Chef Andrew Pressler Says Restaurants Are in Crisis
The chef-owner of Youpo Noodles says the pandemic laid bare how on thin ice most restaurants are in a struggling labor market.
HONOLULU reached out to three chefs for their views on a changed and changing industry and how it’s reshaped their lives.
As told to Maria Burke
Andrew Pressler’s route to Chinese noodle-making started in fine-dining kitchens in New York City and brought him to Honolulu, where he led the kitchen at the French-Latin bistro Grondin before cooking at Prima, the Pig & the Lady and his own Indomalaya pop-ups. Now he’s chef-owner of Youpo Noodles, making and serving hand-pulled noodle dishes at O‘ahu farmers markets. He’s expanding to a brick-and-mortar noodle bar whose kitchen and storage spaces will also be used for Youpo’s farmers market operations. The counter-service eatery is currently in the works in Chinatown.
Pressler says the goals of the restaurant industry need a rethink, not only to survive in an increasingly challenging business, but to help sustain its workers’ lives and dreams. Here are his views as told to HONOLULU Magazine.
How has the pandemic changed how you think about restaurants?
The pandemic laid bare how on thin ice most restaurants are financially and how small those margins really are. We’re fighting for every point, every day. Real estate, utilities, labor, everything has gone up. But menu prices haven’t gone up proportionally. Just watching margins shrink, the only things you can really control in a restaurant cost-wise are food costs and labor costs. So I started to think a little bit more strategically. Like I spend a little bit more on labor. No problem because we have a very efficient production schedule. All my products cross-utilize, so I can keep my price point level, but still have a halfway decent margin.
I’ve watched other restaurateurs not pay themselves and just barely take what they need to pay their own rent and get through, pay their credit groceries and stuff. I’ve never really understood that. We tend to be very passionate about the way we look at our businesses. These are all very personal projects, things we really want to do, whether for creative reasons, or personal reasons, whatever. But then you look at the business model, show it to any other businessperson and they’re like, you do what for what? You spend 80 hours at your business every week and you take home what? It just doesn’t make sense.
It’s not like we’re raking in money hand over fist. We’re trying to make it sustainable. So that my crew can get paid what they deserve, and I can take home what I need to be comfortable. And at the same time, give people something that they’re really gonna appreciate.
What do you think the future of restaurants is?
I’m not really sure where it’s headed. I don’t think the industry knows where it’s headed. But I think there are people that are changing the way they’re thinking about restaurants and how they’re thinking about service. It kind of forced everybody to rethink what they do on a daily basis and how they do it.
What would you like to see change in the industry?
The industry is in crisis right now about labor costs and how do we pay people what they’re worth. This hasn’t been sustainable for a long time. It’s the same where I came up in New York City. I had been broke my entire career. Pretty much living paycheck to paycheck. Once I hit sous chef and chef level, I’m sure I could have managed my money better. But not that much better. There wasn’t a lot of wiggle room. There’s no 401k, no retirement plan. Most of my career, there was no health insurance.
That’s kind of a crappy way to ask people to live. Just so they can pursue what they want to do. The biggest challenge is how to really keep people engaged in the industry and be like, you can make a life out of this. It doesn’t have to suck. You should be able to take care of a family, you should be able to buy a home someday. There should be a path to that right now. [Instead] there’s basically this dead end, paycheck-to-paycheck world, where we’re all just banking that Social Security is going to take care of us.
There has to be some acceptance from the public. People don’t realize how a restaurant can be so busy and make no money. I’ve literally sat down with guests and tried to explain why a dish needs to be $35, $40 for the restaurant to turn any profit at all. And you just kind of watch their eyes glaze over.
I think there needs to be a reorganization of how these types of businesses are taxed, whether it be payroll taxes and property taxes or whatever. Overhead’s got to come down somehow. Probably a combination of that and prices going up. That’s why my model works. Because I do not have a whole front of house crew. This is going to be a counter service—standing counter, tables and chairs, but no front of house. A waiter’s not gonna present you a menu and take your order. You’re gonna come up to the counter, punch your order, we’ll call you when it’s done. Here you go.
Hopefully, someday, somebody will be like here, have this plot of land and do whatever you want with it. That’s the ultimate calling. That’s the eventual dream.