“It’s actually pretty easy, it’s about money”, Robert Belcham explains when asked what some of the foodservice industry’s biggest issues are today. Robert goes on to discuss his perspective of the pay structure in the industry, illustrating a chain effect of how equal pay leads to better morale, better workplace culture, better employee retention, and ultimately a more successful business. I had the pleasure of discussing this and other common foodservice issues with restaurateur, entrepreneur, Chef, and community voice Robert Belcham. This is just a snapshot of some of the insight Robert communicates on The Mise en Place Podcast, an extension of the Chef’s Table Society.
Robert began his career in the restaurant industry 25 years ago as a cook in Victoria, BC. He has since worked in California at the French Laundry, did a stint as a private Chef in the Silicon Valley, and eventually opened his first restaurant in 2006 in Vancouver, BC where he has lived since 2002. Robert has experienced being head chef and restaurateur of a few properties, currently owning Popina Canteen and Popina Cantina on Granville Island. Through his journey from cook to restaurateur, Robert says one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do is manage his people- something that many restaurateurs find challenging, especially in these changing times. The Mise en Place podcast is a result of a COVID-19-cancellation of Cook’s Camp- an event that was set to be held in the summer of 2020 to raise money for Canada’s first functional culinary library. Cook’s Camp was meant to be a time for idea sharing, creating discussion, and collaborating with industry members. The podcast was initially created leading up to Cook’s Camp to discuss the seminars and events that would take place, but when plans fell through, Robert decided to continue the podcast to hold space for industry discussions in an easily accessible format. The podcast is intended to communicate some of the systemic issues in the hospitality industry today as a resource to other Chefs and restaurateurs who want to take action. This initiative is a part of the Chefs’ Table Society of British Columbia, a not-for-profit organization of volunteer chefs and cooks whose mandate is to open dialogue between restaurateurs and chefs across BC.
Of course, the cancellation of Cook’s Camp was another disappointing result of the devastating effects COVID-19 has had on the industry, however Robert decided to look at the re-direction of the podcast as an opportunity.
“We have this opportunity now to sort of touch on what is wrong with this industry… let’s talk about how to fix it.”
Restaurants have never had such a long pause in their daily operations and in some ways COVID-19 has given the gift of the least available resource: time. Restaurateurs have been forced to sit and reflect on how their business operates, and maybe even question whether their systems make sense. As Robert says, instead of “The Great Pause” this can be thought of as “The Great Reset”. For example, Robert commented on how some restaurateurs have used this time to take the leap on big company changes such as switching to no-tipping, completely changing their pay-structure, or trying new business models. Without the push of the shut-down, these changes may have seemed more radical or would have taken much longer to implement. That’s not to say that COVID-19 has been anywhere near beneficial to the industry, however it has forced a new way of thinking.
Speaking to the implementation of changes, another important distinction in The Mise en Place podcast is the change from ‘discussion’ to ‘action’ between seasons 1 and 2. In the opening of the second season, Robert explains his intention to take action on the issues they’ve contemplated in season 1. This is all about interviewing restaurateurs who have made big changes and picking their brains on how to scale up those changes or to guide other restaurateurs in the right direction.
As Robert says, “Stop talking about it, here are practical ways to address what’s wrong with our industry… and then move forward with it.” With this in mind, Robert has been able to interview some changemakers in the industry and dive into their processes. In terms of the ‘things that need changing’, some of the topics Robert discusses on the podcast include changes in technology, a kitchen culture shift, no-tipping policies, living wages, and the brigade system. When speaking with Robert, he put a particular emphasis on the payment structure of restaurants and how he believes almost all employee-related issues can be solved with a better pay model. The industry’s pay structure is problematic both in the back and front-of-house. In the back, as Robert explains, there’s an incredibly toxic mentality of “I can work longer for free than you can”, with positive appraisal for that type of behaviour. Robert continues his point by emphasizing that this isn’t open-heart surgery or cold-war negotiations- foodservice is about creating memories for your guests through great food at a shared table, and the work environment should reflect the same pursuit of pleasure. He also adds empathetically that he understands the tendency to stick to old habits, but that at the end of the day glorifying over-worked staff who are paid a daily instead of hourly wage is wrong. On the front-of-house end, the concept of tipping is problematic at its core principle: determining someone’s paycheck on account of subjective likeability. This also opens doors for biases, sexism, and racism, whether having a conscious or subconscious effect on people’s pay. Additionally, there has always been a divide between the front and back-of-house in restaurants, which is often attributed to the wide pay gap between the two. Without having to abolish tipping completely, some argue that even pooled systems that include the back-of-house are better than the current standard. As Robert explains, changing the pay structure would not only offer employees a consistent, dependable, living wage (which is standard in most industries), but it would also avoid conflict between the front and back, boost morale, and generally improve the company culture.
Another thing Robert discussed with regard to money was the necessary re-education of society surrounding the price of food. This of course ties into the employee pay structure as well because, as Robert put it, if customers paid what food actually costs, we wouldn’t have to cut costs on labour. Without question, if the food is cheap, someone in the supply chain is suffering the cost. “In any other industry”, Robert continues, “if you couldn’t make the numbers work, you raise the price of the product.” However, it seems in the restaurant industry that the numbers won’t work with a consistent, living wage, so we opt to keep things the same, even if we shouldn’t. A good first step forward is charging the real cost of food on our menus.
In terms of other good steps forward, when asked about some simple, quick changes that restaurateurs can make immediately, Robert’s answer was that the easiest and best thing you can do to start to change your restaurant is to check-in on people. “It’s actually very easy, the first thing you can do is you go into your restaurant and ask everybody how they’re doing. It’s as simple as that.” Robert adds that, “mental health is a massive part of this component that very few people like to talk about.” It’s become more evident in recent years that restaurant managers are not well-equipped to handle the mental health of their employees, and something as easy as asking everyone how they’re doing each day is a great way to show you care about their well-being.
Despite all the excellent conversations Robert has been facilitating on The Mise en Place podcast, when asked if he receives much industry feedback his response was “the funniest thing is that there hasn’t been a ton of feedback at all. I get a lot of feedback from cooks and/or people who used to be in the industry, but I get almost 0 feedback from restaurateurs.” Robert says he finds this troubling because he hopes that restaurateurs are seeking out resources to improve their businesses, but all too often that precious resource of time stops us from exploring change. Even within all the barriers restaurateurs are facing, Robert says he hopes to see the industry make changes to the pay structure over the next five years. He reiterates that there’s enough money at the table, it’s just about how that money is spent and distributed within the business that needs to change, and he believes this is a great starting point to fixing a lot of industry problems.
To finish off our conversation, I had Robert pick any two people he’d love to have on the podcast- dead or alive. His picks were Michael Pollan (renowned food researcher, author, and journalist) and Julia Child (because, as Robert put it, he always watched her growing up).
The work Robert is doing with The Mise en Place podcast and Chefs’ Table BC is helping restaurants across Canada to reconsider the status quo. The first step in making change is addressing the problems, discussing solutions and, as Robert hopes, taking action towards a better future.
“I love the hospitality industry a lot, it’s given me my whole life, and tons of friends and unbelievable highs and unbelievable lows”, Robert explains, demonstrating a passion all restaurateurs can relate to. It’s this passion for the industry that inspires Robert to see it succeed past the struggles of COVID-19 and come out better on the other side of “The Great Reset”.