Fauci mutated, Infatuation downsized, Uber grilled, and more...

Family Meal - Friday, January 22nd, 2021

Hello Friday,

And greetings from beautiful Hong Kong (Air Quality Index: “162 UNHEALTHY”), where the government is planning to lock down the entire Temple Street night market neighborhood in Kowloon after sewage testing revealed an outbreak there, vaccines are nowhere to be seen, and Black Sheep, the major local restaurant group that got a bunch of great international press for releasing an early COVID-19 safety guide last year, has been busted on video hosting a raucous, mask-free disco brunch, with a maskless bartender pouring shots straight from bar bottles into customers’ open mouths.

How are things where you are? Better? Worse? Good? Great.

Let’s get to it…

The Science – Headline in the NYT: “As Fauci Returns to Spotlight, Reassurances, but Warnings, Too.” Details via Denise Grady: “Dr. Fauci, the longtime government infectious disease expert who is now President Biden’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic, said that while the number of cases appeared to be ‘plateauing’ on a seven-day average, there were new signs of more infectious versions of the virus that could cause spikes in cases in the coming months. He also pointed to ‘much more concerning mutations’ in the versions of the virus circulating in South Africa and Brazil than in the variant first identified in Britain.”

Longtime Fauci followers will note that the good doctor has said over and over and over again that indoor dining is one of the most dangerous transmission situations. States rights may still trump his prescriptions, but he’s back at the bully pulpit.

The Media – Despite buying Zagat and receiving a $30M investment from Quilbi founder Jeffrey Katzenberg less than three years ago, restaurant recommendations site The Infatuation is shutting cities and laying off reporters. Texas editor Raphael Brion announced via Twitter Tuesday, “The Infatuation closed a bunch of cities, including Austin.” And Seattle staff writer Aimee Rizzo said on Instagram, “The Infatuation Seattle’s lights were switched off [last week].” Haven’t been able to get comments from leadership there yet, but a trip through the Wayback Machine appears to show Boston and Philadelphia also lost their full-time editorial staff during the pandemic, while LA and New York are down a couple of team members. Good luck, all!

Those Delivery $$$ – Finally got around to listening to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi getting grilled by Kara Swisher on the Sway podcast last week, and I highly recommend it if you haven’t heard it yet. There are a lot of standard Silicon Valley talking points in there, but I hadn’t heard delivery app leadership (have to) defend itself like this yet, and it was… enlightening.

Sample answers:

Re charging restaurants 30%: “The 30% doesn’t include the cost of the courier… Our revenue take rate net of the courier cost this last quarter was 13%. And we think that’s a very, very reasonable take rate. At the same time, restaurants have a choice, if they want to use their own couriers, then the cost is typically 15%. If they want to use our service essentially for pickup, we charge them nothing and we offer them the ability to essentially build their own website. And if they’re bringing the customers, essentially to order, we charge them nothing…. We think that’s a very, very fair proposition and we are having restaurants sign up in record numbers. You could argue is it because they have to.” Italics mine. Nice to see that in Delivery Land, a fair-proposition-that-people are-forced-to-agree-to is the new “benevolent dictator.”

Re delivery fee caps: “We think that that kind of regulation is misguided. Essentially, if we’re capped at 10% then we have to increase delivery fees to the consumer, which reduces the volume that restaurants need…. But ultimately, [UberEats] can adjust.”

Re driver wages: “This a period of time where with the demand coming into these services, drivers and couriers are actually making very good money compared to alternatives, compared to their having a job as a barista or working at a fast food restaurant or working at a warehouse someplace. And they get to do so on their terms in a very, very flexible way.” Still, the longer-term solution, according to Khosrowshahi, is to turn blue-collar workers into white-collar workers via some kind of driver to call center to coder pipeline. OK, but or — and hear me out, Dara — let’s skip the anecdotal, in-house promotion PR and get straight to a more plausible (and much needed) gig economy based remake of The Secret of My Success?

P.S. – If you read the transcript instead of listening, you’ll miss some of the fun. At the 8:03 minute mark, Swisher tells Khosrowshahi: “I have to say, every restaurant I go to I ask, and they hate you.” NYT’s writer-downers edited that last part out.

And… that’s it for today? A brief one, I know. There has been a ton of movement on the local level in terms of government relief funds, and (of course) in-person dining regulation, but a lot of restaurant news this week was overshadowed by one big change in America(!) and I’ll pick up where that leaves off next week…

I’ll see paying subscribers back here Tuesday, and everyone else on Friday for next Family Meal. Keep scrolling for this past Tuesday’s if you missed it.

And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and Instagram, and send tips and/or a very, very fair proposition to andrew@thisfamilymeal.com. If you like Family Meal and want to keep it going, please chip in here. If you got this as a forward, sign up for yourself!

Here begins the copy/paste of the Family Meal that went out Tuesday, January 19th, to paying subscribers. If you’d also like to get Tuesdays’ on Tuesdays…

Citizen kitchen, Vettel's farewell, Losing suits, Michelin spread, and more...

Hello Tuesday,

Usually we skip Tuesdays after holiday weekends because food media takes Saturday to Monday off, but with all the other news going on, I forgot to cancel in advance, and since you are all paying subscribers...

Let’s get to it…

The Plan –  Headline in the Washington Post: “Biden to propose overhaul of immigration laws on first day in office.” Story from Seung Min Kim: “The centerpiece of the plan from [President-elect Joe Biden] and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris is the eight-year pathway, which would put millions of qualifying immigrants in a temporary status for five years and then grant them a green card once they meet certain requirements such as a background check and payment of taxes. They would be able to apply for citizenship three years later.”

Undocumented workers have been such a fixture in restaurants (and the food industry in general) for so long that I’m having a hard time thinking about how things would change if all those taxpayers were suddenly given legal cover to live and work openly in the country to which they already pay taxes. Less fearful labor, with more power, forces a rise in wages? Or maybe moves to other industries altogether? Star talent that was nervous to put its head above the parapets now feels freer to climb ladders? Thoughts?

The Farewell – I already mentioned longtime restaurant critic Phil Vettel’s departure from the Chicago Tribune last week, but I do love a history-forward farewell note, and on Friday, Vettel packed 31 years of (his side of) the Chicago restaurant world into one long goodbye. I hope on his way out the door, Mr. Vettel will forgive me some aggressive quoting here (even if the private equity overlords at Alden Global Capital will not).

Writes Vettel: “When my critic’s career started, French food was at its zenith; the top names in Chicago, besides [Jean Banchet and Roland Liccioni], included Jovan TrboyevicPierre PollinJean JohoGabino SotelinoLeslee Reis and Bernard Cretier. Then a young chef named Charlie Trotter arrived on the scene, as did Rick and Deann Bayless, and very quickly American chefs began to equal, and surpass, the legends that came before them. Then the names to know included Paul KahanSarah StegnerTony MantuanoMichael KornickTony Priolo and more.

Henry Adaniya created an Evanston restaurant called Trio, brought in chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand, and turned the dining world on its ear. And when Tramonto and Gand left, eventually opening Tru downtown, Shawn McClain took the reins with distinction, and after that, Adaniya hired a promising young chef, working then at the French Laundry, named Grant Achatz.

“My last [top 50 list], still had Achatz, and his Alinea restaurant, at the top of the heap. But close at his heels were such chefs as John ShieldsNoah SandovalGene KatoDavid PoseyB.K. ParkSarah GruenebergCarlos GaytanDiana DavilaErick WilliamsCarrie NahabedianJason HammelStephanie IzardIliana ReganRishi KumarThai DangBeverly Kim... and I haven’t even gotten into wine (Belinda ChangAlpana SinghRichard Hanauer), cocktails (Julia MomoseLance Bowman) and desserts/baking (Genie KwonJennifer Jones EnyartMindy SegalGreg Wade).”

The Suits – Last week also brought news that New York state (not city) restaurants were winning lawsuits aimed at dining bans in “orange” COVID zones, but most similar suits elsewhere are still getting shot down. The latest: On Friday in Baltimore, “A judge… upheld the city's on-premises dining ban due to COVID-19, denying the Restaurant Association of Maryland's lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order” against the city’s on-premise dining ban. Details via Joyce Hanson on Law360.

And I thought most people had given up on the idea that insurance companies might pay up for COVID related damages, but apparently some are still trying (unsuccessfully). Per Matthew Santoni:“A federal judge on Friday tossed a Pennsylvania restaurant's proposed class action seeking coverage from National Fire & Marine Insurance Co. for losses due to the coronavirus, finding that establishments limited to carry-out service had not sustained the ‘direct, physical loss’ necessary to trigger their insurance policies.” The law, alas, remains pedantic.

The Anticipation – After seeing a few Eater “Most Anticipated Restaurants” list trickling out these last few weeks, I Googled that exact phrase today and was impressed to see all the hopefuls out there. Quick sample from the first few pages of results (all published within last three weeks or so): Atlanta (Atlanta Magazine); Austin (Eater); The Carolinas (Eater); Chicago (Eater); Detroit (Metro Times); LA (Eater); New Orleans (Eater); Portland, OR (Willamette Week); San Diego (Union-Tribune); Seattle (Eater); St. Louis (St. Louis Magazine); and two big national roundups from Robb Report and Food & Wine. Good luck, all!

And last but not least: Michelin Season – Haven’t been including links to all the new guides coming out around the world because… that’s not exactly the big news these days(!). But yesterday the French stars were announced (with AM in Marseille gaining a third), and I couldn’t help but flinch at this brag(?) from guide director Gwendal Poullennac in French24: “Poullennec insisted that inspectors worked double time and even refrained from sacrosanct summer holidays to eat and drink as much as possible when France allowed restaurants to reopen between the spring and autumn lockdowns. Michelin also brought in inspectors from elsewhere in Europe and even Asia to back up the French team.”

So Michelin France asked multiple (extra) workers to travel internationally and eat out as much as possible across the country last year between lockdowns? I believe I speak for all citizens of France when I say: Great work, guys. Huge win. Big kudos. Merci.

And that’s it for today.

I’ll see you here Friday for next Family Meal.

And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and Instagram, and send tips and/or sacrosanct summer holidays to andrew@thisfamilymeal.com. If you like Family Meal and want to keep it going, please chip in here. If you got this as a forward, sign up for yourself!