Why running a restaurant shouldn’t (only) be a labour of love

OPINION: A whole lot of people in the food business say they’re not in it for the money. They need to stop saying that
By Corey Mintz - Published on Jan 27, 2020
The author’s hand and that of his daughter, who was born in the fall of 2019. (Corey Mintz)

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“I was never in this for the money. But it turns out that the money was an absolute necessity for me.” — Michael Scott

The new year often brings resolutions to live better through diet and exercise. Those are hard adjustments to stick to. So allow me to suggest a guaranteed way to build bicep and shoulder strength. Have a baby.

At first, a baby weighs as little as five pounds. So when you cradle it in your arms as you rock it to sleep, it feels no heavier than wearing a really chunky watch. But babies, unlike free weights, are sentient beings that eat and therefore gain mass. My little Puddin’ is now about 10 pounds. And when I’m holding her at 3 a.m., holding a bottle to her lips, my arms get tired. That means my regimen is working. As a result, I’ve developed a couple of buff baby arms without having to go to the gym.

It’s expensive, though. When you do the math, having a child — finding a home with more space, feeding a new member of the family, buying car seats and swaddles and white noise machines, saving for college — is probably more expensive than a gym membership. But, of course, it’s not about money: it’s a labour of love.

That’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot in the past few months. Around the same time my daughter was born, I started working on a book, and I’ve been interviewing people across Canada and the United States about the food business. One thing that comes up again and again is why people do what they do, what motivates them to provide food for others. And almost every time, they trot out a variation of that classic line:

  • I don’t do this for the money
  • Nobody takes this job to get rich
  • I make a decent living, but that’s not why I do this
  • This business is barely profitable
  • If I just wanted to make money, I would have become a lawyer

I suspect such phrases are not limited to hospitality and that people in many fields regurgitate them. But we have to stop saying them. I love what I do, professionally and personally. I love writing about food, and I love being a dad. And I understand the joy that comes from providing nourishment for others. When I was a cook, it was a thrill to see customers eating food that I’d prepared, watch them transform from grumpy and impatient to tranquil and sated. I love to cook for my family and friends. And, even in the middle of the night, when I’d rather be sleeping, it’s a pure pleasure to hold that bottle while my daughter gulps in her sleep, her eyelids barely fluttering, as I provide the nutrients she needs to grow.

Years ago, I met a butler who told me that there are certain people who take pleasure in catering to others and that they excel in hospitality — drawn,  as Gary Chapman puts it in his book The Five Love Languages, to “acts of service.”

Over the years, many restaurateurs have confessed to me that they truly love creating satisfying experiences for customers, and I’ve never doubted them. Though they often preface this statement with the suggestion that I won’t believe them, I do get it. Totally.

But pretending that our personal happiness is unrelated to money is disingenuous.

Lately, I’ve heard some version of the “labour of love” sentiment from owners of small restaurants who are experimenting with staff profit-sharing and environmental initiatives, from the founder of a massive fast-casual restaurant chain. But of course the money matters. If a small business can’t generate sufficient profit, it won’t survive. There will be no customers to satisfy, no staff to nurture, and no revenue to divert to worthy causes. And when you’re on top, cushioned by the stability of capital, it’s easy to pretend that money doesn’t matter, that you do what you do solely for love. Because it’s the security of money that gives you the freedom to enjoy your work.

Every time I hear it, I’m reminded of something Steve Carell’s Michael Scott character says in an episode of The Office appropriately titled “The Money.” Having had to quit a second job he’s taken to pay off his credit-card debt, Scott confesses, “I was never in this for the money.” After considering the statement, he adds, “But it turns out that the money was an absolute necessity for me.”

Dear restaurateurs, we know that your industry’s success rate is low and that its profit margins are slim. No one has ever accused you of getting into this business only to make money. You don’t have to invoke the straw man of the greedy fat-cat restaurateur to prove that you are in it for other reasons.

I love my child. And the pleasure that I get from watching her eat is pure and clean. And it feeds a longing in my heart, one that I hope will become a bigger part of our relationship as she moves on to solids, holding a spoon, sharing what’s on my plate, cooking together, and so on, down the rabbit hole of my self-centered, imagined version of fatherhood (though I am told she will likely be eating only buttered noodles in five years).

To pretend that parenthood exists in a vacuum, unaffected by financial realities, would be dishonest. Parenthood is a terrible financial decision. But it would be obnoxious if, every time I told someone how much I loved my daughter, I tried to prove it by adding that I’m barely making money on this deal.

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