Beard Takes a Bite Out of SXSW
From the Farm to the Ocean to the Future and BackMitchell Davis
March 26, 2018
“Treat your fried chicken like toast and spread it with honey butter.”—Christine Cikowski, chef/partner of Honey Butter Fried Chicken, to guests at the JBF SXSW Farm Pop-up
In the future it’s possible that all food will be treated like toast and spread with honey butter. Or perhaps it should be. And not for the flavor and calorie bomb that such treatment affords, but for the business model and values represented by the Honey Butter Fried Chicken enterprise.
On a recent panel about the “Restaurant of the Future” I moderated at SXSW, Josh Kulp, Cikowski’s partner in HBFC, explained that they didn’t open their Chicago-based, fast-casual restaurant to follow the latest food trends—they opened it to “build a business that would last, to be part of the community.” Kulp told the standing-room-only audience, “restaurants of the future are going to have to think about the people who work there, and the farmers, the vendors, and the community that supports them.”
“Restaurants used to be their own special kind of business,” added Joy Crump, chef/owner of Foode and Mercantile in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “Now with all of the other pressures on them, restaurants are starting to look like other types of businesses, not just some big shitshow.”
The conceit of the panel was that the current business model for restaurants is broken. Faced with exorbitant rents, rising labor and food costs (especially for those who want to treat their employees and the planet right), and a clientele increasingly looking for individualized, values-forward experiences, the traditional restaurant doesn’t make a whole lot of business sense right now. Something has to give. Restaurateurs are experimenting with new service models, different cooking technologies, modern modes of delivery, and new ways of managing their supply chains.
Crump said you need to reconcile how to treat people the way they should be treated, while still getting the most pennies out of everyone who walks through the door. Crump tried implementing a no-tipping, hospitality-included policy to equalize her employees’ wages, but was pressured to revert back to the tipping model by her staff, her clientele, and her diminishing returns.
Science and technology will help overcome certain challenges facing the restaurant of the future, confirmed Arielle Johnson, a researcher in the Open-Ag Lab at MIT’s Media Lab, who used to run the Nordic Food Lab at Noma in Copenhagen. Creating a more flavorful wheat, finding a vegetarian “meat,” understanding the climate impact of food waste, building robot servers, and writing an algorithm to suggest what foods guests will like are answers we already have from the application of science and technology. Johnson believes her time working with chefs and restaurants not only taught her about food and food systems, but also made her a better scientist, since it requires a totally different approach from the way she was taught to think about science. Kulp suggested understanding the magic that makes a restaurant experience unique would be a good research topic.
JBF colleagues moderated other panels throughout the week that tackled issues related to this values-forward future of restaurants and food, including a panel on sustainable seafood with JBF food policy advocacy senior director Katherine Miller, JBF Award winner Renee Erickson, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sheila Bowman, and fisherman Amy Grondin; and a discussion of the opportunities and challenges around reducing food waste in America with JBF vice president Kris Moon, Food Tank’s Danielle Nierenberg, JBF Award winner Marco Canora, and Anna Chai, who created the fascinating food waste–focused film Wasted.
With so many chefs in Austin for SXSW, the Beard Foundation teamed up with the Austin-based Farm Project and the pop-up restaurant app Feastly to create a decidedly old-school, analog restaurant on the beautiful Rain Lily Farm in East Austin. Brunch was prepared by Zach Hunter of the forthcoming Brewers Table in Austin. Joy Crump teamed up with Renée Erickson of Sea Creatures Restaurants in Seattle and Anita Jaisinghani of Pondicheri in Houston and New York for an official SXSW dinner. Jesse Griffiths of Austin favorite Dai Due crafted a Farm Project celebration. And Cikowski and Kulp beseeched diners to butter their chicken at a dinner supported by the Caviar delivery app. Amid grow-towers of lettuces, garden rows of kales, and chirps of newly-hatched chicks, guests shared beautiful and delicious family-style, farmhouse food that celebrated the notions of sustainability, local produce, diversity, and equality that were discussed throughout the week—a representation of the sort of restaurant of the future that we all hope will thrive.