There’s an old Spanish proverb “The belly rules the mind.” While we can almost all agree that is true, sometimes we should think more about what we’re putting in our bellies, the process, as well as people behind our food.
Last year, Chef Andrew Zimmern enlightened me on the way our food supply chain works, and the inequities built into it. For me, our conversation was a real eye-opener. I think our All Business with Jeffrey Hayzlett listeners agreed as the episode was easily one of the most listened to of 2020.
I wanted to connect and catch up with Andrew again to talk about his work helping out restaurant workers during nationwide shutdowns, the trends he’s seeing in the industry, and his sobriety. Andrew also previewed his new TV show, Family Dinner now Streaming on Discovery+ and debuting in 2022 on Chip and Joanna Gaines’ new venture Magnolia Network, which he talked about as in idea during our conversation last year.
There’s no doubt the restaurant industry as a whole has been hit very hard by the pandemic. With each state having different rules and regulations, it’s been tough for the big chains, but even more so for the ‘mom and pop’ shops. Andrew is one of the voices behind the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a group dedicated to saving independent restaurants and bars affected by COVID-19. Even in Andrew’s adoptive hometown of Minneapolis, MN, 7% of restaurants have closed for good and more could be coming.
“The restaurant community, especially independent restaurant communities, the most creative and vibrant source of phenomenal-ness that I know of,” Andrew said. “No other industry was asked to pivot 17 different times in every state in the union.”
“We (the restaurant industry) did get $28.6 billion from the American Rescue Plan. That funding is absolutely crucial to folks. It’s grant support for restaurants hit hardest by the pandemic and they can be used alongside the PPP and EIDL and the employee retention tax credit so that vulnerable business can survive the remainder of this crisis.”
While it’s been a tough year for restaurants, Andrew is bullish on the industry’s future. With warmer weather and states lifting COVID restrictions, the future looks bright for those that endured.
One way many restaurants of all sizes pivoted to survive was through ghost kitchens. Professional restaurants offering delivery or take-out only service. Some are new. Others are spinoffs of brands you know. Most offer limited menus. Andrew sees the ghost kitchen trend as a footnote in restaurant history.
“Ghost kitchens, by their very nature, are not transparent. It’s a little bit of smoke and mirrors. I mean no one’s lying or fibbing. You know…you know that there’s not a physical space, it’s an aggregated kitchen,” Andrew said. Quite frankly, as a customer I don’t care — if the food is good, the food is good. I just think this ghost kitchen thing may be one of those deals, kind of like Blu-Ray players, is popular for a year or two and then goes into the dustbin of history.”
Through the centuries, there has been plenty of family history sprinkled in the food we eat and the tapestry has been woven at every dinner table around the world. That’s the idea behind Andrew’s new show Family Dinner. You can catch the entire first season streaming now on Discovery+.
“I run around the country and have dinner with families and tell their stories.” Andrew said. “The stories we tell, these families are so fantastic. It is the perfect time, as we’re heading into the spring after this horrific year, to be celebrating American families after we spend so much time with our own. It’s nice to see other families and get inspired from them.”
One thing I find inspiring about Andrew is his candor. While we’ve only technically met twice over Zoom, he is a very thoughtful, caring, and open person. During this chat we talked about his 29 years of sobriety and how it helped him become the person he is today.
Andrew says his parents helped expose him to “all the right ideas” growing up, but he didn’t listen. Instead, he fell into what he called “a horrific hellhole of addiction and alcoholism.”
“When I got sober, I didn’t know how to stay sober,” Andrew recalls. “I could stay sober for a day but didn’t know who I was going to do it for any longer than that.”
“Some of my mentors in recovery and 12 step groups taught me that the secret was doing things for other people.”
“Doing things for other people is the secret of happiness. It creates empathy. You ask anyone out there. I’m not thinking about my own problems when I’m doing stuff for other people. So, on one hand, there’s a little bit of selfishness involved here. On the other hand, I do have a deep and abiding faith that I’m going to be OK. I don’t have certainty, but I have an abiding faith that I will be taken care of.”
I enjoyed my time with Andrew, again. If he ever makes his way to Sioux Falls, he’s got a spot at my next family dinner.
Andrew had great insights why it’s not just the food that makes a restaurant great, how technology could be the biggest disruptive force in the hospitality industry, and how he’s navigating the changing entertainment landscape. Listen to our complete interview here.