If you have been eating with us for a long time, you know that our restaurant has gone through a lot of changes over the years. On day one we only had four items on the menu – oysters, country ham, a lobster roll and a squash salad. We had only seven employees. We cooked brunch. We only were open five days a week. That is all very different from today – we cook seven nights a week, our staff has nearly doubled, and the menu changes constantly – sometimes with over twenty five different things still smushed on a half sheet of card stock. If you eat here today there is one other thing you many notice before you even eat or drink a single thing – the prices are higher than they used to be. But there are realities to restaurants that for a long time we have been ignoring, and as a restaurant owner I stand at a crossroads.
Community agriculture and aquaculture has become a incredibly important for myself and our staff. I’ll be the first to admit that when we opened, we were not the best about our sourcing – nothing was ever bad or off or dangerous, but purchasing factory farm pork and mutton never felt good. It has taken us years to develop the tight bonds we have with the farmers and fishermen we use today – and we are proud to have and use their work. We’ve been butchering a whole sheep every week from Hopkins Southdowns for about three years now, and we butcher a whole pig every other week form Pat’s Pastured. Meat in Rhode Island is expensive – farmland is the highest price in the entire country, and there are limited options for abattoirs. But for us, not only is the product more delicious, but knowing that our dollars spent go back into our community instead of being shipped across the country or overseas and into the hands of giant corporations is really important – even if we are spending three to five times more per pound, and have to put in the labor to break it down ourselves. Many of the same arguments apply to local produce – you’ll see us every Saturday at the farmers market, buying produce at a similar or slightly lower price than everyone else, just in ten times the quantity (I’m the guy pushing around the giant red cart – feel free to say, even if I look a little grumpy). You can talk to the guys at Wishingstone, or Allen Farms, or Freedom Foods, or RI Mushroom – they know who we are, and that we genuinely support them. And as far as seafood is concerned, you would be hard pressed to find any Providence chef who knows the docks of Point Judith as well as me.
Its easy to make the connections between quality food and price, but what is more difficult, because of the way society has programed our brains, is how to justify the added costs contributed by the worker. I can only speak for the fifteen years I’ve been in the business, but for so long folks who work in kitchens and in the front of house have been dismissed and swept under the rug. I got paid ten dollars an hour or less for the first ten years of my time in this industry. It exploitative, but I don’t blame restaurant owners – because I know that side of the coin now as well. The reason folks don’t get paid decent wages is because we, as customers, have been trained to think that food should be a certain price point. We have had decades of corporations destroying food systems and actually exploiting workers to get the cheapest possible price to the customer, and everyone has forgotten that labor, especially skilled labor, should get paid for. And while cooking is a blue collar job, one that doesn’t require a college degree or any major training to get started, that does not mean that at a certain point it does not become skilled labor, and something that a person should be able to make a career out of. In the last decade as a people we have learned to celebrate the chef, and this industry as a whole. And I welcome that – I love this industry as well. People need to be paid a decent standard of living though. All of our cooks get access as well as a stipend towards health insurance, paid vacation time every year, sick leave, two days off a week as well as paid holidays when the restaurant is closed. I expect a lot out of them, but they also get paid what the sous chefs were making when I was in NYC, and those guys weren’t getting any of the benefits above. Our servers are all making very good money and have access to many of the same benefits. These are not cush jobs where people are just hanging around – they are hard working positions are getting pushed to be better all the time. And people deserve to get paid for that.
When this restaurant first opened, especially in its first year, the place made a lot of money. Sales were definitely less, but costs were a lot lower too. The product wasn’t as nice, the service wasn’t as good, and the staff wasn’t paid great. But we grew in all the ways I’ve talked about above, and all the while we’ve been trying to keep prices as low as possible. And its worked for a few years now. Profits kept getting cut, but prices were kept down. I know what its like to live paycheck to paycheck, what its like to not be able to go out to eat, I wanted a restaurant that was affordable to everybody. It’s no longer sustainable. I can’t afford to take a check anymore, and am seriously worried about closing for the few days around the holidays and what that means for making our bills. I no longer have the luxury of running this restaurant on a deficit, just to keep prices suppressed. So I am left with a choice – cut out some of the programming we have worked so hard to build – the relationships with farms, the culture of kitchen careerism – or raise some prices. I am doubling down – doubling down on the fact that the folks that support this restaurant, and have been regulars for years, as well as all the visitors that come through will understand, and maybe even be happy to know that they are not just getting a few delicious plates of food but also supporting the community of farmers in this state, the community of fishermen, and also ensuring that the people that work extremely hard everyday to make that plate of food hit the table deliciously also are able to go home to a decent life.
If you have made it this far, that pretty darn impressive. I love you Rhode Island. I love you PVD.