As with most businesses, restaurants possess the ability to impact social and political change. Whether it’s by choosing to source their produce from local farmers or by taking a stand on recent anti-immigrant policies, the way restaurant owners choose to run their establishments has far-reaching effects on their communities and beyond.
In a recent profile, Detroit chef Kate Williams made clear her awareness of the cultural currency chefs and restaurants carry in driving food and dining trends across the country. This awareness motivates her use of whole animal preservation and local produce from Detroit’s urban farmers. In doing so, she hopes to infuse the national discourse surrounding culinary trends and food consumption with her propensity for sustainability and reducing food waste.
Among the increasing movements aimed at boosting sustainability and reducing waste is the farm-to-table movement — a trend that began in the early 1970 ’s and entered mainstream food culture a little over a decade ago. The movement benefits not only the environment and the economy but also improves and sustains the nation’s physical health. Williams is among an increasing number of chefs and restaurants that have taken to the movement. In addition to reducing business costs for restaurant owners, it helps local farmers and creates jobs — a key advantage for cities like Detroit, that are recovering from economic hardship.
This movement, and many others, are sparked by the actions of individual chefs. Their unique tastes and practices have the power to shape how food is made and consumed in our country. Not all trends and movements are rooted in culinary practices, however.
Recently, many restaurants took it upon themselves to support their local communities by championing immigrant workers — who make up over a quarter of the industry — and closing their doors on Thursday, February 16th in “A Day Without Immigrants.” The national movement, sparked by President Donald Trump’s recent, highly controversial anti-immigrant policies, sought to defend immigrants, who form the backbone of the restaurant industry.
In January, Sanctuary Restaurants was founded to protect employers and workers from becoming the targets of hate or harassment by educating them on their rights and calling on consumers to increase their awareness. The organization’s maxim is the belief that, “There’s a place at the table for everyone.” Over 280 restaurants have already joined the movement, including Ann Arbor’s Zingerman’s Deli. The movement seeks to create inclusive dining environments and hold restaurant owners, workers and consumers responsible for fostering safe spaces and responding to the racism and discrimination that have permeated the national discourse surrounding immigrants. This type of response uses the particular position of restaurants in their community and the economy to make a political statement and to advance social change on a scale that extends far beyond their respective local environments.
On a small-scale level, restaurants serve a valuable role as cultural hubs, bringing together members of their communities and individuals from outside to share in unifying, common experiences. They exhibit a range of diverse cultural practices that introducer patrons to philosophies and practices they might not experience elsewhere. a fundamental and necessary aspect of communities across the nation. As cultural mainstays, restaurants are positioned to take the kind of stance that Sanctuary Restaurants and other movements advocate for to mobilize real change.
Restaurants play a vital role in their local business communities. Whether a hole-in-the wall local joint, a small time food truck, or a high-end dining spot, restaurants are pillars of their local communities and the nation’s overarching economic and cultural ecosystem. Drawing crowds from all over the world, they possess the ability to aggregate numerous and varied constituencies.
Even on a small scale, the way restaurant owners choose to present their businesses is reflective of attitudes of inclusion and social consciousness. In her interview, Williams expressed her desire to make her restaurant approachable to all, particularly to those deterred from certain price points. Be it simplified decor or a more affordable menu, this form of cultural and economic awareness strives to make dining a more equitable environment.
Though instability is common within the industry, with restaurants shuttering and failing to launch regularly, those with staying power have a profound impact on their communities and a clear expression of their unique cultural voice within the culinary landscape. It’s these kinds of establishments and culturally-savvy owners that create enduring spaces and practices that shape their communities in the long run and that ultimately shape who we are as consumers.