Ghost Farms, Ghost Kitchens, Ghost Towns

An op-ed from Vinaigrette owner Erin Wade

Vinaigrette owner Erin Wade. (Jen Judge)

Last month, I wrote an open letter to Grubhub CEO, Matt Maloney, taking him to task for peddling a homespun vision of -supporting local restaurants while running a predatory platform that has driven many to the brink.

That created a stir. Many people wrote to say they didn't realize how these delivery platforms are threatening to kill the restaurant, an institution that survived centuries of tumult but may not make it through the COVID-19 crisis.

This is my open letter to the rest of you, a democratic nation of eaters. The decisions you make have the power to reshape American food and life for a generation. You should be worried. We are headed from the Ghost Farm to the Ghost Kitchen.

In the Information Age, dear diner, you are the commodity. Every taco you tap is tracked and cultivated in a digital data field and stored in one of the server farms as ubiquitous as grain elevators in the Corn Belt. Who we are and what we do have become the digital equivalent of industrial corn, processed, packaged and sold as convenience. Like a Twinkie.

Where will you order? From Ghost Kitchens, rentable spaces for delivery only food factories, a restaurant without a front door. The Ghost Kitchen is technology's dream for restaurants—not ours. The founder of Uber has invested in them. Meanwhile, the company he was ousted from is trying to purchase Grubhub.

If Uber and Grubhub merge, it will create a network that could gobble up local hubs and become as omnipotent in food as Amazon is in retail. Independent restaurants will go the way of cabbies and canal boats. The era of the Ghost Kitchen will have arrived.

Third-party delivery revenues are growing five times faster than restaurants. As I explained in my letter, billions that might have supported local food and food workers instead go to publicly traded or venture capital-backed technology platforms. Tiny sandwich shops run lean and let paint peel so Silicon Valley can get thicker around the middle.

The last time technology disrupted food in exchange for a fat slice of profit was right after World War II, in the spuriously named Green Revolution. Farming was modernized when technologies used to kill people found peacetime purpose in agriculture courtesy of agritech companies like Du Pont and Monsanto.

Farmers were encouraged to treat their land like factories—to grow monocrops propped up with expensive fertilizers (made from the technology to create explosives) and pesticides (which had been nerve gas). The tenets of farming became old-fashioned overnight. There was no need for crop and species diversity, livestock as fertilizer, rotation and spacing of crops. Farming was innovated. The Ghost Farm had arrived.

Farmers thought their vastly increased yields would be a boon to the bottom line. At least that's what the big companies selling all the new-fangled inputs said. More corn! More money! Much like Grubhub promises—more customers! More money!

But when you trade your profit for a bump in sales, you lose your freedom. You get hooked. Soon, you can't afford to make better choices.

Restaurants are in the same vice grip. We're hooked on Grubhub, Postmates, Seamless, Caviar, DoorDash, Fetch—or all of them—because that's where the customers are. Modern diners are in love with convenience, just like our grandparents in the age of "better living through chemicals." Back then, eaters traded the bunch of carrots bought straight from the farmer for the vacuum-wrapped microwavable dinner glittering in the aisles of the new supermarkets.

Today's TV dinner is the online ordering platform, where delectable photos of every cuisine on the planet battle for your attention and promise delivery right to your door. But quality and creativity suffer even as the pictures get prettier, like the beautiful-but-flavorless melons of industrial agriculture.

Our menus are big and our food is good because of our dining rooms. Our layered staff exists because we've had them fill and empty reliably, like lungs. As takeout replaces in-house dining, we'll have to cut staff and simplify menus. The changes forced upon us during COVID-19 will become permanent. We won't be able to afford as many ingredients or make as many things. Like the dusty wasteland of industrial agriculture, we'll be featureless and flat. Or, we'll be bought by conglomerates—chains that run us like machines. Talented people who care about food will leave.

Absent change, the restaurant of the future becomes an app. Any physical presence will be as the fake-humble front of uber-rich technology companies. An independent restaurant will be as pointless and antiquated as a roadside fruit stand. You may feel a pang of remorse as you speed by, but you aren't stopping.

The industrial farmer became a wraithe, a pass-through for corporations. He was stripped of his topsoil, his pigs and chickens and customers; his farm's diversity and autonomy.

I've thought about that lone farmer from "expo," the place in a restaurant where dishes come together in a riot of colors and smells before we send them to your table. It's where the food goes from being ours to yours. You couldn't see what went into the meal, a journey that might have begun at my farm, where lettuce grows from a seed smaller than salt.

We couldn't see all the life that happened to you before you walked in the door. But the meal was our mother tongue.

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