Food and Sustainable Agriculture
From Women's Studies
Food and Space
Space as we have come to experience in our daily lives, is often taken for granted. For example, in a museum, a viewer looks at the artwork on the walls but not the way the museum's layout affects the flow of the exhibition. In a grocery store, the food is laid out in a type hierarchy decided by the corporate owners. Likewise, in a restaurant, small tables are close together to connote community, and the lighting sets the mood. In a home, space is physically separated and closed off by walls and doors. While each space is remarkably different, rarely does a person realize how space dictates their actions or what that space says about his or her personal identity. Through the observance of various restaurants and a deli, personal experiences, and analyses of coffee shops, we hope to explore just what it is about a space that affects us.
From a young age, children are taught that eating at home and eating in a restaurant are two very different events. They are two very diverse spaces in which different behaviors are understood and obeyed. Yet, besides the common ‘no shoes, no shirt, no service’ signs, you generally do not receive a rulebook specifically dictating how you should act when entering a restaurant. What shapes your actions then? What makes a restaurant different from your home? What makes one restaurant different from another? Through observations made in various restaurants throughout Pittsburgh combined with my experience in a catering company I argue that the way in which a space is set up prescribes your actions within that space. What happens then when the space is catered … if it is not necessarily in a restaurant or fancy hotel, but in your backyard under a tent, or in your own home? My own interest in the structure of a public space as well as Karla Erickson’s chapter Tight Spaces and Salsa-stained Aprons: Bodies at Work in American Restaurants influenced the following observations.
ContentErickson describes the restaurant space as a stage, a theatrical place that includes a frontstage (the floor), backstage (the kitchen) and actors (both the waitstaff and customers). She labels the movement of the actors amongst both stages as a type of dance, a dance that becomes so routine for the waitstaff that words and instructions are rarely uttered between them (17). While I am not as interested in the theatrical dance element of a restaurant space, I do agree that the restaurant is designed to define movement, carefully using walls, barriers, counters, and doors to separate the backstage action from the frontstage decor.
The backstage or behind-the-scenes area in a restaurant or general food space is almost a safe-haven for waiters and waitresses. From my experience, I agree that as a waitress you put on a different face and overall act when crossing the line from backstage to frontstage. Backstage you can vent about an annoying customer. Frontstage you must treat that customer like a king (to avoid a bad review or lousy tip). When in a catered space where there are no distinct physical boundaries, this change of face is unacceptable. Depending on the size of the house and the size of the party, where a caterer’s backstage is stationed varies (check out my friend and coworker's beautiful pictures of an event catered by Catering by Karen Hunter). Often times we are in the garage, separated from the crowd by a door and a few steps. When we are in the kitchen however (either by request of the customer, or the party is small enough that we don’t need a lot of room, or better yet the kitchen is gigantic) it is quite a different story. Customers, either the home owners, the owner’s children, or just random party people, can walk through the kitchen while we are working without warning. In one home there was a dog in the laundry room next to the kitchen, where children would walk to when bored with the party to play with the dog.
Walking through the kitchen while cooking utensils, trays and hot chafers are being used is dangerous and the waiters and kitchen staff are well prepared for accidents and situations that happen quickly. Children and even adults unaware of their surroundings or what goes into a catered event are not. But what is different about this awkward situation and the restaurant scene described in Erickson’s piece, is the customer realizing that he has overstepped a boundary and must return. It is a home. There are different rules. In one’s own home, a child is taught to be himself, to walk around without shoes on and play. When a child is in another person’s home, they are taught to keep their shoes on, to stay by their parent’s side and to not be disruptive to the hosts or other guests. When in a restaurant, the stakes are even greater. All of these rules are confusing for a child (and from my own observations, adults too) and more often than not end up being blurred or broken when in each space.
For these reasons, waitstaff, when in a customer’s home, must be very alert and aware of “intruders” (customers who come backstage) as Erickson put it (20). Unless we are in a garage, separated from the guests by a door and wall, our behavior may not change when crossing from back to frontstage. While we have a pseudo-separation of labor, we do not have the outlet or relief that comes with a backstage. We are always under watch from not only the host, but potentially all customers. We must act as if the space is a strict restaurant formal space, when we are in fact surrounded by couches and family pictures.
The space of a restaurant (as well as the space of grocery stores, museums, and school buildings) dictates how we act within that space. With the exception of a child being told rules before entering a fancy house party, guests and customers do not receive formal guidelines on how to act. Instead, as observers, we take in our surroundings. We let the lighting, the menus, the décor, and overall ambience tell us just what type of restaurant we are in and subsequently how we should behave. As seen through the above observations, catered homes are the anomaly. Do you act like you are in a home … or do you act like you are being served in a fine restaurant? Unfortunately, every guest, host, and server has a different opinion. I encourage you to be observant of the unspoken rules of a catered space next time you find yourself at a party.
by Colleen Bernhard
Erickson, Karla A. "Tight Spaces and Salsa-stained Aprons: Bodies at Work in American Restaurants." The Restaurants Book: Ethnographies of Where We Eat. Ed. David Beriss and David E. Sutton. Oxford: Berg, 2007. 17-23. Print.
Space and Identity
Different restaurants have their own personality "type" that seems to match the atmosphere of the space. Most people can probably take a glance at the general outline of a restaurant and estimate the general price range of the menu. Each restaurant values its customer experience while catering to a particular demographic. Some aim for a comfy and cozy style while others strive for the hip and cool feel. This wiki article will look into the use of space in a restaurant and how that communicates the demographic range of its customers. The focus is going to be on the target range for places in the Oakland neighborhood in Pittsburgh, particularly that of a youthful group in need of a quick experience.
There are several broad categories that separate restaurants. One such category is the casual and quick service space where full meals are served in a matter a minutes. Places like McDonald’s, Starbuck’s, and Panera bread are such places. Dining halls and cafeterias are also casual spaces. The menu options are varied and readily on display behind a cashier. As anthropologist Yunxiang Yan mentions in the article “Of Hamburger and Social Space: Consuming McDonald's in Beijing”, the "menu delivers a clear message about the public, affordable eating experience that the establishment offers". Prices are listed right next to the items. These casual eating spaces allow for a direct look into the preparation area, so the customers are fairly aware of the steps taken to prepare their food. This type of open approach to serving food takes away an element of mystery from the restaurant. Most quick service dining spaces are well lit, giving a more casual feel to the place.
Comfortable seating is also provided for and often free internet access as well. Multiple outlets are also around to accommodate the use of electronics. Sitting alone for extended periods of time in a quick service casual space will not illicit strange stares. Yet, sitting in group settings in this type of space is also popular. Quick service restaurants provide for ample seating for both types of interactions.
In the Oakland area, the majorities of restaurants are casual and offer quick service at affordable prices. Yan also considers that a “great variety of food habits can be understood as human responses to material conditions...in order to construct group identity". In the case of these casual spaces, the group identity created is a young, constantly on-the go college student looking for a quick meal and a study break. Marketing responds to this demand in the area where establishments cater towards college students and those who work on the go.
On one website that specializes in restaurant branding and marketing, the researchers suggest that “People between the ages of 18 and 24 eat out more often than other age groups. If you choose to target them, listen to their music and keep up with their technologies and fashions. This will help you determine the best way to promote yourself to them. You could try text message marketing or promoting yourself through online social networks, like Facebook® or MySpace®" . Quick service areas usually keep a running playlist to set the mood of the space. A mixture of popular music is often played for the patrons. College students are certainly familiar with the music choices of popular quick service restaurants. A lot of restaurants also keep a "like us on Facebook" flyer up in their space and engage in social media, sometimes posting the special of the day with price ranges for users to see. The use of social media, though outside of the immediate space of the restaurant demonstrates another method that restaurants use to draw in a certain type of customer.
"Demographics for Restaurants." Restaurant Supplies | Restaurant Equipment | FoodServiceWarehouse.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <http://www.foodservicewarehouse.com/education/restaurant-marketing/demographics.aspx>.
Yan, Yunxiang. "Of Hamburger and Social Space: Consuming McDonald's in Beijing." Food and Culture: A Reader. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 1997. 500-520. Print.
The Role of Space in the "Proper Meal"
This section finds similarities between McDonald’s in Hong Kong and the Smallman Street Deli in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (For more information about food and ethnic communities like Squirrel Hill, see Sean Neely's section in Food and Community). For the sake of understanding how space can play such a heavy role in a restaurant, it helps to look at the case of McDonald’s in the modern, bustling city of Hong Kong. McDonald’s and the Smallman Street Deli are both able to positively utilize space to make customers feel as comfortable as if they were eating at the own dining room tables.
McDonald's and the Smallman Street Deli's Use of Space
One of the keys to McDonald’s remarkable success in Hong Kong is space. In the United States, McDonald’s is the ultimate in fast food, and the average customer sits at a table for only eleven minutes. In Hong Kong, the golden arches stand for a welcome space. Young people treat the restaurant as a place to hang out. The managers understand why their customers come, so they do not pressure customers to leave the restaurant even when they stay at the tables for hours. McDonald’s is a common place for students to come after school, and it is a haven from their parents, stressful homework, and overcrowded apartment buildings. There is also an undeniable appeal to McDonald’s in that it is spacious, well-lit, air-conditioned, and meticulously clean (Watson). It is understandable why McDonald’s has made a name for itself in Hong Kong based on space.
The Smallman Street Deli in Pittsburgh also utilizes space to create an exceptional atmosphere for eating and socializing. The deli is bright, tastefully decorated, and very clean. McDonald’s and this type of deli are the alternative to high-scale, candle-lit restaurants where good manners govern the meal and can make people tense. At the Smallman Street Deli, anything goes. Customers can eat in whatever style they feel most comfortable.
Best of all, at this deli, there is no pressure to rush the meal experience. As Watson says of a Hong Kong McDonald’s table, “it is a commercial space temporarily transformed into private space” (Watson 106). Customers can take their time to enjoy the space as they wish. The typical Smallman Street Deli experience is enthusiastically talking, shouting, and pounding on the table while eating sandwiches and cake for three hours straight.
One more essential element of the Deli’s charm is its décor. I have brought Korean friends and a Brazilian friend here on separate occasions, and they each exclaimed, “Wow!” when they entered. They were amazed by the classic American character of the decoration of the walls, booths, and counters. To them, a space like this was the stuff of movies. There are black and white posters of the walls of Albert Einstein, Pittsburgh, and scenes from old movies. The vast menu is handwritten on chalkboards above the register. There is a full deli counter, and the glass cases display whole fish, large hunks of meat, including a cow tongue, deli salads, and sky-scraper cakes. The food in the cases is naturally beautiful; there is no need to garnish it or display it in ornate dishes. Just as the owner, Bill, told me, “it brings the idea of a New York deli to Pittsburgh. Everything homemade, everything made from scratch, fairly large sandwiches, and all very appealing.” The deli’s American décor is a perfect complement to its warm pastrami sandwiches on rye. Space undoubtedly lends well to the experience of a meal.
Watson, James L. “McDonald’s in Hong Kong: Consumerism, Dietary Change, and the Rise of a Children’s Culture.” Golden Arches East: McDonald's in East Asia. Stanford: Stanford University, 2006. 77-109. Print.