Higher wages encourage innovation in dining

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Bbefore main course comes out on Friday night, diners are asked to stay for some entertainment. “I’m not one to just throw a dinner party for nothing,” says the host, and then a musician stands and sings. The guests gathered, seated at two long tables, whoop. Each person present has paid $90 for the meal, which includes six courses as well as wine pairings and cocktails. The show is themed around Shabbat, the Friday night meal for observant Jews. The scene, however, is not at a fancy restaurant, but in an art gallery. There are pictures of different foods along the walls. The host, Alan Weinberger, who is also a gallery owner, says that it has already been sold, and that the painter is among the crowd.

The food at Mr. Weinberger’s gallery was provided by TxaTxaClub, a business started in Chicago in 2021 by two foodies, Liz Bendure and Daniel Parker. The two met working at an organic restaurant in Logan Square, the heart of Chicago’s hipster belt. But when the pandemic closed places to eat, their lives were thrown into chaos. “We lost everything,” Ms. Bendure said. Starved of work, they started running supper clubs for a dozen or so people in their backyard. Within a year they were serving people from mostly in underutilized spaces. Art galleries work well because they are empty at night, and the owners like to bring in punters with a fancy taste. But they also cooked in warehouses and at a furniture store.

The last few years have been difficult for the restaurant industry. Last year there were about a tenth fewer open dining places in America than in 2019. Supper clubs and the like are thriving, however. Yelp, which runs the table booking website, says the opening of “pop-up” restaurants (without permanent premises) more than doubled in the year to March. One reason why is simple: spending is back, but costs have increased. Wages in “food and beverage establishments” have increased by a third since 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In restaurants, Mr Parker says, “the finances are always the focus”. Workers must be paid throughout the day, even when tables are empty. A pop-up is far more effective, and less risky. Just try not to damage the art.

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