Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Food & Drink

There's a Massive Restaurant Industry Bubble, and It's About to Burst

Published On 12/30/2016
A s soon as he walked through the door, Matt Semmelhack knew it was over. He'd been away from his San Francisco restaurant AQ for less than a week, but when he got back, it just felt different. It went beyond the usual concerns of the modern restaurateur. "I wasn't worried the lights were properly dim, or the regulars were in the right booths," he says. Instead, Semmelhack was just looking at his staff -- people he hangs out with on weekends, people whose livelihoods he supplies, some of his closest friends -- and all he could see was the money each one of them was costing him, flashing in front of him like a video-game score. "I knew right then," he says, "we had to shut it all down."
Semmelhack is not the only restaurateur looking to duck and cover. The American restaurant business is a bubble, and that bubble is bursting. I've arrived at this conclusion after spending a year traveling around the country and talking to chefs, restaurant owners, and other industry folk for this series. In part one, I talked about how the Good Food Revival Movement™ created colonies of similar, hip restaurants in cities all over the country. In the series' second story, I discussed how a shortage of cooks -- driven by a combination of the restaurant bubble, shifts in immigration, and a surge of millennials -- is permanently altering the way a restaurant's back of the house has to operate in order to survive.
This, the final story, is simple: I want you to understand why America's Golden Age of Restaurants is coming to an end.
To do that I'm going to tell the story of the rise and fall of Matt Semmelhack and Mark Liberman's AQ restaurant in San Francisco. But this story isn't confined to SF. In Atlanta, D.B.A. Barbecue chef Matt Coggin told Thrillist about out-of-control personnel costs: "Too many restaurants have opened in the last two years," he said. "There are not enough skilled hospitality workers to fill all of these restaurants. This has increased the cost for quality labor." In New Orleans, I spoke with chef James Cullen (previously of Treo and Press Street Station) who talked at length about the glut of copycats: "If one guy opens a cool barbecue place and that's successful, the next year we see five or six new cool barbecue places... We see it all the time here."
Even Portland, the patient zero of the Good Food Revival Movement, isn't safe. This year, chef Johanna Ware shut down universally lauded Smallwares, saying, "the restaurant world is so saturated nowadays and it requires so much extra work to keep yourself relevant." And Pok Pok kingmaker Andy Ricker closed his noodle joint Sen Yai, citing "soaring rents, the rising minimum wage, and stereotypical ideas about 'ethnic food' as 'cheap food'" in an interview with Portland Monthly. 
Rising labor costs, rent increases, a pandemic of similar restaurants, demanding customers unwilling to come to terms with higher prices -- it's the Perfect Restaurant Industry Storm. And even someone as optimistic as Ricker offers no comforting words about where we're headed.
"These are tough issues that many restaurateurs may face in the very near future," he says. "Closing now is preemptive."
I want you to understand why America's Golden Age of Restaurants is coming to an end.
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Opening a sit-down restaurant is like walking into one of those machines in roller rinks where you have 30 seconds to grab as much money as you can, except all the money is fake.
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
What we're witnessing is the hollowing out of the restaurant industry center -- the gentrification of food, carried to its logical conclusion.
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