Originally printed in the July 2022 issue of Produce Business.
After the pandemic challenged foodservice operators and their suppliers to even survive, we finally began to see a recovery. Now, with inflation zooming out of control and the prospects of a recession all too real, the possibility of another threat to the foodservice sector seems just too much to bear.
Fortunately, there may be a bit of light at the end of this tunnel. Consumer concerns about inflation and recession tend to lead to lower expenditures on major items. If you fear you might lose your job, you may hold off on buying a new car, taking a grand vacation or buying a new house. The savings can be substantial and lead to paying down debt and husbanding cash. It also makes resources available for small indulgences. This can mean buying more upscale foods for cooking at home and going out to eat more than one would when saving for a vacation or straining to cover a big monthly car payment.
So we have some good things to look forward to, some opportunities for growth. Yet there are also challenges that won’t be easily navigated.
Sadly, there are some new trends in society that may lead to people cocooning. When I was a boy, my father used to sell produce to the Caribbean, and one of his markets was Curaçao. We used to vacation there often so that my father could visit his customers, basically all the retailers on the island.
As a very young boy I went with my father to a central market where vendors would sell products from all over the world. Many of these vendors were members at the oldest surviving Jewish synagogue in the Western World. Then there was a series of race riots, which led to the vendors no longer feeling safe. Some left the country, and many of those who stayed moved out of the central city to fenced and secured suburban homes.
When we visited Curaçao before the riots, we would be taken out to many restaurants; after the riots, we were invited to dinner at their homes. One wonders if we are not going to experience some similar change here as the U.S. becomes more unstable socially.
Over at Sesame Place in Pennsylvania, a character was videotaped during a parade, seeming to refuse to high-five two young black children. The Internet exploded, first with social media being filled with attacks on the person in the character suit and on Sesame Place, then the attacks spread to Sesame Workshop, formerly known as Children’s Television Workshop, which licenses the Sesame Street characters to the theme park.
We’ve been taking our children to the theme park since they were small and, since my children are so deeply interested in theme park management, we know many of the players inside the costumes. A significant portion of the character players are black. Though we are not doctors and have no special information about anyone’s condition, the young man who was playing the character in question seemed to be autistic or have a similar condition. Whatever happened, we have 100% confidence it had nothing to do with race.
Being in a costume like that one offers very limited vision, and there are rules. It appears that a woman was asking the character to hold her child, in order to get a photograph. Yet the characters are forbidden from doing that as they could easily drop a child. After engaging with the mom, the character went to walk away and declined to high five or otherwise engage with the two children.
The issue today is a lack of humility. Lots of people on line watch a video for a few seconds, deduce what they think is happening and go on line and start the attack. The person in the suit should be fired! The park should be closed!
To say that the people think they know what is happening significantly overstates the case. It is more a matter of virtue-signaling. From famous entertainers to people unknown, the desire to assert one’s virtuous nature by attacking others for racist behavior seems more important than actually finding out the truth.
United States Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had to leave through the back door of a steakhouse in Washington, DC due to protests out front over his vote on the abortion case. This was shortly after a person was arrested for attempted murder of Justice Kavanaugh outside of his home. Yet, whatever policy preference one might have on abortion, such attacks misconstrue the nature of the Court. The role of the justices is to study the law and the constitution and determine what it means. It is to be expected, all the time, that justices will vote in ways inimical to their policy preferences.
There seems to be a horrible decline in civility. It is hard to see how we will get through all this as a country. And, this kind of hostile environment may well drive people away from foodservice venues, making them choose to retreat to the comfort, privacy and safety of their own homes. Yet, if we are to succeed as a nation, we have to find a way to transcend this isolation.
The social conviviality created by sharing a good meal can ease the exchange of ideas. The idea that you can enjoy someone’s company and still disagree politically, that one can respect someone with whom you might disagree – all this is a path to a friendly future.
The foodservice industry has been depending on the government to help out with plans and programs to help the industry survive during difficult times. Now, perhaps the tables have turned, and the country needs the restaurant and hospitality sectors to thrive, that the country itself will come to remember that one can disagree and still be civil. That with good food and drink, with a nice environment, with a focus on friendship, we can get past disagreements and find common ground to build a better tomorrow.