10 Food Industry Experts Weigh in on What the Future Looks Like

Though the pandemic has battered the restaurant industry and the food industry at large, the need for better and fairer systems in restaurants, food businesses, and food media predates the labor and supply chain issues we now all struggle with. Will the inequities in cultural and gender representation in the food industry, laid bare by the pandemic, arrive at resolutions? Are the seismic shifts in response to cultural appropriation and labor shortages truly going to be long-lasting? Will the changes we have made so far at restaurants — in order to be more sustainable — stick? Does the future contain hope? If so, what does hope look like?

These questions and uncertainties, and the desire for significant change, are on the minds of the following chefs, food writers, and experts, all of whom spoke at the annual Drexel University Philly Chef Conference in early April.

A blue illustration of a man wearing glasses with text underneath that reads “Kevin Tien.”

Kevin Tien

Chef at Moon Rabbit and Hot Lola’s, co-founder of Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate

What does the future of the restaurant industry look like to you?

I would like to be an optimist and say that the restaurant industry will come back stronger than ever, or at least the customer base will. But for everyone to be successful, the industry as a whole needs to change to give people a better work-life balance in an environment where everyone has equal resources to be successful.

What changes would you like to see in food media or the food industry?

In both the food media and industry, I’d like to see more support for the staff of each business. Either they have more feedback and input into business operations or more stories through the eyes and ears of the team in food media. They are the ones driving the business each day and making sure it is successful.

Kat Kinsman

Senior Editor at Food & Wine magazine and author of Hi, Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves

What does the future of the restaurant industry look like to you?

It looks like you. And you. And you. What we’ve seen over the past two years is that restaurants are vital to the well-being of a community, and that the foundation as we knew it was built on quicksand. What we think of as a “restaurant” has fundamentally — and I think permanently — changed, as has the collective idea of who gets to be a chef. Obviously, there need to be some deep systemic changes in the ways that people are capitalized, and who gets that capital. But the notion that “restaurant” and “chef” can encompass pop-ups, trucks, supper clubs, stalls, windows, carts, shacks, meal kits, products, delivery, people selling plates out of their homes, and not just brick-and-mortar establishments is good for diners and good for the industry.

What changes would you like to see in food media or the food industry?

So much of the traditional restaurant model was built on the backs of poorly compensated and thoroughly overworked people who were taught to believe that self-abuse and exhaustion are badges of honor. No one needs or deserves to be stripped of their well-being, safety, and dignity so that a diner can have a nice meal. The money aspect of it will take a lot of buy-in from diners, and that needs to be an education and messaging effort on a national and local level. The emotional part of it — I think we’re already seeing glimmers of it. Restaurant pros have demonstrated that they’re more willing to work where they’re treated like valuable human beings, and that they don’t have to settle for less. My hope is that a worker-first mentality becomes the norm, and more great people can find a sustainable and rewarding career in hospitality.

A maroon illustration of a man in a T-shirt with text underneath that says “Eric Kim.”

Eric Kim

Cooking columnist for the New York Times and author of Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home

What does the future of the restaurant industry look like to you?

More equitable. I’m hopeful that, especially after the catastrophic past two years, we can figure out a way to treat humans like humans.

What changes would you like to see in food media or the food industry?

I have a story. So far, book promotion has been lovely, and everyone has been nuanced and rigorous in their coverage of Korean American. But one magazine asked for a recipe excerpt, and when I gave them a biscuit — a KFC biscuit, actually, that told the story of my father’s first bite in America after stepping out of the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in 1983, and how this recipe was an homage to that first taste; meanwhile, years later, I would fly to Korea as a kid and have a biscuit at KFC and it, too, would remind me of one of my first bites back in the motherland — the editor wrote back to me that they wanted something more Korean, because “yours is likely the only one in 2022 that we’ll devote to a Korean American food writer.” I pulled myself out of that issue immediately. What I want to see in food media is for that sentence (“we can only have one of you at a time”) to never be written again.

Erik Bruner-Yang

Chef and owner of Maketto, Shopkeepers, Yoko & Kota, and founder of the Power of 10 Initiative

What does the future of the restaurant industry look like to you?

The future of restaurants is diverse, honest, and beautiful. I think there is a greater appreciation for restaurants — now more than ever — and equally a greater appreciation for customers. I know I am grateful that at least one of my restaurants survived the pandemic.

What changes would you like to see in food media or the food industry?

Over the last two years we have already seen a large shift in local and national food media in regards to the narrative of what makes a great restaurant and what makes a great chef. I hope that the narrative continues and that telling those stories makes the media money and they don’t divert back to previous platforms that felt safe financially for them.

A green illustration of a woman with curly hair with text underneath that says “Sarah C. Owens.”

Sarah C. Owens

Author, baker, and horticulturist

What does the future of the restaurant industry look like?

The industry is continuing to face challenges of high food costs and rising rent that require creative solutions for restaurants to remain profitable and adequately staffed. I see more restaurants simplifying their offerings to maintain profitability and possibly edging toward worker-owned business models. Workplace health and safety, reasonable hours, and livable wages can be nurtured in a non-hierarchical environment and provide profit-sharing incentives. Although this is a challenging model for many, the industry has to embrace non-traditional models to become less exploitative and more sustainable.

What changes would you like to see in food media or the food industry?

As prices of everything continue to rise, participating in local food systems decreases reliance on unstable commodity market prices for critical staples such as wheat. As new crops come in later this year, bakers will have to ask a few critical questions and take a closer look at their supply chain. The shorter the connections between farmer, miller, and baker, the less volatile pricing will be. As bakers, we also need to embrace a wider range of grains, especially in whole form, that avoid waste and encourage more biodiversity that can weather the effects of climate change.

Jeremy Umansky

Owner of Larder Delicatessen & Bakery

What does the future of the restaurant industry look like?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’ll be exactly like the diner in Back to the Future. In all seriousness, that is a shot in the dark that could go many, many ways. I pray that the foundation on which future restaurants are built includes putting people before profits, near-zero waste kitchens, widespread acceptance and utilization of sustainable technologies, and the localized and seasonal use of ingredients.

What changes would you like to see in food media or the food industry?

I want kitchens and newsrooms to be safe and caring work places. I want equity and equality for all and I want investment in people, not systems and flashy dining rooms. I want to see culinarians portrayed as we are in real life, not in some homogeneous, scripted-yet-unscripted visual vomit.

I want us all to stop putting our passion and craft ahead of our family and friends.

I want to see reformation of our food codes with grounded legislation that recognizes that an independently owned and operated restaurant is not the same as a mechanized food factory; what works for one does not work for all.

I want to see more about what a local culinarian is doing in the media; I don’t care if another Chick-fil-A is opening two towns over. Celebrate local entrepreneurship over corporate greed and oppression. I want to see my local farmers be as economically sound as my doctor is. The impact that they can have on our health and well-being is at least equal to that of a physician.

A pink illustration of a woman with curly hair wearing a hat with text underneath that says “Hawa Hassan.”

Hawa Hassan

Entrepreneur, author, chef, TV personality

What changes would you like to see in food media or the food industry?

Inclusion, real inclusion. Would love for the industry to be one that allows people from all parts of the world to tell their stories, from their perspectives.

Joseph Hernandez

Deputy food editor, Philadelphia Inquirer

What does the future of the restaurant industry look like?

The last two years have been emotional whiplash for restaurant workers, owners, and creatives. I don’t have any clever bons mots or nuggets of wisdom. Like everyone else, I’m in wait-and-see mode, taking each day at a time and hoping that independent restaurants still have a place in a world where hedge funds are snapping up real estate, rents and costs continue to rise, and earning a living wage is out of reach for so many.

What changes would you like to see in food media or the food industry?

This is a Ph.D. dissertation, but I’d like to see: more equitable working conditions (pay parity and transparency); living wages; affordable healthcare; more unions [within media and amongst restaurant workers]; more widespread conversations about how climate change is affecting agriculture, the supply chain, labor, and local restaurants; less tweeting about scrolling past an already free recipe’s headnote by people who should know better.

Joshua David Stein

Editor and author

What does the future of the restaurant industry look like to you?

Increasingly bifurcated. As income inequality continues to rise and is compounded with the climatic horrors that lie in wait, restaurants, like every other segment of society, will reflect the consolidation of wealth and the exploitation of the poor. The rich will be able to afford craftsmanship, ethical meat, fresh vegetables, etc., while the less wealthy will be forced into heavily industrialized food products from multinational companies (whose owners, naturally, will be dining on grass-fed steaks and hand-harvested asparagus).

What changes would you like to see in food media or the food industry?

Funny enough — given my previous answer — but fun. I think fun and a sense of joy are missing.

A burnt orange illustration of a smiling woman with the text “Kayla Stewart” beneath.

Kayla Stewart

Food and travel reporter

What does the future of the restaurant industry look like to you?

I hope that the restaurant world provides more space — space that already exists — to communities of color. Italian food, one of my favorites cuisines, is represented across the nation (and the world). I can find a restaurant that highlights the incredible wine culture of Piedmont and one that offers phenomenal Sicilian dining. Why can’t that exist for non-European cuisines, too? I want to be able to enjoy Ethiopian food as it’s enjoyed across Ethiopia — in its full and diverse manner, not just in the one recognizable to Americans. I want to be able to enjoy the dishes of coastal Central Java in Indonesia, and enjoy the vast array of sambal that spans the incredibly diverse archipelago. I want Black food to be represented beyond reductive stereotypes — we are so much more than fried chicken, mac and cheese, and collard greens (though yes, these are excellent and worthy dishes, too!). In short, I want the cuisines that have been ignored, undervalued, or reduced to be given the same level of care, representation, and especially importantly — funding — in cities within the United States, and eventually the world.

What changes would you like to see in food media or the food industry?

There are so many: accountability, eliminating sexism and racism at every level of the industry, higher wages (yes, this applies to food media and the food industry at large). The list could go on. Right now, I’ve been thinking a lot about climate change, and how we can collectively fight back against the destruction taking place in our world. True to my spirit of optimism, I’ve been leaning into reporting that talks about what we can do right now to at least shift the needle toward progress, and create a world that will hopefully sustain future generations. Food is essential in this movement, and I hope that people working in the industry place a greater focus on sustainability and crafting climate-friendly menus. I hope that food media places a greater focus on chefs and kitchens trying to do this work, and places a greater emphasis on including science reporting within food reporting.