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New Jersey Food Think Tank Goes Live!

Posted in: College News and Events

New Jersey Think Tank zoom meeting screenshot

Alyssa Smolen, a graduate student in the Nutrition and Food Studies Department, recently wrote an article for Total Food Service on the creation of the New Jersey Policy Think Tank.

New Jersey Food Policy Think Tank exists to help guide public policy towards a more sustainable and healthier food system for all and to help advise participants within the food system. This includes engagement of the food and restaurant industries with academia to promote effective operational strategies for now and the future.

Smolen wrote:

Are Covid adaptations a necessity or novelty? That’s just one of the topics covered by a group of NJ restaurants, academics from various NJ universities and other experienced food professionals when they came together with the Food Think Tank to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their unique businesses and how they could work more effectively in the future.

Drs. Charles Feldman and Ethne Swartz of the Food Systems and Management programs at Montclair State University founded the New Jersey Policy Think Tank for the food and restaurant industry.

The restauranteurs indicated that limited capacity restrictions prompted restaurants to implement patio dining, which has greatly benefited local NJ restaurants, but only those with the wherewithal to offer outdoor seating. This provided more revenue and the ability to stay open. According to Restaurant Owner James Avery of Bonney Read in Asbury Park, outdoor dining kept the revenue stream steady; overall sales were maintained at pre-pandemic levels, though expenses increased.

“It was a blessing,” Avery said. “I made minimal investments in furniture, but it was great, it absolutely saved us.”

When summer weather hit NJ, outdoor seating transformed businesses and allowed restaurants to overcome previous customer traffic deficits.

“Patio dining saved us,” Raoul Momo, of Teresa Cafe in Princeton stated. “It’s the only reason we are open…We were incredibly busy.”

Even though many restaurants were compelled to adopt outdoor seating, other restaurant owners were weary of its longevity, like Amy Russo of Toast City Diner in Montclair, NJ.

“It saved me…Do I think it’s ever going to become Barcelona? Not in New Jersey,” Russo noted. “It will continue to grow in resort type towns and foodie towns. It’s a good option but it will not take off.”

Avery agreed with Russo suggesting “there was no long-term guarantee” in outdoor seating, but for their current circumstances it helped keep their business afloat during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some restauranteurs’ revenues increased even more than expected. This is true for Leia Gaccione, owner of South and Pine in Morristown in NJ, who stated she had her best year in 2021 despite the challenges of the pandemic.

While the outdoor dining model brought in needed revenue for many establishments, it did not offset other pandemic-related issues for these restaurants, which has caused the owners to alter their business plans. The restauranteurs addressed the utilization of ghost kitchens (hidden takeout operations) over brick-and-mortar storefronts, and, the proliferation of the takeout business. But there was not a consensus on the new opportunities to offer take out and use online booking services like OpenTable or Grub Hub.

“Where or not we are moving from hospitality, it’s not something that I am interested in,” Lauren Hirschberg of Turtle and Wolf in Montclair said. “If all I am going to be doing is food production and handing it off to somebody then it does really give me any pride or joy. I like seeing people. I like meeting people.”

However, newcomer Diamonique Lundy who started her first business Soul’s Food in June 2020 after winning a pitch prize contest and grant, was quick to implement a ghost kitchen and adapt to the changing market. Lundy utilized social media platforms like Facebook marketing to advertise her business. In just a month, Lundy had 100,000 hits on her website.

As all industries continue to change and adapt because of COVID-19, there are areas that affect all restauranteurs. The owners mentioned inflation, rising rent prices along with the labor crisis issues affecting their businesses.

“Real estate is paramount in being successful…it’s tough because prime real estate costs a lot of money,” Hirschberg said. “Some people get in over their head…Landlords are usually not willing to renegotiate.”

Hirschberg referenced the amount of restaurant closures because of high rent prices and inability to negotiate leases with landlords because of the pandemic.

Others voiced concerns related to staffing shortages, lack of employment and increased minimum wage requirements.

“We did bite the bullet,” Momo said. “Paid $15 an hour to dishwashers, guaranteed servers…that has worked. In our business, you compete for customers and employees.”

To entice individuals to apply for jobs and stay in the labor force, Avery offers his employees $17 an hour with five to eight hours overtime. But it does not come without a cost. This has forced restauranteurs to reevaluate the price of labor and think about moving towards novel, more productive solutions. Reducing labor might come in the form of premade food items like mashed potatoes or using outsourced dishwashing services. The restauranteurs are trying to figure out how to do more with less. They realized the circumstances of their current situations and are trying to adapt as new problems arise.

Some restaurant owners reminisced about the days when employees had more passion to work in the restaurant industry. Unfortunately, due to the current labor shortage, people are now “hiring anyone with a pulse,” as Avery reported, instead of those having a desire to learn from established chefs. By offering a more competitive wage, Gaccione predicts, the owners are compensating by raising menu prices, which will not make customers happy.

For example, “People complain that your food is too expensive,” Gaccione stated, “Dinners, our guests need to be educated.”

Even though the pandemic has brought forth immense challenges for business owners and restauranteurs, the overall consensus was a need for a shift in the restaurant industry. This is what the mission of the New Jersey Policy Think Tank. Future meetings are being planned to include more restauranteurs, government representatives and food industry players.

The meeting was succinctly ended by Amy Russo’s advice: “You have to do what is best for the greater good and we are all restauranteurs and well all want what is best for us!”

March 2022 – Total Food Service Digital Issue