Shifting the business model to put people first
April 01, 2021
Read Time 5 mins
Photo: Clay Williams
Our industry is in crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has already permanently shuttered 17 percent of restaurants nationwide, forced millions into unemployment, and left chefs, owners, and workers struggling to imagine what the future looks like in the near- and long-term. As states move from re-opening to returning to restrictions on dining and the industry continues to try to adapt, we’re sharing stories from the front lines of businesses reacting to this new landscape. Below, Elle Simone Scott looks into the community business model, an alternative structure for restaurants in a time when the status quo seems untenable.
2020 has been a year of calamity and uncertainty for the hospitality industry. Restaurants that were once thriving beacons of the industry shuttered almost overnight. Advocates for the industry are working tirelessly to have the issues of food service workers addressed on a legislative level, while those of us on the ground are figuring out how to continue to survive and—in some cases—thrive. With the pandemic exposing the fragility of the stereotypical restaurant model, some chefs and restaurateurs are exploring an alternative setup: the community business model. This model is built on the concept that businesses can reap substantial benefits by involving their customers more intensively as a source of expertise and a partner for collaboration on design, marketing, and sales.
Chefs and restaurateurs Sabrina Brockman, Omar Tate and Cybille St. Aude-Tate, and Kristi Brown are putting these practices in place, grounding their businesses in this model’s ideology. Although each has a unique approach, all four are deeply convinced that when times are hard and the need to pivot inevitably arises, being rooted in community will ensure that you come out victorious.
“Whether we admit it or not, all restaurants are community spaces,” says Brockman (pictured above), the co-owner of Grandchamps, a Brooklyn-based group of restaurants that has celebrated Haitian culture and food since its inception in 2015. “Our culture is deeply rooted in dine-in experiences and we’ve been missing it throughout the pandemic. [But] what we haven’t lacked, here at GrandChamps, is community support.”
Early in the pandemic, Brockman and her management team at Grandchamps extended that community commitment to themselves. They provided therapists to the staff for private and group sessions, and at the height of nationwide protests in 2020, held “know your rights” trainings to help their staff, who were being repeatedly stopped by police while traveling to and from work.
Brockman feels that the community model “requires giving without receiving, being flexible, and not narrowly defining some aspects of the business; it goes against making money because it’s not a capitalist model—you will leave money on the table, but you will also be setting your business up for longevity, despite that fact.” She credits her staff, who are also members of the local community, for sustaining the business model by understanding and implementing the company’s core values and vision. “A lot of people will think that they are working within this model,” says Brockman, “but if you don’t understand your community, it’ll be hard to pull off.”
For chefs Omar Tate and Cybille St. Aude-Tate, being community-centered means not only building your business so that it can withstand a catastrophic event like a pandemic, but also so it will leave a legacy for your family and broader community.
Almost a decade of working in restaurants has informed how the pair is designing their upcoming Honeysuckle Project in West Philadelphia. “It’s a hybrid restaurant, hybrid grocery, [and] hybrid café, where Eurocentric ideas of dining, more specifically the traditional brigade system, will not be the focal point,” says Tate, a Philadelphia native. “It will be a central point for community and food distribution.”
Tate and St. Aude-Tate originally planned to open in downtown Philadelphia, but ultimately reconsidered, deciding that it was more important that Honeysuckle’s revenue stay in the neighborhood where the concept was born.
The chefs’ development plans include purchasing the land where the building will stand, creating space for community farming on the lot, and providing access to health initiatives centered around the needs of the community. “We’re serving the community, but the community is also serving us,” says Tate. “We hope that our commitment to reimagining what food spaces can be will also transfer agency and power to the community.”
Chef Kristi Brown is no stranger to serving the community—so much so that she named her first brick-and-mortar restaurant Communion Seattle. Communion opened right at the height of the pandemic in 2020, and while others might have given up rather than try to open in that environment, Brown decided to lean into the experience. “Passion is great, but you have to prove your usefulness,” she says.
Prior to the restaurant’s public opening, Brown and her team delivered meals to 110 seniors in Seattle for weeks on end, and even now balance day-to-day business with providing a steady supply of meals to a local senior center. Brown explains that “it’s not just about food, it’s about interaction; some folks are performative, but COVID-19 has exposed who’s really for the people and who is not.”
A common sentiment shared amongst the Tates, Brockman, and Brown is that although “the community business model” works (and has been working), it’s probably not going to be a fit for every business owner. The restaurant industry’s history is rooted in patriarchy, capitalism, classism, and racism, and it may be easier for some to go back to status quo than shift priorities.
Stability for the hospitality industry still feels a way off. We don’t even really know what the future holds for us. But we do have an opportunity to turn the industry on its ear and create a climate that isn’t just for the people in the dining rooms, but also centered on the staff who make the establishment run—the kind of industry we’ve been longing for.
In all likelihood, the business model the restaurant industry was built on pre-pandemic will return. But we can hope that more industry professionals will be inspired by the work of chefs and owners like Brockman, Brown, and the Tates, and will see the merit of incorporating some of the core values of the community business model. After a year of distance and loneliness, it feels more important than ever to build a deeper social connection between the community inside and outside of the restaurant.
Elle Simone Scott is a social justice advocate, chef, executive editor and inclusion leader at America’s Test Kitchen on PBS, and co-founder of SheChef, Inc.
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