Relentless experimentation: Lessons from the restaurant industry

post-pandemic church and restauarant industry

This reflection on the post-pandemic church and the restaurant industry was written by The Rev. Dr. Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community. You will find reflections from previous weeks here.

Dear colleagues,

I am always on the look-out for organizations and industries that are going through big change. It helps give me new perspective on the church. I recently found a new parallel: the restaurant industry.

This came by way of this reflection from Anthony Strong, a restauranteur in California. He opens it this way:

Like so many other chefs, I was drawn to the restaurant business because it is exciting. I ignored its dysfunction and accepted that I’d forgo higher education, financial stability and holidays with family in order to share my craft with others.

All it took was a pandemic, an enormous wave of inflation and an impossibly tight job market to force me and many others to burrow to the very core of what a restaurant does for its guests, workers and community and redefine it from the ground up.

With a little re-writing, I think that first paragraph could apply to many clergy. Something like: “I was drawn to the ministry because it fulfilled a calling. I ignored the dysfunction of the church and accepted I’d have to work on Sundays in order to share the gospel with others.” It’s Strong’s second paragraph that is significant: the immense pressures of the present moment forced him to strip away everything that was extraneous, focus on what a restaurant is for, and evolve an entirely new model.

In the remainder of the essay, he describes the many different models of restaurant he tried and failed to make work. He notes how the “standard model” of restaurant barely works for most people in the industry. He describes the model he is provisionally working towards, which upends many conventional assumptions. He doesn’t take reservations, his dining room is smaller than usual, and he has a business selling pre-made meals to support the restaurant.

The church is not a restaurant (though sharing a meal is central to its identity) but I still commend this article to you. In particular, I’d point to three lessons that are relevant to the post-pandemic church. First, Strong is a relentless experimenter: he tries something, sees if it works, adjusts, and tries again. Second, he is admirably clear-eyed about the ways in which the restaurant business model in which he was trained and which he initially sought to emulate does not work. He is not sentimental about old models. This leads to a third point: Strong is clear about what is central to him: providing food for other people. He doesn’t use the word but it is clear that this is his vocation. He wants to find a feasible and workable way of doing this.

It’s not just the church that is navigating change and upheaval. Many other parts of our society as well. It is worth our time to think about how other people are doing this.

Faithfully yours,

Jesse Zink