempe, belachan, and doubanjiang, that flavored my ’80s Malaysian childhood.

After I immigrated to Australia in the ’90s, my white friends mocked these ferments as “smelly,” “gross,” and “weird.” But 20 years later, the large refrigerated probiotic beverage section at Whole Foods was dominated by a funky drink, covered with psychedelic labels and buzzwords like “rejuvenate,” “restore,” and “regenerate.” And just as I’ve seen the popularity of kombucha continue to grow, I’ve watched as many of the once-ridiculed ferments of my childhood have been declared not just acceptable, but trendy by white people eager to festishize and commoditize them.

Over the last several years, it has become big business for white-owned companies to “discover” “new” ferments from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) cultures and bring them to Western markets. Kombucha may have been the gateway, but other traditional ferments, such as kimchi, miso, tempe, and tibicos, are increasingly popular with white producers and consumers. It’s a trend I’ve observed as both a consumer and a member of what I would call the fermentation community, a loose collective of fermentation enthusiasts and experts, mainly from the West, who celebrate and teach fermentation, as well as those who research fermented foods and sell fermented products.

The community is grounded in reconnecting people to traditional food systems, lost tastes, and microbial heritages. The nuances and complexities of sharing cultures — one’s own and those of others — are something I’ve thought a lot about since joining the community in 2013, when my partner and I started one of Australia’s first tibicos companies. We called our product by its Mexican name to recognize its pre-Columbian Aztec origins, researched its complicated history extensively, and did our best to present it to the public. Because I am Chinese-Malaysian (then a rarity in the industry), many customers assumed our product was of Asian origin, and I endured racist comments about its price point, taste, and provenance; many retailers and customers found tibicos hard to pronounce and asked why we didn’t call it by its more commonly used name, water kefir. We struggled with access to financial and social capital, and were soon overshadowed by white entrepreneurs selling similar ferments. After five years, we closed the business and I went on to study the potential health benefits of fermented foods as a Ph.D. student.

As I have continued to promote the study of diverse ferments with clear recognition of their histories and sociocultural importance, I’ve watched the small Western market for fermented goods gradually turn into a booming industry, one that by at least one projection could be worth $690 billion by 2023. As my own experience showed me, the accompanying shift in profit margins and exposure has revealed an uncomfortable truth: The fermentation industry, like any other, has a whiteness problem.

To understand what this means, you could start with Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), an international trade association that claims to represent 90 percent of all bottled kombucha on store shelves and on tap today. Nearly two-thirds of KBI’s members are white, based on a survey KBI conducted in June. You don’t have to look far to find illustrations of this statistic. Take, for example, Kombucha Kamp, which bills itself as the “#1 place online” to learn about and buy kombucha; the smiling white woman on its site is founder Hannah “Kombucha Mamma” Crum, who is also the co-founder of KBI. Or look at GT’s Living Foods, started by George Thomas Dave. The so-called king of kombucha, who owns 40 percent of the nearly-$500-million U.S. kombucha market, rose to success upon his claims that he was introduced to kombucha by a “Himalayan Mother” SCOBY (or symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, the gelatinous culture used to make kombucha) gifted to his family by a friend who claimed to have gotten it from a Buddhist nun, and that it cured his mother’s aggressive breast cancer.

Beyond kombucha, there are plenty of other examples of the fermenting industry’s whiteness. On Julie Feickert’s Cultures for Health, you’ll find various starter cultures, including trendy koji and tempeh spores, but scant acknowledgement of their origins, history, or cultural context. Chris de Bono, owner of Meru Miso in Tasmania, Australia, calls himself a “Miso Master” despite first making miso commercially in 2015; he also claims to be “Australia’s premier producer” of “authentic, traditional” miso. Peace, Love and Vegetables, established in 2011, claims to sell “Australia’s Number 1 Sauerkraut”; its “untraditional” “kim-chi” Superkraut (vegan, of course) bears such little resemblance to actual kimchi that it seems mislabeled. Many white-owned businesses that produce fermented vegetables have at least one kimchi product, cashing in on its popularity with varying degrees of kimchi-ness: Madge’s Food Company, Gaga’s Gut Loving Ferments, Eden Foods. Tepache, a pre-Columbian Mexican fermented beverage made with pineapple rinds and spices like cinnamon and cloves, has been co-opted by Western healthy drink companies, cider, and spirit makers alike, with varying degrees of similarities to its namesake.

Wherever you look, you’ll see that the fermentation industry in the West (meaning North America, the U.K., Europe, and Australasia) is dominated by mostly white fermenters, who often sell whitewashed BIPOC ferments and associated white-gaze narratives about these foods to mainly white consumers. This dearth of diversity is problematic in and of itself, but it’s worsened by the fact that white fermenters are commoditizing ferments that are ingrained in the cultural identities of BIPOC, whose centuries-long labor developed and refined the microbial relationships required to produce them.

Even the idea of sharing cultures (so to speak) can be problematic, as Feby, a fermenter reclaiming Indonesian food identity via her tempe subscription business Reculture Kitchen, pointed out on Instagram. “‘Sharing cultures’ benefits white people and Western nations, not countries that have been entrenched in colonial violence,” she wrote. “It’s easy for [Westerners] to reap the benefits of shared cultures and then claim a specific fermentation process as their own because of their literacy in capitalism … whereas people from a colonized nation are asked to acculturate to whiteness and their time and resources are spent on surviving.”

While it is exciting that the Western market for ferments such as kimchi, miso, and kombucha is growing at an explosive rate, BIPOC fermenters are frequently rendered invisible in the fermentation industry through a lack of access, representation, and voice, only to have their traditions and cultures at turns stolen, appropriated, or erased altogether. At almost every level, success is determined by white gatekeepers, from which companies gain access to capital, to who organizes festivals and teaches workshops, to who gets spotlighted by the food media or given book contracts or space on grocery store shelves.

Nearly every culture on this planet ferments. An ancient culinary technology that reaches back around 10,000 years, fermentation is the controlled transformation of food by bacteria and fungi. Humans have long depended on this transmission of microbial cultures to produce ferments for flavor, nutrition, and survival.

The growing mainstream popularity of ferments in the West has its roots in the Western agrarian movement of the ’60s and ’70s, when members of the white counterculture became enamored with and capitalized on the ferments of “the Orient” and old Europe. Inherently antithetical to industrialized foods, these ferments appealed to the segment of the white middle class choosing to swim outside the mainstream. Miso, kombucha, sauerkraut, and tempe were particularly popular, though their popularity was largely limited to countercultural circles. Zen philosophy, which was espoused by numerous poets and artists at the time, further fueled the interest in East Asian ferments, as did the macrobiotic boom. Their purveyors often alluded to their ancient origins and purported healing properties to lure those hoping to attain health nirvana through their alimentary tract — a strategy that effectively kicked off the appropriation of (primarily) East Asian ferments, a picking and choosing of narratives and flavor profiles to suit white tastes.

The mid-’90s saw a growing mainstream interest in fermented foods, thanks in large part to Sandor Katz, an irrepressible self-described fermentation fetishist who traveled the U.S. giving fermentation lectures and demonstrations. Meanwhile, Sally Fallon Morell’s Nourishing Traditions blog and popular book and the raw food trend also helped popularize the practice, bringing foods that had been part of the hippie mainstream in the ’60s and ’70s, such as sauerkraut, water kefir, rejuvelac, and miso, to the forefront of the health-focused natural food movement. Although they still appealed mainly to radical lefties and health-conscious coastal liberal elites, a small American artisanal cottage industry began to bubble, beginning with companies like GT’s Living Foods and the revered Cultured Pickle Shop, which both started in 1995.

When the artisanal foods movement began gaining steam a decade later, this quiet bubbling got noisy. Ferments were the perfect product for many would-be artisans, with their old-timey, back-to-nature appeal and purported health benefits. House-made pickles, wild sauerkraut, and small-batch kombucha flourished in gentrified neighborhoods and restaurants everywhere, culminating in a period of peak pickle that was skewered on Portlandia in 2012. Other ferments soon gained traction, including kvass and milk kefir, and by 2014, they had ascended to fine dining status. That was the year that both David Chang and René Redzepi started their own fermentation labs; Chang, who is Korean American, aimed to revolutionize the use of edible microbes — especially Japan’s beloved Aspergillus oryzae, or koji, mold, which produces miso, soya sauce, and grain-based alcoholic beverages like sake.

Fermented foods were given an additional boost by ongoing scientific research into the role of the gut microbiome in human health. Many popular ferments contain live probiotic bacteria and yeasts, shown to have potential beneficial effects on gut health and associated modern diseases such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Thanks in part to wellness juggernauts like Goop, the white worried well became convinced that optimal gut health was a panacea for their chronic malaise. Where better to spend one’s dollars than on those natural, healthy fermented foods teeming with beneficial probiotic bacteria? Multinational food corporations, weakened by growing disdain for their obesity-inducing sugary drinks in the West, began swallowing up artisanal fermentation businesses. In the last few years, companies making low-alcohol, low-sugar kombucha and water kefir have attracted investment from the likes of Coca-Cola and Pepsi, while General Mills has put its substantial dollars into Farmhouse Culture’s sauerkraut and other probiotic products.

In the process, fermented foods finally made their way out of the health food aisle and into the mainstream, where East Asian ferments like kimchi, miso, and gochujang have found particular popularity. Orientalism and gastrodiplomacy certainly have a hand in the continued love affair with Japanese ferments, as well as kimchi’s current popularity among Western palates. And more recently, ferments from other regions, such as Nigerian iru, Indonesian tempe, Ethiopian injera, Mexican tepache and pozol, and Indian dosas, have attracted the attention of white fermenters, recipe writers, and consumers.

Regardless of whether white interest in these cultural ferments is rooted in social justice or a way to virtue signal white worldliness, BIPOC fermenters are still getting lost in the brine of the industry’s overwhelmingly white narrative. Although it’s not as if only Japanese people can make Japanese ferments or white people cannot gain expertise or profit from their hard work, there needs to be a stark recognition of the inequities at play and a collaborative effort to correct them, even when it is uncomfortable for white fermenters.

One way to start is by looking more closely at the problems within our community: namely, cultural appropriation, the tailoring of certain ferments to suit white tastes, and the gatekeeping that disproportionately benefits (and is exercised by) white members of the industry. All of this falls under the overarching issue of whitewashing, which results in the colonialist muddling of the cultures and histories of BIPOC people.

“I think that [fermentation] knowledge needs to be shared and needs to be spread, but it ignores the fallout of colonial thought and that kind of behavior,” says Mara King, the co-founder of Ozuké, a fermented foods company, and the co-host of the YouTube show The People’s Republic of Fermentation. “People are not even aware of the subtle ways they embody racism,” she points out. That’s one reason why recognizing “that you are in a precarious position when you try to represent someone else’s culture” is key, King says, as is “always being open to learning and being submissive to somebody else’s understanding.” In other words, she adds, don’t be like Alison Roman: “She was not giving due, she was not offering any scholarship, and she was saying her version was the version.”

Fermented products are often marketed to appeal to white audiences, by both BIPOC and white producers. “Overall I think BIPOC fermented foods are either exoticized and touted as the ‘next big thing,’ or they come with a disclaimer,” says an Asian-Australian fermenter I’ll call Sarah (like some other fermenters I approached for an interview, she feared potential negative repercussions for speaking out, which is why I’ve given her a pseudonym).

The common emphasis on health benefits in decontextualized sales narratives further exoticizes these foods. “Sometimes because they can’t add health claims, I think [the] marketing will delve into the traditions almost to validate the ‘Asian wisdom’ or something,” Sarah adds. “Like ‘brewed in Ancient China’ or ‘eaten widely to strengthen the immune system in Korea.’ It feels like they cherrypick and glean which cultural information to show off.”

This romanticization of BIPOC traditions — and the accompanying failure to provide historical or sociocultural context that centers BIPOC and their relationship with these ferments — is rife in the health and wellness space: Modern life made me (or my kids) very sick, doctors didn’t know what to do, and then I discovered the magical healing powers of ancient, traditional fermented foods. Last February, the onset of COVID-19 led to a 952 percent surge, year over year, in kimchi sales. (More recently, the national medical director of England’s National Health Service publicly rebuked Gwyneth Paltrow for suggesting that long COVID could be treated with — among other things — kimchi and kombucha.)

The tendency to exoticize and romanticize fermented foods in order to sell them leads us to another abiding problem in the fermentation community: the editing of flavor profiles so that certain ferments will appeal to white audiences. While nuance, surprise, and pungency are welcome in traditionally made, at-home ferments, white-focused commercial enterprise requires predictable and approachable products. The vinegary tang of kombucha, for example, is diluted with artificial sweeteners, fruit juice, and forced carbonation for consistency; “smelly” fish sauce is left out of kimchi — see, for example, all of those vegan kimchis; and “mild” and “sweet” misos, which are fermented for shorter periods of time, are easier to sell in Western markets that have yet to embrace funkier ferments like natto, furu, and belachan.

BIPOC fermenters are hardly immune to the pressure to appeal to white consumers. In playing up one’s cultural background to sell a product, King points out, “you create an illusion of culture, a curated flavor profile that you know will be accepted and enjoyed. The chaotic, stinky, and messy are edited out of this scenario for the benefit of both the performer and the consumer.”

This need to satisfy perceived white tastes is pervasive enough that it has led to an attempt by Korean researchers to engineer the smell out of kimchi, a food that comes in hundreds of varieties and is so deeply ingrained in Korean culture that the South Korean Ministry of Culture stated it was gaining “a worldwide reputation as a representative food of Korea.” Such accessibility to white audiences is the top priority for many fermentation businesses in terms of both their financial and cultural bottom lines.

The past several years have nonetheless seen a new generation of Korean-American-owned companies whose owners have defiantly stuck to their traditional recipes. Companies like Mama O’s Premium Kimchi, Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi, Choi’s Kimchi Co., and Sinto Gourmet have expanded the variety of kimchi available on store shelves, building in turn upon the quiet multi-decade success of unsung heroes and kimchi diplomats Sunja’s and Cosmos Food Co. While older kimchi businesses catered mainly to Korean Americans and adventurous consumers outside of the Korean community, the proliferation of these new companies reflects kimchi’s growing commoditization in the West over the last decade — a shift arguably due to its “discovery” and glorification by white producers, chefs, and wellness influencers.

The inclination of white people to place greater trust in an unfamiliar food when it is being promoted by other white people means, unsurprisingly, that white people are often the face of the fermentation community. “Whenever a media outlet wants to fill a pickling or fermenting space in print, online, and on social media,” they go with white fermenters, Sarah says. “The recipes are often called ‘easy,’ ‘quick,’ or ‘foolproof,’” instead of embracing the complexity of carefully developed traditional techniques. This is why, for example, Bon Appétit has someone like Brad Leone presenting a context-free kimchi making video — one that was so wrong it inspired a gentle scolding from actual Koreans — instead of featuring an experienced kimchi maker like Maangchi, the Korean food expert. This kind of implicit endorsement of white expertise may be one reason why BIPOC are often expected to sell their traditionally made products for less than, say, a watered-down version made by a white chef or producer.

This highlights another problem perpetuated by the white gaze: The market encourages BIPOC fermenters to only make and present ferments from their own cultures, and to not stray too far from what is perceived by white consumers as authentic and traditionally made. This is particularly true when it comes to ferments tied to specific cultures, such as kimchi and koji-derived products (although kombucha is thought to originally be from China, it has been widely marketed as a beverage without cultural context, save for some vague notion of the “mythical” East). In food media especially, Sarah observes, white fermenters “seem to just ferment across all cultures whereas BIPOC fermenters are often just brought up in special cuisine-specific ways.” White fermenters, free from such cultural constraints, can forage microbes, ferments, and techniques from BIPOC cultures, claiming creative innovation while promoting increasingly meaningless concepts like “tradition” and “authenticity” when it suits them.

White fermenters often also have more access to social, political, and financial capital, allowing them to run workshops and events, which further centers them as experts — and creates more potential for whitewashing. “I have attended several online workshops where white women who identify as European demo or share an often Asian recipe,” Sarah says. “Most of them do talk about the origins, but almost always they talk about putting it in a toastie.” When others share the recipe, she continues, “more and more history is lost.” Recent global online events, organized by white fermenters, have included many BIPOC fermenters, which is a step toward alleviating whitewashing of ferments, but still brings into question who makes the most social and capital gains in these situations.

The question of who gets to be the expert is central to the larger problem of gatekeeping in the fermentation community. While a new generation of BIPOC fermenters is eager to educate students and consumers about different fermenting traditions — in Australia, for example, Saeko Iida, Yoko Nakazawa, Tomoko Onuki, Kaori Takahashi, and Hiroshi Sugihara, a.k.a. @foodritual, all lead workshops or sell products to share their enduring love of koji, and the Korean-born chef Chae Jeong-Eun uses her Melbourne-based private dining business and Instagram to demonstrate how ferments are an intimate, integral part of culture and cuisine — they are still working to disrupt deeply entrenched patterns and norms.

Yoko Inoue, the founder and chef of Shoku Iku, a raw food cafe in Melbourne, thinks that a contributing factor is the differing cultural attitudes to expertise. “White people tend to study for two years and think they understand,” she says. “And because it’s a niche market and they don’t have many competitors in that area, they feel they deserve that [expertise]. If you go to Japan, real masters never call themselves masters.”

Many of the fermenters I spoke to, especially second-generation migrants to the West, shared my experience of learning about fermentation from white sources. As thankful as I am for the work of many white fermenters, I now recognize the white saviorism at play. The white expert has more capital and thus more exposure; their work saving these foods — as the story goes — helps BIPOC reclaim their fermenting cultures, which in turn validates the white expert’s position, obscuring the inequities that led to BIPOC losing these skills in the first place.

When Jessica Wang, a fermentation educator who runs community-focused Picklé workshops in Los Angeles, learned how to make kimchi in her early 20s, it was from David Lebovitz’s blog. “I am grateful for that recipe,” Wang says, “but I now see this is a valid example of this issue.” Because white fermenters don’t have to contend with the disadvantages faced by their BIPOC counterparts, specifically that of coming from cultures that have been “othered,” Wang explains, “when people of influence in mainstream food culture discovered how delicious and wonderful the fermentation practices of BIPOC cultures are and made their techniques widely known, they were already viewed as authorities on cooking in general, so of course they were trusted as legitimate sources of knowledge on fermentation.”

While Inoue is glad that so many people are talking about Japanese fermentation — “it’s not like we own the spores,” she says — she adds that “it’s easier for Western media to talk to Western people because it’s more accessible; they have more status in the society, [and] that makes it more accessible.”

When BIPOC fermenters are given access to Western audiences, such as when they’re invited to attend fermentation events, they are often tokenized and compartmentalized, used as authenticity props to center white experts. Aviaja Lyberth Hauptmann, a Kalaaleq Inuk microbial geneticist who studies Greenlandic ferments, is “very conscious about this dynamic,” she says. “It can be difficult to weigh an opportunity against its potential implications. My experience is most often with outsiders trying to get access to our food culture through me, using me as a stepping stone or research assistant rather than a collaborator.”

All the BIPOC fermenters I spoke to respect and appreciate many of their white fellow fermenters and their work. But they identify the need for white fermenters to do their part in providing equal footing for BIPOC in the fermentation community. It is not easy to tease out the practical realities of how this should be navigated. Even among the 14 fermenters I interviewed, ideas about how to tackle these issues fell across the spectrum: to engage in inclusive collaborations that focus on social justice; to do proper research and give attribution for BIPOC fermentation recipes; even for white producers of ferments from BIPOC cultures to step aside entirely.

King, who is writing a book about oft-ignored Chinese fermentation practices, would like to see “more emphasis on context, more celebration of our differences,” and for more opportunities to go to women and people of color. On Instagram, Feby has called for collaborative conscious reciprocity when navigating the complicated and at times painful sociocultural dynamics of sharing ferments, writing that “Sharing a culture is only equitable once communities initiating the sharing are uplifted, empowered, fairly compensated, and healed.” Hauptmann asks for “more patience from the non-BIPOC community. Just because there is no one in a certain community doing what you dream of doing, does not mean you can go ahead and take that space. That space can never be untaken, and you will have made the barrier for becoming a name in that space higher than it was before.”

Despite these frustrations and challenges, the reach of BIPOC fermenters continues to grow. From East London to Melbourne, from Bengaluru to Bangkok, and from New York to Florida, they’re using their social media platforms to build their businesses and amplify their own voices. Collaborative BIPOC fermenters uphold their cultural fermenting traditions, working alongside conscientious white fermenters to delve — with respect and sensitivity — into other fermenting cultures, staying curious and innovative.

All biological systems benefit from diversity, from the microbes in our gut to the makeup of human societies. By creating equal footing for BIPOC, the fermenting community has an opportunity to be a model for promoting social justice in our food systems. “Imagine the diversity of ideas and perspectives that could be in the world of fermentation if the fermented foods we see around the world are represented by people who are gastronomically skilled and grew up with a grandmother who made this food for them and who have a close emotional tie to the taste and texture of that food,” says Hauptmann. “Someone for whom the food is not a curiosity or an ingredient.”

Dr. Miin Chan is an MD, Ph.D. nutrition researcher, and food and science literacy advocate. She communicates evidence-based nutrition, fermentation, and gut microbiome science at @dr.chans.

Dingding Hu is a New York-based illustrator who has has worked on projects for Google, MIT Media Lab, and DOT NYC, and whose work has appeared in HuffPost, the New York Times, and TED.

Fact-checked by Rowan Walrath.

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Leaving the Restaurant Industry Allowed Me to See Its Problems Clearly

This is Eater Voices, where chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and industry insiders share their perspectives about the food world, tackling a range of topics through the lens of personal experience.

For decades now, the dining public has understood restaurant kitchens to be tough places to work. From yelling to physical threats, bad behavior has historically been accepted as part of coming up as a cook. If you didn’t like it, the saying went, you could leave. Then last summer, in the wake of public reckonings with abusive workplaces of all stripes, it seemed like restaurant workers found their voices. They didn’t like it. They were, in fact, leaving. And on their way out the door, they were vocal about the problems they saw. Sqirl’s dysfunctional kitchen culture and food safety practices were exposed, as was the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen’s exploitation of chefs of color. Amid the details is a lesson about kitchen culture, and power, and why it’s taken so long for us to admit that working in a kitchen does not and should not excuse abuse.

My own time in whites was more than a decade ago, spanning a string of toxic kitchens in the Bay Area. There was the cupcake chain where I was subjected to the founder’s meltdowns, whiplash-inducing rants she’d dispense and then seemingly forget even as I was still smarting from her words. There was the Michelin-starred restaurant where the somewhat sullen chef ruled dinner service by fear and intimidation. He never yelled or raised his voice, instead relying on sous chefs and managers to keep us in line. Then I worked for the vegan doughnut place in a secret, filthy kitchen. We stacked ingredients on the floor and pulled oily gray rags from a bag to wipe down counters. There, I lied to a health inspector to send him away, knowing that if we failed the inspection, my boss would be furious and I’d be out of a job.

When I finally left the doughnut job in 2009, I left the industry entirely — not because I wanted another career, but because I couldn’t see a path to a sustainable, balanced life in food. At each of those jobs, I, like countless others before and after me, stayed silent despite the stressful and abusive working conditions. So did my coworkers: If anything, we sustained each other, for better and worse, providing a valued support system. But each time we shrugged off the verbal abuse or substandard labor or hygienic practices without speaking up, we normalized these alarming behaviors. We accepted the conventional wisdom that this is what restaurant work was like, and we didn’t believe we had agency to change it.

Quitting restaurant work widened my perspective enough to see its problems more clearly. My silence, I realized, was due in part to my sense that I was powerless. I was barely making a living wage, so keeping my job was critical. I knew there was a deep labor pool, so when managers told me I was easily replaceable, I believed them. And kitchens are notoriously hierarchical; “yes, chef” culture doesn’t leave a lot of room for dissenting opinions. That powerlessness I felt is a feature, not a bug, and it’s the way restaurants have operated for far too long.

As a restaurant worker in the Bay Area, I was spending about 30 percent of my income on rent; for many of my peers, that percentage was even higher. When I found a cupcake chain paying a higher hourly rate than other local bakeries, I took the job. At $14 an hour, I was earning $1 more than at my other job and $4 and change above the city’s minimum wage. The money, I soon discovered, was compensation for the founder’s temper — and I put up with those tirades because taking home an extra $30 per week means a lot when you’re living paycheck to paycheck. Quitting may have been better for my mental health, but it wasn’t possible until I lined up a new gig.

Working six days a week plus doubles, I was usually too tired to look for new jobs. As it was, I could barely balance work, mental health, financial well-being, and a job search without burning out. I was trapped by a cycle of dealing with abuse as best I could while scrambling for the financial security that might help me escape; I leaned on compartmentalizing and stayed put until I either lost jobs or couldn’t tolerate them any longer. I can’t speak for them, but I have to imagine that for my coworkers who were undocumented or formerly incarcerated, this cycle was even worse.

If I wanted to keep cooking, and I did, the only way I could see out of this financial insecurity was to move up: I needed to climb the ladder, and to do that, I couldn’t ruffle feathers. The shortest path to a better job title seemed to be clocking a year at a top-tier restaurant — someplace with name recognition, like the Michelin-starred joint I went to next. The chef preferred monastic silence and left the sneers and cutting comments to the sous chefs; we all tiptoed around him, especially when the kitchen chef’s table was booked and our every move was on display. I blocked out a lot of what happened there. Looking back, I mostly remember being starving (there were no meals or breaks during my eight-hour daytime shift), stressed, and scared of getting fired as a new crop of cooks came and went every nine months.

Cooks moving up in the ranks of the brigade system understand how little they matter and how much that big name can boost a career. They make calculated decisions to stay in toxic environments, betting on an eventual payout. Still, sometimes it was so bad there that I would daydream about speaking up, but I’d quickly convince myself not to. Ratting out a bad boss could blow back on my friends if, say, negative press led to a dip in diners and staff were sent home early or laid off. It could get me fired and even blacklisted, branded as difficult among chefs who protected their own.

My coworkers and I would vent about bad shifts and toxic bosses. But they seemed less outwardly affected than I was, getting back to work after our gripefests as if nothing distressing had happened in the first place. I beat myself up for having strong reactions to the abuse I experienced. I wasn’t tough enough to be unfazed, so I figured I was the one who needed to change. Eventually, I grew accustomed to bad behavior and took pride in a thick skin.

My fellow cooks and I relied on whisper networks to warn of shitty bosses and terrible kitchens, but we never dreamed of social media shaming. We were part of the club, paying dues while soaking up the knowledge and experience that would position us to eventually take on leadership roles. With a foot in the door, it’s easy to look past unpleasant or unsafe behavior, especially when no one else is sounding an alarm.

While kitchens could be dysfunctional workplaces, I stayed so long because I was learning a ton and I truly loved the work. I could also be myself, valuable for a gender-nonconforming queer person ill at ease in office culture. Non-normative behaviors were allowed, even encouraged. I fit in, I had friends, and, in San Francisco, I was never the only queer in the room. I rationalized the dysfunction by reminding myself that every working environment had its good and bad qualities. Sure, there was a hierarchy, I told myself, but we all wore whites. Even as I went hard on trainees, displacing my anger onto them as had happened to me, I dreamed of finding a mellower kitchen or creating my own, once I’d paid those dues.

Faith in a brighter future kept me clocking into kitchens despite growing disillusionment. Until the day the kitchen sink fell apart in my hands at the vegan doughnut shop. Sopping wet, I drove across the Bay Bridge in my boxers, replaying my boss’s reaction: He didn’t care that I managed to save the doughnuts or that I’d stayed hours late to get it all mopped up. He was pissed I hadn’t found the sink shutoff valve. To him, the problem wasn’t the sink, it was me. It took up a couple weeks to work up the courage to quit, but I did.

I can see now that I was wrong to stay silent. But I still haven’t forgotten that feeling of choiceless. And so when I hear the general public — and food media — calling for reforming kitchen culture, I want to also urge anyone asking why employees didn’t come forward to simply stop. That question puts the burden of fixing the industry on those most impacted, and most vulnerable: the employees caught in the middle. To transform toxic kitchens, operators, customers, and employees together must change these systemic mechanisms that keep workers silent in the first place.

Change finally seems possible. Pre-pandemic, a persistent labor shortage left management desperate to stem employee turnover; some restaurants increased wages, added perks that boosted collegiality, and focused on retention. Industry professionals began taking a harder look at themselves in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which shed light on the level of sexual harassment women and gender-nonconforming people experience at the hands of their employers, coworkers, and customers. Hopefully the momentum from the #MeToo movement will continue to shift restaurants away from the ego-driven chef culture that breeds toxic workplaces. The whisper networks warning of sexual predators, racist work environments, or abusive bosses evolved into the public callouts seen last summer and, more recently, in Hannah Selinger’s account of living in fear while working for one of the most famous — and famously bad-tempered — chefs in the country.

Public callouts raise awareness among diners and food media. But restorative justice offers a way to center workers in the path forward. Workers need empathy, but more so tangible action. They need a living wage and benefits. They need non-harmful work culture. They need accountability and redress from those who’ve harmed them.

Chefs and restaurateurs at the top of the kitchen hierarchy could invest in learning emotional management, going to rehab if needed, or deciding to be a different kind of boss. Diners can continue to demand accountability and change from toxic kitchens by voting with their dollars and believing the words of impacted employees.

Food media can continue to demand accountability through fairer coverage. Less fawning is a start, but I’d rather shine a light on the industry’s better bosses who may be less well known but equally deserving of acclaim. Canceling the 2020 and 2021 James Beard Awards was another step toward change; moving ahead, the foundation could align its awards with the industry’s better values. Sustainability and accountability deserve as much honor as creativity and innovation, for one. By decoupling creative excellence from the temperamental excesses of big-ego chefdom, the industry will develop new role models and new practices that promote healthier work environments.

Even as the pandemic upends the restaurant world, this reform can and must happen. Diners are now, finally, accustomed to thinking about, if not always respecting, the health and well-being of industry employees, who bear frontline risks as restaurants reopen. Restaurants can’t afford to raise pay for back-of-house staff without offsetting costs onto diners. With industry icons who’d previously eliminated tips, like Danny Meyer, reintroducing them in the pandemic to give hard-hit employees more cash, pay equity seems a moving goalpost — but one that arguably more people are aware of than before.

Ultimately, restaurants are as much about people as they are about food. That’s newly in focus these days, when so many industry employees are hurting. None of us, whether we’re in the restaurant as diners, reporters, critics, or workers, should go on centering food at the expense of those who prepare and serve it. It’s well past time to treat restaurant labor with the same consideration given to ingredients. These workers have too often felt like they have no choice but to accept abysmal working conditions. As diners, let’s finally ensure they no longer have to.

Lindsey Danis writes about food, travel, and LGBTQ topics for publications including Sift, Condé Nast Traveler, AFAR, and Longreads, among others. Bug Robbins is a non-binary queer illustrator obsessed with printmaking, folklore, and green witchcraft.

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What the Bob Dylan catalog sale means for the music industry

When rock icons such as Bob Dylan and Stevie Nicks begin selling off their catalogs, something must be blowin’ in the wind in the music industry.

Certainly, the record business was rocked by Monday’s announcement that Dylan had sold the rights to his six-decade trove of tunes to Universal Music in a deal that is believed to be the biggest ever of its kind: Sources told Bloomberg it was more than $200 million, while the New York Times reported that it could be more than $300 million.

This news came just a few days after Nicks sold 80 percent of her stake in her publishing rights — for both her Fleetwood Mac and solo work — to music publisher Primary Wave for $100 million, according to the Wall Street Journal.

While each deal is different, selling your copyrights typically allows the purchaser to use your songs for any marketing purpose (such as a TV commercial) and, in some cases, entitles them to your songwriting royalties. Some deals, such as the Nicks one, also include the right to use such things as your name and likeness.

So what’s behind these a-changin’ times? As with just about everything else in 2020, COVID-19 was a significant factor.

Stevie Nicks in 1983.
Stevie Nicks in 1983.
Getty Images

“Touring was the financial engine of the music business right up until March, so everybody had to rethink,” said Jem Aswad, senior music editor at Variety. “And what’s something that’s not gonna lose value in a pandemic? Intellectual property. Copyrights. Publishing. It’s a reliable asset.”

With most artists not making big coin from physical record sales, downloads or even streaming — unless you’re Taylor Swift — touring is a major revenue stream, which suddenly dried up.

Calvin Harris
Calvin Harris
Alberto E. Rodriguez/WireImage

“So you’ve also got the Killers, [who] sold their publishing assets to a private equity firm; Calvin Harris sold his assets to a private equity firm,” said Aswad. “Those are two acts right there who rely enormously on touring for income … They may have made some financial decisions thinking they were gonna make X amount of money off of a tour this year. And now they’re making zero.”

No doubt, artists who are feeling the COVID crunch have to think outside the box. “They’re very willing now to talk about divestment,” said Steve Salm, chief business development officer at Concord Music Publishing, which reportedly just acquired Imagine Dragons’ portfolio for about $100 million.

Salm also cited the pandemic touring problem as a selling point for artists, but said it’s really about the “absolute gross dollars” available from deals like this. “The prices reach a point where the owner says, ‘Of course I have to sell. I never thought I would see a price like this in my life,’” he said.

Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons
Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons
Getty Images

On top of that, Aswad said, the incoming presidential administration will also bring “what is likely to be a big jump in capital gains taxes, [so] people are looking to get these deals done before Biden comes into office and whatever new laws he makes take effect.”

From a financial perspective, Primary Wave CEO Larry Mestel agrees that the time is right to make these deals. “First of all, interest rates are so low,” he said. “And music copyrights provide a great place for investors that like to invest in alternative opportunities — a relatively safe place to go and get yield. As an example, Stevie Nicks, her catalog has been generating very stable income now for, what, 30 years or more.”

Stevie Nicks in 2017.
Stevie Nicks in 2017.
Getty Images

What selling off a catalog can do is breathe new life into old classics, said Mestel. “Artists are focused on … opportunities to reintroduce their songs into a new youth culture, [which is] very important to these artists ’cause these songs are their babies.”

For Mestel, landing Nicks’ catalog was a process that began long before 2020 and the pandemic. “We’d been talking about it on and off for almost 10 years,” he said. “And there’s so much we believe that we can do and achieve together.”

Bob Dylan in 2019.
Bob Dylan in 2019.
Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Coming on the heels of the Nicks deal, the Dylan one seals the fact that “this market is white-hot,” said Salm. “Bob Dylan proves that even the absolute top of the food chain of songwriters understands that this is an asset class that has inherent dollar value.”

But, Salm added, few would be worthy of the same kind of blockbuster bucks.

“When you get to such rarefied air and such pristine, culturally important compositions like Bob Dylan’s,” he said, “you are auctioning off the finest of fine art that an auction house has.”

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Dining News

Defiant Michigan Restaurateurs Are Distracting From What the Industry Really Needs — Relief

Over the last nine months of the pandemic, I’ve spoken to dozens of business owners around Michigan and across the United States about the plight of restaurants and bars. I’ve also talked to the servers, chefs, musicians, and performers that sustain them. Nearly all of them have been very clear about what is vital to their ability to make ends meet and recover during this extremely difficult period of time in our economy. They don’t need loans. They don’t want to reopen if it’s unsafe. What they need is financial assistance and relief, but no one with the power to make that happen seems to be listening.

There’s no getting around the fact that people in kitchens tend to work in small spaces side by side, or that servers and bartenders have to interact regularly with unmasked people outside their household — some of whom become violently angry when asked to mask up. These are the exact situations where COVID-19 seeds new cases. It sucks. Nobody likes it, but it’s the truth. A federal judge has now agreed with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that indoor dining is far riskier than going to a department store in a mask. It’s also true that many restaurants and bars cannot get by on takeout and delivery alone — not when third-party apps are taking 30 percent of the ticket price, not when the cost of doing business has gone up, and not while people are tightening their own personal budgets out of fear that they or a loved one may become sick or get laid off unexpectedly.

This has led some to the conclusion that the only option is to defy the state epidemic orders, which are designed to help everyone make it through this terrible pandemic that’s claiming thousands of lives a day. Many of these business owners describe it rather cavalierly as the only choice for “survival.” But while we may come to love restaurants and bars, they’re not people. Their death is a metaphorical one. The deaths of people claimed by COVID-19, and the lives irreparably damaged by the long-term effects of this disease, are not. To the owners and people that help run them, restaurants may be the culmination of a lifelong dream or a family legacy and closing can be a tragic loss. But this anger, and the false narrative that the only way restaurants can move forward is to ignore health and safety officials, is misdirected and damaging to any effort to improve our collective situation.

It’s not merely a matter of personal choice, as though risk is limited to individuals who choose to go to restaurants, while those who stay home are protected. Such libertarian logic disregards the plight of workers who must be there to serve customers and, more obviously, denies the way this virus works. In recent weeks, trade groups and business owners have pointed to outbreak data as evidence that restaurants aren’t part of the COVID-19 problem. They twist and misinterpret the numbers to make the situation appear better than it is, and argue that sanitizing makes indoor dining unmasked in a distanced room with people from other households somehow safe. This reckless hygiene theater is dangerous and breeds a false sense of safety.

In August, Eater Detroit began tracking COVID-19 outbreaks at restaurants and bars based on weekly data provided by the state. The data was pretty good, but it’s not perfect, and the state admits that and is treating it as such. While the numbers couldn’t possibly capture every outbreak or case (for that, the state would need a much more robust contact tracing system), it did provide a benchmark for where we were in the summer, when COVID-19 counts were relatively low and COVID-19 protocols were somewhat less restrictive.

What that data shows is that the number of outbreaks associated with restaurants and bars has steadily climbed since the end of the summer, when people began retreating indoors and partaking in holiday celebrations. Trade groups will tell you that the restaurant and bar percentage of all reported outbreaks in the state has hovered somewhere between 2.7 percent and 10.5 percent since the week of August 20. On its face, that looks proportionally small compared to the percentage of outbreaks in other settings, like social gatherings. However, the total number of reported outbreaks at restaurants and bars was 19 during the week of August 20; by the week of November 12, that number had nearly tripled to 54 recorded outbreaks. A week later, there were 65 reported outbreaks. If just two people became ill from each outbreak, that’s 130 new cases seeding in a public setting and being brought home to expose even more people. We know these outbreaks can grow quite large, because we have examples. Early in the summer, a Harper’s in East Lansing became the site of a widely publicized outbreak that sickened approximately 188 people across multiple counties.

We do know, and have known for months, what is effective at slowing the spread: staying home, wearing a mask when you have to leave, and limiting interactions with people outside of your household. But when the state allows businesses to remain open, even at limited capacity, in spaces like restaurant dining rooms where masks are off, it’s implicitly saying, “This is safe.”

Public health experts are well aware of the trade-offs here. They know that closing dining rooms will hurt restaurants and the people that work in them financially and make life harder in the short term, but they also know that it will send a signal that that particular behavior is not worth the risk in this moment.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s leadership hasn’t been perfect in 2020. The rules served up at a moment’s notice to restaurant owners have been extremely difficult to navigate, even for people who are closely following the twists and turns of the state’s COVID-19 response. More could have been done to prepare business owners ahead of time for this frighteningly difficult winter. And when that winter surge finally arrived, the Department of Health and Human Services could have done a better job of communicating those new restrictions. However, by defying state orders and attacking the health department, these restaurateurs are putting economics before the lives of themselves, their workers, and their customers. This action is selfish and rewards the few by allowing them to illegally profit off the attention and press of standing up against some mythical tyranny. The media plays into this by focusing attention on those who aren’t following the rules, instead of the many who are — and who are disturbed by what others in the industry are doing.

We should be praising temporary sacrifice and rewarding it with the promise of money to see people through their time of need. The actual threat is allowing the virus to win and permitting the federal government to continue to withhold urgently needed bailout funds while proposing unacceptable alternatives.

Now, because of forces outside of her administration’s direct control, like the lack of renewed federal assistance and the chaos of a Republican-held state legislature that seems hellbound to reopen no matter the consequences to the long-term health of Michiganders, the governor’s team of medical experts is being dragged down by trying to satisfy people who won’t be satisfied with anything less than a full reopening. Telling people they can’t do what they want to do because it’s not safe is not a politically favorable position to be in. And ultimately, it results in timid half-measures to control the virus and creates distractions in a fast-moving and extremely precarious situation.

If businesses and citizens were provided with the appropriate relief they needed to avoid financial catastrophe and stay closed, Michigan could start to beat back this virus in unity without anxiety over lost income or lost lives. It’s sickening to watch businesses struggling and closing and workers seeking food assistance as the United States prepares to release the first batch of vaccines — something that could help the service industry return to normal in a much safer way.

So what can we do? Instead of wasting our energy on petty social media bickering and taking stands that won’t actually improve the lives of small-business owners and their employees long term, we should be focusing our attention on demanding the relief that everyone deserves. We could be contacting our lawmakers and people in the federal government and urging them to take care of our neighbors. Michigan can continue to keep dining rooms closed and support the people and individuals who are trying their best to keep us safe. We can also push for our state legislature to pass the temporary relief that this crisis demands and the mask mandate that our exhausted health experts believe would help. And we should push them to demand the same from our federal government. Our nation and our state will be better off in 12 months’ time if it invests in saving the places we have and the people who work in them now.

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Dining News

How Can the Portland Restaurant Industry Show Up for Black Lives?

For the past several months, Portland has reverberated with the cries of protestors denouncing police brutality and demanding justice for the police killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd — along with those of Portlanders Tete Gulley, Quanice Hayes, and Patrick Kimmons. Thousands have expressed solidarity with the movement, whether by marching, participating in staged “die-ins” in the street, or providing support for the protestors who continue to show up night after night. Facing tear gas and rubber bullets, Portlanders have continued to show up night after night for direct action, even as media coverage has dwindled in recent months.

Portland’s restaurants, and the people who run them, are seemingly no exception: Food carts like Kee’s Loaded Kitchen have used their Instagram accounts to educate their followers on instances of police brutality in the Portland area; Vietnamese cart Matta donated sales to the George Floyd Memorial Fund; and bottled cocktail company Straightaway gave $2,000 to Unite Oregon.

But the complicated relationship between some of the most visible actors in the city’s restaurant scene and its communities of color, particularly its Black community, has posed some profound questions about the best way for restaurants to support the Black Lives Matter movement and its broader goals of racial justice. How can an industry plagued by a history of appropriation and performative allyship meaningfully support Black communities, especially in the midst of its own ongoing reckoning with systemic racism and the devastating economic headwinds of a pandemic? And how can these commitments to support Black communities persist beyond a few social media posts and initial responses?

For many in the industry, these questions aren’t just hypothetical. In July, for instance, a white local chef, inspired by the “bloc of moms and dads protesting” known as the Wall of Moms, attempted to independently organize a “Chef’s Bloc” to march for Black lives. While well-intentioned, like other activist blocs that had formed in recent months to show solidarity — which, at their best, can alleviate the burden of the marginalized, who are forced to overcome the effects of discrimination on a daily basis on top of advocating for a more equitable society — it was also an example of how much still needs to be done within the industry to center the work, needs, and perspectives of the Black people that activists claim they want to help.

Nikesiah Newton serves meals at the Meals4Heels station during the Sideyard Farm’s BIPOC market. Newton is the creator of the late-night delivery service, which provides meals to sex workers.

A starting point for the restaurant industry to support racial justice is to address shortcomings within itself, according to Nick Charles, a former staffer at Yonder — the hit fried chicken spot owned by Maya Lovelace — who spoke out this summer over the restaurant’s treatment of employees and its whitewashing of Southern cuisine. As a restaurant city, Portland is known in part for establishments that have a tendency to “find inspiration” in the cuisines of people who do not benefit from their critical or financial success. So the work, at a basic level, “just starts with an appreciation of whatever culture’s food you’re serving,” Charles says. Staff “needs to be taught better about how to explain the culture of the food. We can’t get away from food service and bar service without telling these stories. It allows racist ways to creep in because you’re muting a whole sect of people by not telling the story of their food.”

A key problem, Charles notes, is the lack of representation of BIPOC in restaurants, especially in leadership positions. “There are a lot of Black and brown people in the food industry, but not as many as you’d expect,” he says. What he has experienced as a result is that “as a front of house Black person, a lot of times I had to start in the back of house even though all of my experience was front of house … you have to prove yourself more as a Black or brown person.”

At a minimum, improving restaurant culture for BIPOC workers, especially in restaurants with white ownership, requires creating an inclusive atmosphere that fosters meaningful feedback and dialogue between management and staff. “No matter what, every restaurant has to have someone that’s designated that you can speak to that isn’t a manager or owner,” Charles says. “If you want to build a healthy work environment, build those healthy relationships.”

That perspective is echoed by Nikesiah Newton, the creator of Meals4Heels, a late-night delivery service that caters to sex workers, in part to avoid the toxic culture she experienced in traditional restaurant kitchens. A more equitable industry means “being upfront with creating safe spaces; having systems for staff to voice concerns over racism, misogyny, transphobia, etc.; listening to those that do have concerns; and checking your own privilege,” she says.

Still, the most straightforward way to address the lack of representation and opportunity for Black people in the industry is to direct money and resources toward Black-owned bars and restaurants. BIPOC business owners, especially Black entrepreneurs, have faced exceptionally difficult barriers to entry in Portland: The city’s century-long history of racist displacement as it developed has pushed Black business owners further and further from the city center: A number of development projects in Portland’s history, from the expansion of Emanuel hospital to the I-5 expansion, specifically impacted Black neighborhoods in North and Northeast Portland. In the last decade, the number of small business loans given to Black Oregonians has dropped 96 percent. This is why, Newton says, “showing up to me means buy Black, buy Black, support Black.”

A man prepares food in a restaurant kitchen

Sous chef Danté Fernandez preps takeaway orders at Magna, a Filipino restaurant in SE that regularly donates and serves food to justice organizations around the city.

Beyond working to fix the problems of equity and opportunity within the industry itself, for aspiring allies who want to engage in direct activism, the most important thing is to connect to the communities with whom they’re trying to show solidarity, and engaging with the work that is already being done, according to Danté Fernandez, the sous chef at SE Clinton Filipino restaurant Magna. Fernandez spends much of his free time volunteering as a parent, and regularly attends protests. “They should find a pre-existing [organization] or start one with a Black person who already works within the community” if they’re looking to support Black Lives Matter, he says. “Everybody wants people to start showing up but once they start showing up, they start taking over and it starts being about them and less about Black lives.”

In a throughline with how white-owned restaurants in Portland frequently co-opt cuisines of cultures that aren’t their own, white chefs and owners, in their attempts to show up, whether intentionally or not, can position themselves as leaders or faces of the movement if they don’t proceed with care. “That’s what I’m seeing with a lot of chefs going out and trying to do their things — they’re not connecting with the community like they should,” Fernandez says. “I want white people to show up, I want them to be there and speak up but they don’t need to take a leadership role.”

There is a genuine peril in leadership being co-opted by people outside of the community, which is that the focus on what really matters can be lost. “People were so focused on the feds and that was a distraction,” Charles says. “We’re out there trying to fight the police in the streets every night; that’s inevitable at this point. But we need to refocus the entire movement on [Black lives] if we want to accomplish our goals.”

“I think the biggest thing,” Charles adds, “is that you have to let the Black voices lead.”

Ultimately, allies in the restaurant industry need to bring the same energy and commitment to transforming kitchens, to protesting, and to activism, and it’s work they should do in collaboration with the communities and people they’re trying to uplift and amplify, wherever they choose to focus their efforts. “Building basic relationships with Black culinarians is key,” Newton says. “We can do this over a meal, over a drink, over making cheese, or feeding houseless folks in our community.”

Celeste Noche is a documentary and editorial photographer based in Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco.

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Dining News

Overwhelmed by How to Help the Restaurant Industry? Make a List.

Supporting restaurants, if you have the financial means, feels more important now than ever before. As a second (or third) wave of shutdowns rolls out throughout the country, many businesses are closing yet again, this time with the added financial burden of a year’s worth of frantic pivots and the emotional burnout it’s caused. That feeling of helplessness we as restaurant lovers all feel is likely a mix of frustration that the federal government is still failing to provide any meaningful aid to small business owners, coupled with the nagging knowledge that our weekly $25 take-out order of khao soi and pad see ew is likely a drop in the bucket in terms of what that restaurant really needs to survive.

We’re all trying to support restaurants in our own ways, and honestly, the love we have for the industry as a whole is making the effort to “support restaurants” seem like a vague and unending battle. During the first wave, I mostly mobilized to support the spots in my immediate neighborhood — the places I walk by with the dog daily, the ones whose patios I’m mostly likely to populate once this is all over. As the months passed, a few to-go and delivery spots were added to the mix, and now, when dinner time rolls around, I’ll usually hit up the same three or four restaurants over and over. The reflex is a shortcut, a way to avoid thinking long and hard about patronizing a restaurant in terms of “who to show support to tonight” when the options are overwhelming and the need particularly pressing.

That said, I felt a minor tinge of actual agency earlier this week by sitting down and doing what a lot of people do when they’re overwhelmed: I wrote out a list. The list of restaurants (more than 20, all over town) represents the hypothetical closures that would leave me the most bereft, and I’m committing my support to them these next few months. I think of it as a personal Eater 38 of sorts, a reminder of what exactly about my city’s local restaurant scene feels most necessary, or comforting, or essential to me. In a time when our social media feeds are full of new menus, new pivots, new appeals for support, my new to-do list is a way to concentrate all that energy into something that feels slightly less paralyzing to me as a consumer. And it’s a way to break free from the delivery and takeout rut I’m currently in by literally reminding me of what else is out there.

Because now that the next wave of closures is here — and after months and months of heartbreaking closures, both permanent and temporary — it’s time to be more strategic, and less reliant on our “defaults” when it comes to showing financial support. Writing a physical list was a good exercise to consider the places that I’ve missed, or that I fervently want around when out-of-town guests come back, or that feel like such a part of the fabric of the community that I can’t imagine what the neighborhood would be like without them. My list of restaurants still includes some of my regular go-tos, plus places that I haven’t been to since the pandemic hit due to sheer laziness or lack of social occasions that would bring me there normally; some are in neighborhoods I haven’t even visited in the past eight months. Unfortunately no one without an unlimited bucket of cash (or, cough, actual political power) can save all the restaurants. But it feels like doing something, at least, to commit on paper to patronizing some, for as long as I can.

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Dining News

The Restaurant Industry Needs a Bailout. Let’s Finally Give Them One.

Coronavirus infections are spiking uncontrollably. Hospitals are over capacity. The public doesn’t understand which activities are safe, and city and state officials vaguely warn that worse is yet to come. Is this November 2020 or March? The brutal, live-wire uncertainty of the pandemic’s first wave was a shock, but it spurred millions to adopt restrictions, driven by a sense of solidarity and fear. That shock has passed, and in its place creeps a nihilistic dread. Now, everyday people and essential healthcare workers alike are in the same place: overwhelmed, emotionally deadened, and burnt out.

In restaurants, the consequences of the death spiral of pandemic mismanagement are glaringly obvious, and speak to a larger breakdown in public life. Independent restaurant owners across America have been asked to take on unimaginable financial and health risks to keep their businesses open, and now, eight months into the pandemic, another shutdown could render those months of struggle moot. During the first round of reopening, restaurant owners bled cash and limped along: sinking PPP loans into hiring back staff; installing new ventilation systems for indoor dining that never returned; investing in elaborate outdoor dining setups; and even generating entirely different menus in hopes of drawing in customers. Now, in much of the country, the winter weather is cutting off outdoor dining just as rising case counts make indoor dining dangerous; even in warm Los Angeles, the city just cut outdoor dining capacity by 50 percent. For restaurant owners, their money is gone, their will is sapped, and there are no options left.

For restaurant workers, the situation is even worse. Those still going to work face a daily threat of sickness, and watch firsthand as their workplaces teeter on the brink of collapse because many people, rightfully, don’t want to dine out during a pandemic. Those out of work who are eligible for benefits saw their relief checks disappear on July 31; unemployment benefits will completely run out for many Americans the day after Christmas. Restaurant workers without documents never received benefits at all and have been getting by through patchwork charity and mutual aid operations.

The worst part is? None of this is a surprise, all of this was avoidable, and since March, the solution has been abundantly clear: Restaurants and the people who work in them need a bailout. There is no solution that’s not a bailout. Landlords won’t offer rent relief. Outdoor dining doesn’t work in the winter. Diners will not put on their masks between bites. And who are we even reopening for? Bill Clark, the co-owner of Meme’s, a Brooklyn restaurant so beloved there were lines around the block after it announced its closure, put it succinctly: “There should have been help. There should have been pay for people to stay home, there should have been pay for business to survive and stay closed until it was safe to [open] again.”

So where is the help? Why are the restaurants open, and the schools closed? Across the world, from Australia to Taiwan to Norway, countries have used tighter border controls, aggressive contact-tracing, and targeted lockdowns to drive down their infection rates. In European countries struggling with outbreaks like France and Germany, the government is still paying businesses, largely restaurants, forced to close. The stalled-out HEROES Act contains provisions for grants for small businesses, but no one knows how they will work, or when the bill might be passed. Restaurants most in need of help get by on the tightest of margins; many are immigrant-owned. The United States of America is a rich country. Is all the money going to fighter jets? Even if you are a fan of fighter jets, even if Top Gun is your favorite movie, is it really worth having the jets and not the dive bar where Maverick and Goose bang out “Great Balls of Fire”? Don’t politicians want small-town diners to campaign in? The diners have done so much for them — why won’t they save them now?

What’s most frustrating about the endless delay of aid is that the measures designed to save the diners will also save lives. Business owners won’t want to close if it means losing their business. But with the numbers where they are and Thanksgiving on the way, the risks of keeping restaurants open grow great. Indoor dining works only under highly controlled circumstances; when cases are spiking, outdoor dining isn’t necessarily safe; working in these establishments is the most dangerous of all. With two working vaccines and likely more on the way, the end of the pandemic is in sight. Once everyone is vaccinated, the first thing people are going to want to do is eat at a restaurant. It’s time to save the lives, and the shreds of American public life, while we still can. So, let’s try this again: Bail out restaurants, and pay people to stay home. It’s already months too late, and we can’t afford to wait any longer.

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Does the Beauty Industry Exist to Make Us Insecure?

goop beauty editors Jean Godfrey-June and Megan O’Neill love to ask—and answer—questions. On their podcast, The Beauty Closet, they’re doing both. To familiarize you with each week’s guest, we came up with a goop beauty (and life) questionnaire.

This Week We’re Talking To:

Phillip Picardi, host of the podcast
Unholier Than Thou, journalist, and beauty writer

A major force behind the woking up of Teen Vogue, editorial director of Them, editor in chief of Out magazine, and now podcast host and influential writer, LA-based Phillip Picardi started out…like us, as a beauty editor. So our Beauty Closet podcast episode is a fascinating look at many of the questions he raises around the topic, not to mention everything from racism, religion, LGBTQIA+ rights, and abortion to face oil. On our podcast, he challenged us to think about the difference between harping on insecurity for profit and trying to solve legitimate beauty problems (he famously explored this topic in an article on butthole grooming), and he asked us to consider how our perceptions of beauty might be intertwined with racism. At the same time, he gave us steps to take to make the world a better place.

We explored how working in the beauty industry affected his activism around Blackness and queer and trans rights; the story behind his brilliant podcast, Unholier Than Thou; and the ways each of us might help shift inequity. “When you’re gathered with friends, if you notice all of them look a certain way, talk a certain way, were educated a certain way, you’re part of the problem,” he says. “And you can make a really proactive effort to be part of the solution.” Listening to his ideas for fixing the world—rather than simply bemoaning the sorry state of it—inspired and energized us, so definitely take a listen.

Because his roots are in beauty, we couldn’t wait to see his goop beauty questionnaire answers.

We hope you enjoy the books recommended here. Our goal is to suggest only things we love and think you might, as well. We also like transparency, so, full disclosure: We may collect a share of sales or other compensation if you purchase through the external links on this page.

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Dining News

The Best Face Masks Made by Restaurant Industry Favorites

Update, October 6, 2020: This article was originally published on April 27, 2020, and recently updated to include more shoppable masks.

The seamstresses at Tilit were already working from home when Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York put out a call on Twitter.

“On March 20, Cuomo had this call to action, saying that NYC was running out of PPE [personal protective equipment]. ‘Small businesses, small companies, get creative,’ was essentially what his Twitter message said, ‘and start helping out,’” says Jenny Goodman, chief operating officer of Tilit, which makes chef coats, aprons, and other “workwear” items for hospitality workers.

Within hours, the team settled on a no-brainer solution. As Goodman explains it, Alex McCrery, Tilit’s founder, happened to be in the office at that moment. “He cut a mask pattern and sewed a sample, and we were like, ‘Okay, let’s make masks.’”

Tilit is just one of many companies pivoting to masks, as it were. Dozens of apparel companies, big and small, are stepping up to use their facilities or distributors to produce face masks, though the scale and actual products vary. Some companies, like Nike, Eddie Bauer, Ralph Lauren, and Gap, are working to produce clinical-grade equipment that can be used in hospitals and are distributing directly to health care facilities.

Others are making fabric masks for customers, in the hope that their use can free up more medical-grade masks for the frontline workers who need them most. These include companies that typically manufacture aprons and other workwear for kitchen and restaurant use, like Tilit, as well as Hedley & Bennett, Blue Cut, Artifact, and CamCam. Food52 is also selling masks, made of denim and flannel and created in collaboration with canvas manufacturer Steele Canvas.

“With the CDC guidelines in place recommending cloth masks for everyone, and many grocery stores now requiring cloth masks to be worn by customers before entering, it’s safe to say people want to both protect themselves and donate to frontline health care workers at the same time,” says Food52 buyer Aja Aktay, who spearheaded the initiative with Steele Canvas.

Food52 clearly notes online that the masks “are not a substitute for N95 or surgical-grade masks and they are not FDA approved,” a disclaimer echoed on nearly all of the product pages for these masks. Rather, they’re intended for regular folks trying to minimize the risk they pose to others. As explained, “Masks can help stop the spread of coronavirus not just by protecting the wearer, but by preventing the wearer — who could be an asymptomatic spreader — from breathing and spitting their germs everywhere.”

Between consumers’ growing awareness of the importance of face coverings and the changed CDC guidance, orders are coming in fast: Food52 sold through its first batch of masks within three days and is working to fulfill the current waitlist of orders by the end of April. At Tilit, Goodman says “the demand is crazy, so we’re literally sewing as fast as we possibly can.”

But there are plenty of challenges for companies pivoting to a product they’re not accustomed to making, especially in a time of logistical limitations. “We went from ideation to releasing a mask in 72 hours,” says Chris Hughes of Artifact, a small workwear company based in Omaha. “The toughest constraints have been sourcing materials and specialized equipment. Many of our suppliers have been shut down due to the pandemic… a lot of MacGyver solutions had to be made in our studio.”

Goodman said Tilit was able to rely largely on fabrics they had on hand, though the elastic straps “were a little bit of a struggle” to source. Shipping is also a real challenge, both for receiving supplies and sending out to customers. “We’ve had to hedge our bets and order something from two to three different suppliers then cross fingers one can deliver to us,” Hughes says.

“UPS is a shitshow,” Goodman says frankly. “The demand for everything is so high right now, for things to be delivered, so getting them out as fast as we can is definitely a challenge.”

The on-the-fly pivots from aprons or shirts to masks has also inevitably resulted in snags when it comes to sizing and fit. “Fit and comfort is something we strive for with every design we create,” Tilit’s McCrery says. “Traditionally we design and test our garments over months or even years, as was the case with our raved-about jumpsuits. However, in this unprecedented era, speed and safety were of the utmost importance in designing our masks.”

The masks tend to be one-size-fits-all, to reach a wider customer base and streamline production, but that means nailing a perfect fit is extra tough. Frequent customer complaints are that the more structured masks — which are sewn and cut to hold a shape that’s molded to the wearer’s face — are often too big (which causes slippage) or small (which causes a gap), depending on the wearer. Masks that are made with a pleated design, rather than a molded structure, can require more material but are more flexible size-wise. “Our pleat design and moldable metal nosepiece form to the face better than any of the more structured prototypes we designed,” says Hughes of Artifact.

McCrery says the vast majority of Tilit’s customers are proudly sharing their masks on social media, but says the brand is “rapidly working to develop an improved design” to address some fit concerns. Ellen Bennett, founder of Hedley & Bennett, has been actively replying to concerned customers through Instagram.

Some may view such business pivots cynically, as a bid for do-gooder PR hits or government contracts, or as a sly way to ensure their workers are deemed “essential” (though Goodman says the various producers Tilit works with were already considered essential workers). But those benefits aside, many company owners say they’re doing it because mask-making efforts help keep staffers employed.

“I am surprised we were able to get to full production considering all the constraints, but the alternative was laying off staff, so we were extremely motivated to work through the obstacles,” says Hughes; ultimately, Artifact was able to hire four additional staffers to support the effort. Aktay at Food52 says the initiative has helped Steele Canvas retain over 50 jobs, and Goodman says the masks have helped Tilit “keep a few more people on our team employed.”

For some brands, it’s also been a way to give back — a particularly powerful proposition for companies that consider themselves part of the restaurant industry. Tilit’s and Hedley & Bennett’s masks are both sold as part of a “Buy 1, Give 1” deal, with each mask purchase funding a second to be donated to frontline workers in need. Food52 is selling Steele Canvas masks as a “Buy 1, Give 1” deal, or allowing customers to choose “Give 2” — essentially just making a donation. CamCam is prompting shoppers to add a $5 donation to their mask purchase, “help[ing] us to continue producing free masks for medical workers, caregivers, and at-risk communities.”

In terms of donations, Food52’s masks are going to a variety of hospitals (as a supplement to, not a replacement for, medical-grade masks), while Tilit is distributing theirs to a mix of medical facilities and food pantries. Hedley & Bennett is also distributing to a mix of frontline workers, as well as soliciting requests for donations through its website.

“Being able to do something in a time like this has been really nice — otherwise it’s just so hard to sit and wait and see while your whole industry is in crisis,” Goodman says. And while Tilit plans on making masks for as long as there’s a demand, Goodman hopes that eventually restaurants can return to their original needs.

“For the long run, our core business is to focus on helping support the restaurant industry with awesome workwear, once they’re back up and running.”

Where to buy restaurant-approved reusable masks:

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