Blue plate special: Why food service and the arts is combo that can’t be 86’d

By Alexis Zanghi

When Detritus opened this past August, I heard a lot of questions. Some of the most common ones included: “What is this place?” and “Where are all the books?” But a more interesting question was: “How did you get into this?”

Usually, I just explained that I was a writer, and that I was really interested in the future of media as object. But sometimes people meant to ask how I’d been selected for Project Storefronts. I told people that I worked really hard, did my research, and wrote a 20-page proposal with schematics and samples of inventory. This was all true.

What I didn’t tell them was that Detritus was a direct outgrowth of a network and resources developed through years in New Haven’s burgeoning restaurant industry. Detritus’ opening night was catered by Bespoke, an award-winning farm-to-table establishment located immediately adjacent to my former employer, the Owl Shop. The wine for the opening had been generously donated by Opici, a distributor for which a former coworker was a sales rep. Customers brought flowers and bought books. Most of all, my boss, Glen Greenberg, had allowed me to rearrange my schedule to work 32 hours over the course of Sundays and Mondays – leaving me free to mind the store the rest of the week while still earning a steady income.

The evening illustrated the oft-underestimated symbiosis between the food service and cultural industries that forms the backbone of any creative economy. The first element of that is obvious and simple: Through in-kind donations and partnerships, restaurants improve the quality of the experience galleries, museums, and other venues offer their patrons. In turn, cultural entities provide a higher level of visibility among potential customers for food-service establishments.

But restaurants increasingly provide valuable labor subsidies and flexible employment to fledgling creatives and cultural producers – allowing them to develop their practice and credentials on their own time.

During my time working in restaurants and bars, I steadily built my CV. I wrote and attended classes in the afternoons before I went to work, and edited in the early hours of the morning after closing. The tips I made paid my rent, student loans, and, eventually, the start-up costs for developing Detritus. (Gentle reader, this may come as a galloping shock: selling hand-bound chapbooks and editioned prints is a less-than-lucrative market.) And the skills I developed then led to my landing a position as Artspace’s public relations and communications coordinator – probably more so than anything I learned in college seminars.

I wasn’t alone in this. I’ve known bartenders who have been in museum biennales and organized exceptional exhibitions themselves, waiters who were ABD in foreign literature at Yale University, food runners who wrote for Flavorwire, and barbacks who made films for The FADER. Even those who have achieved high levels of success in the arts often continue to “work service,” the flexibility beating the benefits offered by any “real job.”

While the blogger-barista career plan is a story much older than blogging and barista-ing, it’s a dynamic that has increased in both frequency and duration in recent years. The inflated cost of higher education has coincided with a rapid depreciation of bachelor’s degrees and a contracting white-collar job market to create a situation in which graduates cannot find work in their chosen field – and if they can, it won’t pay the bills.

Creatives are in a particularly precarious position here – as the arts become increasingly credential-driven, artists have a harder time finding work that will pay for that MFA, their studio, materials, and rent. Meanwhile, the food service and hospitality industries have been targeted as one of the top-10 job sectors for growth by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In New Haven, that sector alone accounts for 21,000 jobs.

Virtually every city with a burgeoning creative economy has a vibrant restaurant scene. Providence, Rhode Island, has among the highest numbers of restaurants per capita in the country. Pittsburgh is flush, as well, with its downtown area being declared a “magnet for new restaurants.” While I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the substantial academic institutions underpinning each city, when it comes to the arts and food service it’s a symbiosis – one can’t exist without the other, and it’s tough to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Alexis Zanghi is the owner of the curated bookstore Detritus and is the public relations and communications coordinator at Artspace. This is her opinion.

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