It’s a tasty minefield out there.

Eating Well to Survive: Restaurants 101: Monterey County residents (and visitors) have an overabundance of food choices to enjoy and a dwindling supply of restaurant service workers. photo: Jane Morba

The Sardine Factory is #511. Nico, in Carmel, #397. Jeffrey’s out in Mid Carmel Valley, #276. Check out Casanova, we all know Casanova…#94. Golden Fish, Salinas, #236. El Palomar, Monterey, #185. Trailside, New Monterey is #615. Dead last, Zocalo, PG, #647. Who’s number one…AJ Spurs, Marina.

What am I talking about? Simple arithmetic. I picked up the Monterey County telephone directory, the one published by Trans Western Publishing, turned to the yellow pages listing of “Restaurants” and started counting. AJ Spurs was #1, Zocalo was #647, dead last…alphabetical order.

Does that mean anything in particular? Well, let’s examine it from different angles (I hope you don’t accuse me of flip-flopping because of that). I don’t know the exact numbers of the population of the individual towns that comprise Monterey County. I could probably find those out, but that would require actual investigative reporting, and anyone even remotely familiar with my style of writing knows that is something reserved for those more scholarly than myself. I’m more President Bush-like in my approach to actual studiousness. (Or is it studyability?)

Regardless of how many humans reside within the confines of Monterey County proper, we all know there really aren’t that many, not relative to the number of restaurants. Now the above telephone book numbers refer only to those eating establishments that truly fit into the category of restaurant. They do not include the many food-vending operations such as each supermarket’s huge prepared food machine (Whole Foods being probably the busiest). You can figure out that impact. Also there are the temporary food vending operations, such as those at the various weekly Farmers’ Markets…they’re not in there either.

When you get right down to it, there are an awful lot of outlets for buying prepared food. Then there are the “almost prepared” foods. Think of all the simply procured buy-and-heat-up, or microwave or whatever-other-method-of-reconstituting type meals there are. (The industry term for those is home replacement meals, as if, by buying them, you will actually be supplanting your living quarters with a huge wax-lined container of braised short ribs, or some other such delicacy.)

But I digress. Let me continue toward a discourse on the ramifications of a societal reality of x number of restaurants to y number of populace, with x being too many and y being too few. Essentially, we have one of the most interesting restaurant cultures in all of America right here in our own back and front yards.

Simple demographic evaluation requires the elimination of large groups of its members as even occasional restaurant patrons, although, the inclusion of the fast food joints helps to swing those numbers a little further in line. However, let us examine that in the high-income areas, such as Carmel, Pebble Beach and sporadic patches throughout the rest of Monterey County, the number of available potential patrons for restaurants in this area is considerably lower than what would be required to properly sustain the great number of businesses.

Let’s assume for a moment that the average restaurant tab for a deuce (industry slang for two diners) in an average-priced full-service restaurant, such as is the rule around here, hovers somewhere between $60—that’s the couple that comes in, has one entrée each, iced tea, tax and tip—to the neighborhood of $125 and up, you know, cocktails or aperitif wine, apps, intermezzos, entrees and main wine, dessert, etc., good tip, tax, the works. That creates an average of somewhere in the $80 range, forty smackers apiece. We all know how expensive it is to live in this area. If you’re a working stiff and living on a budget, how often are you going to go out and shoot a Benjamin Franklin on a meal? You’ve got to pay your cell phone, probably for at least two people, cable, rent or mortgage, car payment, insurance, clothes…you make the list.

Hell, walk down Lighthouse Avenue in PG and stop into all the restaurants on both sides of the street within one block of the main drag and see how many choices you have. Swing over to the Forest Avenue section. Go into Monterey…New Monterey. Forget about Carmel. There are so many RPSF (restaurants per square foot) there you’d need three million tourists a year to support them—by the way, do we still get three million tourists a year?

Hear what I’m saying. Go to Salinas. With all due respect, unless there is something really heavy, like the Rodeo or the Air Show or something, those restaurants have to live off of the locals. How many people are going out, and how often?

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Another fascinating dilemma facing our area’s hardworking restaurateurs is, “who the #**#@* are we gonna get to work in these places.”

Let’s face it, the folks living in those cute bungalows and single-family dwellings in America’s Last Home Town are not leaving the house at 3pm and riding their bicycles to some back-of-the-house restaurant job in Carmel or Monterey to put in a 9 or ten hour shift as a prep cook or dishwasher or line cook or waiter or bartender…or even a manager. Those jobs are nut-busters, and the soft-handed Americans living in suburban splendor won’t do those jobs and don’t have to. The folks who can and will do those jobs can’t live close by. They can’t afford to.

Who’s working in these places? Where do they live? How do they get here? What are their lives like? These are the critical questions that must be addressed by our hospitality leaders in the coming years. Counting the hotels and other hard-job service industry needs, there just aren’t going to be enough laborers in the labor force.

Right now, we somehow have a delicately balanced labor situation whereby some operations are fully staffed because they have a long history of success and offer the most security for their work force. Some operations are well run, but suffer from regular labor turnover, usually unexpectedly, whereby they have to scramble for replacements and deal with the accompanying disruption. Some operations are struggling to stay aloft, and cannot attract any of the too few professionally trained employees. They have to wrestle with constant under-staffing, disillusioned employees and general malaise that infects the whole establishment.

Somehow, despite the seemingly disturbing outlook, our county’s wacky restaurant dynamic dances along, oblivious to the social indicators threatening its very existence. I imagine that the factors that make this area so wonderful—its beauty and wanton disregard for negative vibrations—are the same factors that somehow keep aloft this colorful balloon of restaurant activity. Like I said, I ain’t no investigative reporter, so maybe I’m just blowin’ wind, but I’ll be damned if I can make any sense of this crazy business, especially around here. 

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