May'21 Message from the President


Bill Rheaume

President, Skål International

I came across this article in a Tourism trade publication, reproduced from the New York Times, and I thought it was quite timely, so I invite members to read it as well:

What Is Hospitality? The Current Answer Doesn’t Work.

The host-guest relationship puts all the onus on the server, particularly during the pandemic, and points to the dysfunction at the heart of the business.

One of my last restaurant meals before the shutdowns started last year was at Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco. I waited on the street by a fishy-smelling puddle until I was waved toward a seat at the well-worn counter.

Crushed between two strangers on a wobbly stool, I happily ate as much fresh, sweet, cold Dungeness crab meat as I could. Happily, because the server across the bar was making me feel comfortable and cared for, safe and unhurried, though I can’t say exactly how he did this.

Unlike service, which is technical and easy to describe, hospitality is abstract, harder to define. It can’t be summed up in a checklist. It can’t be bought. It doesn’t hinge on the quality of the glassware, or the folding of a napkin while you’re in the bathroom. And it can’t be eroded by a slightly-longer-than-you-expected wait, or other little inconveniences, like picking a piece of crab shell off your tongue.

Hospitality is both invisible and formidable — it surrounds you. You can find it at a rest stop on the highway and miss it at the host stand of a fine-dining restaurant. You feel its presence, or you don’t.

But what is it? As chefs, owners and restaurant workers rebuild the hospitality business, the question has become less theoretical, and more urgent.  At the kinds of seminars where successful people share the secrets to their success, the New York restaurateur Danny Meyer has talked about measuring what he calls the “hospitality quotient” of his staff.

HQ is a way of measuring aspects of a worker’s emotional intelligence. The group claims that it helps determine whether she’s the kind of person who feels good by making other people feel good. In other words, if she’s suited for the hospitality industry.

Mr. Meyer has said hiring people with kindness and optimism, curiosity and empathy, self-awareness, and integrity — all markers of a high HQ — is part of his company’s competitive advantage.

Variations of this approach have defined American hospitality for decades. Maybe because it’s such a seductive idea — that not only is the customer always right, but that the people working in restaurants are somehow called to serve them and find joy in it. That hospitality is what they give, and that it belongs to the paying diner.

Like many chefs in the pandemic, they saw burnout among the staff, who were worn down by the physical and emotional labor of serving and cooking through lockdowns — crying, stepping away from the line, struggling for a better work-life balance. 

After an exhausting year, chefs are seeing the fragility of the business, and the vulnerability of their workers, more clearly.

Before hospitality was a business, it was more of a virtue — a barometer of civilization. And in light of the past year, and the extreme hospitality expected from workers during a global pandemic, it might be helpful to think of it that way again.

Ancient ideas of hospitality were in place to protect pilgrims, travelers, immigrants, and others who looked to strangers for food and shelter on the road. At the root of hospitality is the Latin word “hostis”, wrote the philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle, which means guest, but also enemy. 

Writing about the ethics and politics of hospitality, another philosopher, Jacques Derrida, claimed that “unconditional hospitality is impossible”. It’s never been reasonable to expect infinite generosity, but that idea has still shaped the industry in countless ways, now widely accepted as the only ways that restaurants can function.

For fear of losing customers, chefs underprice dishes on their menus. They rely on predatory third-party delivery apps, which eat away at already razor-thin margins, because customers find them convenient.

Prep cooks and dishwashers clock out of one restaurant job and head to a second, but still can’t piece together a living wage. Servers rely almost entirely on tips because the minimum wage is so low. Cooks put themselves at risk because their health care is tied to their employment. Diners recognize that workers in the kitchen may be undocumented and use that to leverage power.

It’s no wonder that, as restaurants try to staff up, there’s a national shortage of workers.

Service may work one way, flowing from staff to diners, but hospitality reciprocates. At its best, it should bring a sense of safety and well-being to those dining and to those working.

The art critic John Berger often talked about hospitality as necessary to his understanding of art and culture, to the act of storytelling, to being human. Hospitality, to him, was a continuous and conscious choice — to listen, to be kind, to be open. If an exchange relied on someone’s exploitation? That wasn’t hospitality at all.

Reimagining hospitality with this in mind could reshape the industry, making it a safer, fairer place to work, with higher wages, comprehensive benefits, and stronger support systems for workers. It may also make more room for employee-owned restaurants, unions, and community-driven models. 

Before opening Uptowne Café & Bakery in 2017, Adrian Lipscombe spent time interviewing residents and local business owners in La Crosse, Wis., to learn exactly what the community wanted.

Ms. Lipscombe, who came to the restaurant business with a background in architecture and city planning, worked to connect locals to farmers, and started programs to feed those in need, including a buy-one-give-one dinner series.

During the pandemic, she said, people bought gift certificates from her, then donated them back to the restaurant, or brought in envelopes of cash, trying to help however they could. These gestures from diners made her fight harder to keep the restaurant afloat.

From the start, Ms. Lipscombe said, she wanted the restaurant, and its entire team, to be part of the fabric of the community.

We’re not trying to reach for a Michelin star or a James Beard award”, she said. “It’s a different kind of hospitality”.

Published in New York Times, April 13, 2021 (edited for Skål Now, the Skål International Newsletter).