As the restaurant industry’s issues stack up—cook shortages, the end of tipping, rising rent costs—chefs have to either adapt to the changes or face going out of business. For Boston-based chef and restaurateur Barbara Lynch, evolving is just part of the trade. Her newest project? Changing her staff benefits to help incoming cooks and managers pay off their student loans in lieu of offering clothing or dining allowances. “If the incentives haven’t changed in ten years, god, it’s about time we change them, right?” she says.
Barbara Lynch Gruppo includes the restaurants No. 9 Park, Menton, Sportello, B&G Oysters and The Butcher Shop, plus the bar Drink and the demonstration kitchen Stir. We talked to Lynch about how else she’s coping with the major issues in the industry right now, what’s keeping her in Boston, and why she’s done opening restaurants.
How do you see the Boston dining community changing over the next few years?
Boston is just continuing to grow, so there’s a lot more restaurants. Are they original? I’m not really sure. I miss the bistros and the affordable restaurants. I hope that comes back. Simpler food and original plating versus, oh my god, every fucking plate has to look like Noma? Really? What happened to a nice bowl of potatoes and leeks and olive oil? It’s changing more in Cambridge than it is here. Boston is growing outside of Boston, in the suburbs. I see a lot of restaurants going out of the city like what is happening in New York; they go to Brooklyn. Because it costs $35 to park your car here for dinner. It’s crazy. When does it end?
Then the suburbs will get too expensive.
Right. Then the suburbs will have a restaurant boom and then Boston collapses a little and then stables out. Who knows. It just gets harder with developers when cities grow. Rent is higher. We’re going to have minimum wage increases, cost of management increases. How much can you charge a customer to go out to eat? It gets really hard. The rent will have to stop going up at some point or everybody will just have to stay at home and eat virtual. Robots will be cooking, not us.
How are you dealing with the lack of cooks in Boston?
We’re in the middle of restructuring the company and the employee manual. We have incentives that say they can use a Zip Car or get a clothing allowance, and I want to say fuck that. Fuck the clothing allowance. Sign up with us and we’ll pay off your school loans. If you’re here for three months and you’re going to work out, commit to two to three years and boom. Your loans will be paid off. And we’ll pay for parking instead of Zip Car. Most of our cooks have to live outside of the city because the rent is so expensive. So we’re working on growing the staff instead of growing ourselves. It’s time for us to really focus on what we have now and give these young people the tools to succeed.
You’d want to pay off culinary school loans or any school loans?
Anything. A lot of our management comes from Harvard and MIT. We should be able to put a percentage of pay to loans instead of a clothing allowance or a dining allowance. If they [the incentives] haven’t changed in ten years, god, it’s about time we change them, right?
A few years ago you said you were done opening new restaurants. Do you still feel that way?
Brick and mortar? Yes. But growing? No. I feel like I’ve done everything I’ve wanted in terms of concept. I’m pretty happy with what we’ve created and that they’re still running. No. 9 is 18 years old and doing better than ever, which in this world, in the hospitality industry, is really hard. And it gets harder after year ten to keep everybody inspired. I feel like I have eight different concepts. I don’t have another one in me that I actually want to do. It’s like, shit, do I do another opera or do I wait? If I ever retire I want a retirement restaurant.
What kind of concept do you have in mind for that?
I can’t tell you yet. I’m not ready to retire!
So how will you grow if not brick and mortar?
I’m just going to start another business. I have a food product coming out. And then I have Stir, which actually works financially for us and is a really great concept. It’s a 200-square-foot demonstration kitchen and cookbook store. It’s open seven days a week and every night is a different class usually. We teach the basics of cooking: sauces, butchering, knife skills. We teach wine, we’ll teach cocktail classes. It’s really great. Stir has a year wait list. So we’ll do Stir Congress Street, Stir Gloucester, Massachusetts, and Stir Italy. Like Piedmont, Italy. So that will also give me a chance to work with all of my chefs and mentor them. And they get to go to Italy and teach or get up to Gloucester and go fishing, etc. I love Boston. It needed what we put in here. And now we’re going to grow, but it’s not going to be in Boston.
Are you concerned about the end of tipping?
It hasn’t hit us that much yet. If you’re good at what you do and put the tips on the check, I don’t think it should really make a big difference to the public. Servers always made more money than the cooks. General managers really don’t make a shit load of money, they just have a nice lifestyle and they’re doing what they like to do. I’m OK with having to pay more for less hours. That’s fine. That means balance. But the concern is that when restaurant prices go up, then the price of produce goes up and all your purveyors raise their prices. It’s cyclical. It just doesn’t stop. All of a sudden you can’t buy beautiful, fresh produce anymore. You have to buy shit off a truck. Do we really want that to happen? No.
You talk a lot about the struggles of women who work in kitchens. How are you trying to make it easier for them?
Women are stuck when they’re in the kitchen. Sometimes they have to work six or seven days in a row and overtime and then they have to go home to go grocery shopping for their child. So we want to give them C.S.A. boxes and try to make their lives easier. Help them get a balance so they’re not so stressed out. This is important to any business. Show them that yes, it is doable and your kids will be proud of you. Especially if you’re a working parent with daughters. They know that you’re out there working and you’re successful and they’ll learn from that. So don’t feel guilty. Any dream you have you can do it.
How can women and other minority chefs get ahead?
Start with your own community first. You have to network. You have to be able to take yourself out of your restaurant and travel. Meet new people in this business who are successful. I used to do lunches and I called it Ladies Who Lunch. I could never go to breakfast or network at night, so I would meet strong women in my community at lunch. Learn from people. Stick together.
Why is teaching the people under you how to open their own places so important to you? It seems bittersweet; you’re encouraging them to leave you.
Because I’m committed to this industry. I’m committed to hospitality. I want to see it succeed in the next generation. I want to feel proud that someone who leaves me and can go work anywhere, or open a restaurant. But they need help. How do you find investors? How do you do your banking? What kind of restaurant space would you need? What kind of cuisine are you going to do? That’s the challenge. When they leave, it makes me continue to grow. Although I do feel like a grandmother, but that’s OK. I mean, I’m in this for the rest of my life.
Alyson Sheppard writes about restaurants and bars for Playboy.com. She went to school in Boston. Find her on Twitter: @amshep