Stories / Awards

11 Industry Vets Look Back on the Dining Scene

How the restaurant industry has changed, according to our 2019 Outstanding Restaurateur semifinalists

Maggie Borden

April 11, 2019


Ellen Yin photo by Catherine Karnow
Photo: Catherine Karnow

One of the qualifications for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur, is to " have been in the restaurant business for at least 10 years." In this industry, where dozens of eateries open and close each day, a decade of entrepreneurship is a rare achievement in itself. 20 or 30 years? That means weathering economic booms and busts, passing food fads and diet trends, and still finding an audience eager to come in and let you serve them, year after year. We tapped the collective wisdom of the 2019 Outstanding Restaurateur semifinalists to see how they feel the restaurant industry has changed since they first opened their doors. From advances in technology (AOL accounts!) to savvier diners to the role of advocacy in the food world, these dining vets' insights showcase progress not just in their individual kitchens or dining rooms, but across the country.


Ellen Yin (pictured above)
High Street Hospitality Group, Philadelphia (Fork, High Street on Market, High Street on Hudson)
When we opened Fork in Philadelphia’s Old City over 20 years ago, we were on dial-up: Websites were a rarity; online reviews were few and far between. It was a very different time. The term “celebrity chef” had not taken off. Instagram did not allow you to look at what any restaurant/chef in the world was doing almost in real time. Social media exponentially changed anything that was happening from 2000 to 2012. What has remained a constant is the importance of community and the role a restaurant can play as part of that community. I truly believe that community engagement and collaboration will enable us to continue to improve our industry. More chefs and restaurants than ever are playing leadership roles in social policy, civic issues, and improvements to our modern society in countless ways. Unique and unexpected collaborations and partnerships will continue to shape our industry.

Joe Bartolotta and Paul Bartolotta photos by Savage 2013
Joe (L) and Paul (R) Bartolotta (Photo: Savage 2013)

Joe Bartolotta and JBF Award winner Paul Bartolotta
The Bartolotta Restaurants, Milwaukee (Ristorante Bartolotta, Harbor House, Lake Park Bistro, and others)
We opened our first restaurant in 1993 in a suburb of Milwaukee, in the days before celebrity chef culture and social media. The industry has changed immensely since that time—the guest has become much more curious, educated, and adventurous. In our own city, the restaurant scene has exploded and continues to grow every single day. It inspires us to be at the top of our game.

Ken Oringer photo courtesy of JK Food Group
Photo courtesy of JK Food Group

JBF Award winner Ken Oringer
Boston (Little Donkey, Toro, Uni, and others)
I started in fine dining, buried in the kitchen practicing constant precision and every night was a high-stress situation. So for me it has changed because these days I just want to create a culture of growth and learning within my kitchens in a more positive and supportive way, and really I just want our guests to have fun. When I'm working with new chefs in our restaurants I try to coach them to think outside the box and break the rules. We started with a culture that was so rigid, and now we have the opportunity to give people an experience every night that they remember not only because of how much they enjoyed the food, but also because of how much they enjoyed themselves spending an evening with us.

Ethan Stowell photo by Geoffrey Smith + Suzi Pratt
Photo: Geoffrey Smith and Suzi Pratt

Ethan Stowell
Ethan Stowell Restaurants, Seattle (Ballard Pizza Co., Bramling Cross, Cortina, and others)
I think there have been two major changes in the industry since I opened my first restaurant in 2003. First, our guests have become much more appreciative and educated. Guests know what they want and appreciate it when they get it. Makes my job so much easier. The second thing is that dining has gotten much more casual. I personally love that we don’t need to spend nearly as much energy on making food fancy. Makes my job so much more enjoyable to just worry about making something delicious. Both of these changes I love and I love the direction our industry is going!

Hugh Acheson photo by Jason Hales
Photo: Jason Hales

JBF Award winner Hugh Acheson
Atlanta (Empire State South, Five & Ten, The National, and others)
I used to run my first restaurant with a paltry regard for true systems. Slowly but surely, I have realized that the industry malaise of working 80 hours a week is the plight of those who don't know how to actualize systems that teach, trust, and delegate—the traits that are the only way to empower an authentic culture of hospitality.

Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint photo by Alanna Hayle
Karen Leibowitz (L) and Anthony Myint (R) (Photo: Alanna Hale)

Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint
San Francisco (Mission Chinese Food, The Perennial, Commonwealth)

We first got into the restaurant business in 2008, with a food truck that evolved into a pop-up, though at the time, we didn't even have that term to describe what we were doing. In many ways, the restaurant industry has loosened up and become more flexible since our early days, not only in terms of business models but also the range of cooking and service styles. We love being part of expanding the definition of restaurants to be ever more inclusive, and we are excited about the food world's capacity to make a difference on big issues, like climate change.

Steve Palmer photo by Ruta Elvikyte
Photo: Ruta Elvikyte

Steve Palmer
The Indigo Road, Charleston, SC (The Macintosh, Oak Steakhouse, Indaco, and others)
The biggest change I’ve seen in the industry since The Indigo Road’s inception in 2009 is an increased awareness of the substance abuse and mental health crisis and its detrimental effect on the restaurant community. We still have work to do, but the industry as a whole has taken great strides in learning how to take care of ourselves and our teams in the same way we do our guests—with dignity, respect and hospitality for one another.

Jason Wang photo Courtesy of Xi'an Famous Foods
Photo courtesy of Xi'an Famous Foods

Jason Wang
Xi'an Famous Foods, NYC
While admittedly I have not been in the industry very long (just ten years now), I do feel like, in general, operators are starting to be more professional. The old days when restaurant work was seen as a last resort and "low skilled labor" and the kitchen was the Wild West are fading away. Due to an increasingly tighter labor market, restaurant businesses are paying more attention to how to attract and retain talent to better compete with other industries, and offering better benefits and perks. Wages have been rising with pressure from the increased minimum wage rates around the country, and while that is obviously going to cause financial hardships to restaurants, I'd argue it's a great thing to be recognizing the value workers in the industry bring to the table, and to put the true viability of restaurant businesses to the test. There's also been more widespread exposure of the toxic cultures that plague kitchens and restaurants, and this awareness will hopefully make our industry a better place to work for everyone. Overall, the industry seems to be going through some growing pains, but all for the better.

Photo: Moshe Zusman Photography Studio, LLC

Ruth Gresser
Pizzeria Paradiso, Washington, D.C. (Pizzeria Paradiso, Birreria Paradiso)
Fundamentally, overwhelmingly and profoundly more—more restaurants, more food businesses, more interest in all aspects of food, more conversations about food, more people dining in restaurants, more access to a wider variety of food and resources and flavors. Since I opened my first restaurant, the restaurant and food industries transitioned from product-driven (food and service) businesses to entertainment businesses. I opened the first Pizzeria Paradiso in 1991, before The Food Network, before food PR, before social media, before the celebrity of chefs and food producers. When I opened my first restaurant I was opening a little place for myself to work in the neighborhood where I lived. Then, as the world got smaller the restaurant seemed to get bigger, reached further, and had greater impact. The restaurant table has become the nation's dining table. Restaurants have become community centers and economic drivers. This has allowed restaurant and food people to have larger and more meaningful conversations with larger audiences - like the conversation I am now having with my customers this year about Women's Leadership through our United States of Pizza: Women's Slice of the Pie program. Restaurant and food people have moved from small business people to community and thought leaders. The stage for the restaurant and food industry is now more than food.  


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Maggie Borden is content manager at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.