Industry Elite Share the Top Issues Facing the Restaurant Industry Right Now

Credit: Elizabeth Miller

The Charleston Wine and Food Festival returned after a hiatus in 2021 and brought together an exciting mix of chefs, bartenders, restaurateurs, sommeliers, media, and more for a weekend of culinary events. The weather was beautiful, the food and drinks were great, and the overall feeling was one of gratitude for being able to gather again.

At the OpenTable Industry Lounge in the Culinary Village and other events over the weekend, people shared what’s top of mind when it comes to the present and future of the hospitality industry. The responses were thoughtful, hopeful, and showed an overwhelming commitment to making the industry a more equitable, supportive place for everyone.

Worker shortages are still a major concern

Kelly Chu | Credit: Stephanie Barna

Kelly Chu
Chef/owner, Red Orchids and Cirsea Ice Cream, Charleston

“Being shorthanded. Staffing issues are really bad now. It’s been hard to hire, and no one shows up to interviews. I think for the first time in 18 years, I might start taking orders and waiting tables. It’s very challenging for us.”

Ramon Caraballo | Credit: Stephanie Barna

Ramon Caraballo
Bartender, Coterie, Charleston

“Finding workers is something that’s very, very important. There are a lot of restaurants with a lot of good stuff going on. But we can’t pump out as much as we want because we don’t have people to work. And how do you attract them and get them back? That’s the million-dollar question. We’re always trying to figure that out.”

But despite the labor crisis, the industry is changing for the better

Byron Gomez
Executive chef, 7908, Aspen

“I’m actually very excited that we are in a pivot point where we know we need to take care of our workers. I’m also excited that we’re able to have festivals like these and that people are reconnecting back again. The true essence of food is connecting people, and that has not changed. There’s been a pause, but it hasn’t changed.”

Finding joy amid the scary times

Cheetie Kumar
Chef/owner, Garland, Raleigh

“January was the worst month we’ve ever had. So when the times are good, I just keep reminding myself that it’s just really hard to do this. Our natural reflex is to push and make things better and strive for improvement and efficiency, making sure the staff is learning, engaged, and happy—you know, all of it. But you don’t know what’s around the corner because another surge could happen. When it happens, it’s really hard to not fall into a pit of despair because you don’t know how long it’s going to last. Every time it happens—where it’s gone from amazing to terrible, amazing to terrible—I’m just trying to find joy in the days that are good and trying to find hope in the days that are not.”

Supporting each other is key to making changes happen

Jennifer Carroll | Credit: Stephanie Barna

Jennifer Carroll
Owner/chef, Carroll Couture Cuisine, Philadelphia

“The pandemic really showed a lot of the not-so-great things about our industry, but we are struggling and striving to change it. And me being a woman, I love being able to mentor women and bring them up. It’s all about supporting and mentoring and creating our network—venting, getting advice from everybody at every different level. And that’s what I think is really truly needed in our industry now, instead of what it’s been for years and years: not focusing on growing people and not focusing on their mental well-being.”

Paola Velez | Credit: Stephanie Barna

Paola Velez
Pastry chef, co-founder of Bakers Against Racism, Washington, D.C.

“I think right now what’s top of mind is making sure that everybody in the industry has access to health care. Mental health is so important in our industry. We are always so busy and on the go. We’re always firing on the fly. And I think that we need to really take time to focus on our workforce and our staff to make sure that we’re thinking about each other’s mental health. We’ve survived a global pandemic, the last two years have been gruesome, and I really think that right now people need a hug.”

Steven Satterfield | Credit: Stephanie Barna

Steven Satterfield
Chef/owner, Miller Union, Atlanta 

“What I’m thinking about a lot is just the labor crisis that we’ve been through during the pandemic. There’s been an awakening and awareness of the inequality between the front and the back of house. And also being aware of people’s emotional state and being more open to giving people time for a mental break. I think that’s come up a lot in the past couple of years. I think it’s made me realize more of the human side of the labor issues and taking care of people a lot more.”

Juan Gutierrez | Credit: Stephanie Barna

Juan Gutiérrez
Pastry chef, Four Seasons, Chicago

“I’d like to bring back an awareness for pastry chefs. Because sometimes we are just looked at as an amenity or a luxury. [During the pandemic] a lot of pastry chefs, including myself, lost our jobs, and we didn’t get our jobs back because they just decided not to have a pastry program anymore. And that’s something I want to change and just show the importance of our profession.”

Meeting demand in the midst of uncertainty

Shannon Mustipher | Credit: Stephanie Barna

Shannon Mustipher
Cocktail consultant, author of Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails, Brooklyn

“A lot of my work is around helping my clients create great recipes that are easy to execute behind the bar, as well as at home. And now we’re looking at a more educated consumer who’s been bartending at home for the past year and a half. How do we meet them with this new level of expertise? How can you give them more quality? I think that’s the challenge for brands as well as for bars.”

Joe Sasto | Credit: Stephanie Barna

Joe Sasto
Chef/owner, Luna Focacceria, San Francisco

“I’m excited to see how the whole industry has come together and is recovering. We’re always the first to support each other and to support other people and now people are coming back and supporting us, which is so nice to see.”

Aaron Bludorn
Owner/chef, Bludorn Restaurant, Houston

“Top of mind for me is staying open and feeding the demand right now. As people are coming back from the pandemic, everyone wants to eat out, and we want to make sure that we’re there to feed that need. I worked at Cafe Boulud for five years before I opened my own restaurant, and I learned a lot from working with Daniel and having him as a mentor, and that’s the most important part about this industry. It’s really paying attention to your mentors and letting them really influence you, and then taking what you’ve learned from them and adding what you want to see in the world and creating it from there.”

And then there’s climate change

Eric Asimov | Credit: Stephanie Barna

Eric Asimov
Wine critic, The New York Times

“I think the greatest concern, regardless of the pandemic, is climate change. What’s it going to do? What’s the long term? What’s the effect of it, and how are people going to respond?” 

Stephanie Barna is a food writer based in Charleston, SC. You can follow her dining exploits on Instagram @stef_barna.