“Things got broken. Things got lost. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
- Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

At Kogi, very little has changed.

That’s partially because there’s actually no such thing as “at” Kogi.

Kogi started out with one taco truck, twelve years ago, serving short-rib tacos to nighthawks spilling out of clubs at two in the morning. We have three trucks now, but we’ve stayed lean and mean, able to bob and weave. 

We began selling tacos for $2, and more than a decade later, the price has only gone up by fifty cents.

Do we make a lot of money? Hell no. We barely break even.

But the no-frills, four-wheels-and-a-window business model has its benefits. 

Our trucks are still out here, on the barren streets of Los Angeles. Longtime fans check our location schedule online, email their orders, and swing by for pick up. It’s strange, but also amazing and reassuring. 

The world around us is unrecognizable, but the core of our existence—those trucks and one-to-one relationships with our customers—is an oasis of sameness and connection in a world that’s been reduced to door-drop deliveries and Zoom conferences. 

I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m gloating. I’m not. My heart breaks for all of my brothers and sisters in the restaurant business. That’s where I come from, and I have a brick-and-mortar operation myself—Best Friend in Las Vegas. Like hundreds of thousands of other places, Best Friend is closed. Its staff has been furloughed. I don’t have any idea when or if it’ll reopen. 

Kogi, on the other hand, rolls on. At moments, it almost seems like a post-apocalyptic adventure, piloting our trucks through deserted streets that for as long as I can remember have been clogged day and night with cars. The air here is less smoggy and  more clear than it’s been in years—you can see for miles. Customers are generally miserable, but happier than ever to see us. It’s all very surreal.

And yet, at the same time, nothing has really changed about Kogi. 

We are outsiders. If most restaurants are a symphony at Lincoln Center, we’re the street musician drumming on an overturned plastic tub in Times Square.

We’ve always been that. And there might be a lesson in our story that means something right now.

This is a time for introspection, both about ourselves, and about our industry. And at some point, those two lines converge, and thinking about ourselves is the same as thinking about the industry.

Many have found that being deprived of the ability to spend money on acquisitions or experiences has been surprisingly easy. They are shedding materialism and renewing their connection with each other, with nature, and with more simple pleasures.

Why not the same kind of thinking about the industry?

Some of our leaders have suggested it’s time for a “reset.” I agree, but does that really go far enough?

Yes, it’s long past time that we examine how we take care of our employees, minorities, and bottom line. The lockdown has exposed how vulnerable we all are: If even our most successful, high-end restaurants are redirecting from their websites to Go Fund Me campaigns in a matter of days, there’s a problem.

But a reset alone won’t do it. To come back in the short term, when we’re taking employees’ temperatures at the door, cooks and servers are wearing masks, and plates and utensils are disposable, we’ll need to think about our restaurants in new ways--possibly even more meaningful ways.

If we boil restaurants down to their essence, what are they?

For most of us, they represent the desire to cook for and serve our guests. For most guests, it’s the ability to enjoy something delicious in the company of others.

That’s it.

Most of us didn’t feel the gravitational pull to what we do out of a thirst for money or fame. We got into it for the primal satisfaction of delivering hospitality.

Getting back in touch with that nucleus, I think, will be the way forward. And if Kogi is any kind of barometer, that kind of stripped-down thinking can work, for us and our guests.

I don’t say that casually. I know many of you reading this are bound by the construct of four walls and flat surfaces. They were dreams fulfilled, perhaps at the cost of life savings, that have suddenly, hopefully temporarily, become albatrosses. But getting out of this mess will require revolutionary thinking, even if that thinking has to fit in the boxes we’ve built for ourselves.

Traditionally, a lot of us have been misfits. That’s changed as some of us have gotten famous and we started making more money than we ever could have imagined in high school, putting on tuxes and receiving awards. But while our perception of ourselves has changed, others still see us in the same light they always did: politicians singled out restaurants and bars as places to stay away from in the first days of the pandemic, without staining shops, malls, and movie theaters in the same way. Why? For all of the glamor, a lot of people still see us as unkempt immigrant cooks toiling anonymously away in the kitchen, or the “help” serving them in the dining room. They don’t realize that we are more careful about cleanliness than any other public place they might spend their time; we’ve always taken the fact that they take what we have to offer into their bodies seriously, long before they really thought about it they way they do now, when even a piece of mail is regarded as possibly toxic.

But I believe that, at least in the short term—the time between reopening and a time of vaccine and treatment—that we will need to think in new terms that don’t try to replicate what was, but adapt to what is, and what will be for a while. 

We need to ask ourselves questions. Hard questions. But also questions that might spark ingenuity. Questions like: What can a restaurant look like? How different can a menu be? Where is it written that food needs to be eaten sitting down, or even standing still? 

We need to get back in touch with the core interactions that made us want to do what we do in the first place and be satisfied with that. 

There are opportunities buried in this situation, like hidden treasures. 

Maybe we can become less competitive. Maybe we can finally band together as an industry and get on the same page about things like wages, health insurance, tipping, and what the fair cost of a meal that provides all of that to the people we employ should be. 

And at the core of it, maybe we can rediscover the simple pleasures of preparing great food, serving it to somebody, and watching them take it in and savor it, and making a living doing that magical thing.

What else do we need, really?

Vroom, vroom,

Kogi and Best Friend

We launched Weekly Specials, a show created by our team and our partners at Resy, with a focus on hospitality news that makes us smile. We are all in this industry because of our shared desire to create magic in a world that needs more of it and despite the heavy reality of the COVID-19 crisis we're facing, an amazing thing is happening - magic is still being created. We’re here to share those stories of positivity and no act of random kindness or hometown hero is too small. We want to hear from you and encourage you to share your light with us, so we can share it with the world. Just send us any ideas you have through our Instagram page.

Take Away Only, an emergency podcast about the hospitality industry, produced in collaboration with our friend, journalist Howie Kahn and his team at FreeTime Media, continues. Guests have included Kevin Boehm, Ashley Christensen, Eric Ripert, Rosio Sanchez, Camilla Marcus, Jessica Koslow, José Andrés, and so many more. Episodes are being released nearly every single day, so head to iTunes or Spotify to subscribe and have a listen.

And if you haven't already, be sure to keep up with The Independent Restaurant Coalition, which was formed to save independent restaurants affected by COVID-19. IRC was founded on the simple belief that there is power to affect legislative change if we unite our voice. Together, as small businesses across this country, independent restaurants represent up to 4% of the nation's GDP. For the 11 million people across the country employed by restaurants - and the hundreds of millions of workers up and down the food supply and delivery chain who depend on restaurants - these small businesses cannot fail. Learn how to get involved and see new updates here.

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