Opening and operating a long-standing restaurant is one of the harder things you can do. Margins are incredibly small (most restaurants fail within the first 6-12 months), so you need a lot of customers to generate substantial revenue. That revenue supports a multitude of costs, including extensive labor, food and beverage, rent, and anything associated with keeping the lights on every day. Any money leftover is considered profit, but even that sometimes go directly back into the business in the form of repairs or additional (but likely necessary) hires. Given the relatively small amount restaurants charge consumers, achieving consistent profitability is incredibly challenging. As someone who was on the opening management team of a restaurant just 12 months ago, it sometimes feels impossible. But what if profitability was taken out of the equation?
Rarely am I perplexed by a business model, let alone a food-related business model, in the way I was by Mark Bittman’s concept of a community kitchen. For those who don’t know Mark Bittman, he wrote a very popular NY Times recipe column for years, as well as over a dozen cookbooks and countless opinion pieces involving food sustainability and food policy. In an article published Wednesday in The Guardian by Lauren Mechling, the article outlines Bittman’s idea of a new type of restaurant, one that loses money in return for the public good.
Bittman wants his idea of a restaurant to “be disruptive” in that it is “virtuous from every angle.” There are four key aspects of his restaurant: ingredients from sustainable farms, nutritious food, fairly paid workers, and affordable meals via sliding-scale pricing. In the words of Bittman, “this is not about building a restaurant empire. I want to show that there’s a whole other way we can do all the things that are related to food and address everything that’s wrong with the current food system.”
He believes restaurants are a necessary but sometimes evil business, noting that 50% of all meals are eaten outside of one’s home but restaurant food tends to be very unhealthy. Bittman’s hypothesis is grounded in some harrowing facts. About 25% of Americans are food insecure (someone who is unable to secure enough food for a nutritious diet) with more than half of the calories in the average American diet coming from highly processed foods. Around the world, diet has become the leading risk factor for death, about 11 million per year, surpassing smoking.
This concept is not something new for Bittman, as he alluded to this idea all the way back in his NY Times article from 2014. Bringing up the idea of “community kitchens”, Bittman explains the financial logistics of such a business. “100,000 community kitchens around the country. (I’m thinking each feed 500 people a night, and that’s 50 million people; perhaps conservative, but let’s start there.) There’s a range of what such meals would cost, but if you assume $3 each, that’s around $150 million per day, or $50 billion per year.” In the early 1990s, this idea successfully came to fruition in Brazil, where the President’s Zero Hunger program led to the creation of low-cost, popular restaurants throughout the country. Triumphantly, Brazil created local, state-subsidized restaurants and provided nutritious lunches to low-income workers for years.
If you have read this far in the article, you may be intrigued by his concept, but dubious about the economics of a no-profit restaurant. For this, Bittman believes community kitchens could be funded through government subsidies. He correctly points to the government's extensive participation in funding American farming, a system that produces unhealthy, processed, and environmentally unfriendly food. Instead, “we could be subsidizing food that’s nutritious and supports environmental health and supports farmers. That’s a change that has to be made.” The United States government certainly has the resources to fund a project like this if it were to be interested. As Bittman correctly points out, the current healthcare Bill in the US is $4tn, a figure that could be greatly reduced by investing in a healthier, more sustainable eating system.
Even if you believe in none of Bittman’s ideal food world, it should still prompt an essential and necessary conversation in the American food landscape. He simply wants to “demonstrate how we could shift resources to more diverse and equitable food systems.” Sometimes all it takes is someone with a crazy, big idea to enact meaningful change; and that makes it worth discussing. As Bittman declares, “sometimes we get it wrong. And with industrial food, we’ve definitely gotten it wrong, let’s show everybody how to do it right.”