New York state of kitchen: how restaurants survive in the world’s busiest food market
The New York restaurant scene is unlike any other in the United States. Space is a premium and the kitchens are tiny, not to mention these are tight hot places where most of the products are usually stored downstairs. The same can be said for NY apartments, which translates into kitchen space being replaced by a needed chair or cupboard. The result of that is that the population eats out most of the time. Combine a population that eats out constantly with expensive real estate and small restaurants and you have the New York conundrum. Feed the most people between 6 pm and 9pm using the fewest tables and the fewest amount of staff.
This unique set up means that working in restaurants in NYC is tricky. For the front of house you have a busier dining room than most, and you have patrons that are not only used to dining out, but are spoiled for choice. Nowhere else can 3 blocks support the business of a good dozen of restaurants. A Front of House manager has to juggle a roster of dozens of servers, bartenders, porters, and sommeliers, all of whom have different schedules and lives. On the side of the servers the dinner rush is intense, and the hours are late, plus you have no other options but to deal with the customers.
The patrons in NYC are generally separated into the locals and tourists, as well as the infamous bridge-and-tunnel crowd. This pejorative term for people from Brooklyn and Jersey used to mean the uncultured outsiders less accustomed to dining out than the well-heeled locals. Nowadays this means nothing, as the locals and the outsiders, for the most part, have the same manners. Everyone expects good service, and in return, as the punters are out every night, expect regulars who will dine at the same place several times a month, even a week.
For the kitchen, this means a whole new set of requirements. Consistency is key for all restaurants but in New York, taking into account more or less the same customers, either never change your menu or change nightly. Working in the back is more than just making sure the food is the same each day. Kitchens in NYC are small, cramped, hot, multi-level, and intensely busy. The dinner rush in any major city is certainly nothing to be balked at. The rush is the whole point of the kitchen, everything is set up and ready for that 4-hour window where everyone orders food. However, because of the volume in NYC you should have 2 or 3 turns a night, or you are not making money. This is only to speak of dinner, what about the enemy of all chefs, the infamous, the feared, brunch. A good friend and well-known pastry chef in NYC told me one, “there are no winners in brunch, only survivors”. During brunch there are even more people scrambling to get into the restaurant, during a smaller amount of time. It is not uncommon to have to do the whole restaurant twice in 4 hours.
Restaurants cannot survive in isolation.
For a restaurant owner and a worker, it might look like a defining feature of New York is competition. The ecosystem in NYC allows for multiple restaurants in the same neighborhood, restaurants that can support a staff of dozens. This causes the business to be a cutthroat affair. It seems like it is one restaurant against the other, your neighbor`s customers could be yours once they choose differently. This, however, is not the case. Restaurants cannot survive in isolation. Your neighbors are your comrades and friends, your fellow restaurants are in the same boat as you, and there are more than enough customers to go around.
The most successful restaurants create a community, not only of the customers they attract, but the people they work with. You will find the restaurant groups that share workers, share costs of goods and share customers. These are the places not only that you want to go eat at, but the places that you want to work at. But it’s a completely different story.
John H, HUMANS contributor