Pot and Food: How Prop 19 Could Affect the Restaurant Business
UPDATE: Since Proposition 19's defeat on Tuesday, we checked in with Animal chef Jon Shook to get his take. Shook told us, "I personally feel like if we couldn't pass gay marriage, and we were able to pass Prop 19, then we are a fucked up state."
(This article was originally published on Monday, November 1st, at 1 p.m.)
Tomorrow the people of California will step into voting booths and decide whether or not to legalize marijuana in our state. The issues, as with all government legislation, are complex. Yet while Dennis Romero over at The Informer has been covering the political side, we at Squid Ink are taking a look at how Prop 19 could affect L.A.'s restaurant business. We asked chefs, restaurant managers, and food writers to get their take on the topic. And while some declined to speak on the record, others were happy to oblige.
"Well if it makes people hungry, then it's got to be good for business, right?" said Foundry chef-owner Eric Greenspan, who is coincidentally opening a "grilled cheesery". This was a common thread in the discussions: pot smokers get the munchies.
"I think there's gonna be more Del Tacos, and I don't want to see any more Del Tacos," said Thrillist LA editor Jeff Miller.
But Los Angeles has long been a pot-friendly city. Will things actually be any different if the proposition passes? "People have been showing up high to restaurants for a long time," said Greenspan.
"I don't think it's as much as people are freaking out about," said LA Magazine dine editor Lesley Bargar Suter. "The people who smoke pot every day already smoke pot every day." Yet while all of the No on 19 fears may not come to fruition, increased availability does lend itself to an increase in consumption.
"Everybody loves pot," said Suter, "but I hate stoned people. I'm mostly worried about this, because I don't want to deal with stoned people all day." She went on to muse, "If [customers] are going to be saying, 'I can't decide,' and ordering the whole menu, will [restaurants] have to hire more staffers?"
Animal chef Jon Shook has a different take. "I don't think it would affect or change anything, other than that it would help farmers make more money on their land. I think if anything it would help the farmers." Animal, the highly-praised restaurant known for its confident use of animal parts, fat, and acid, often gets labeled as the holy grail of "upscale stoner food." But in reality, that title does a bit of disservice to the work they put in.
"Animal has been characterized, because of the style of food, [as] something drummed up from being stoned. But it isn't," said Shook. "I hope people don't look at Animal and say, 'there's a bunch of potheads over there.'"
Lesley Balla, former editor of Eater LA and Tasting Table LA, and currently of Chow Balla, zeroed in on another possible outcome. "One serious way to look at it [is that] people who get stoned aren't always big drinkers. Maybe alcohol sales could even potentially go down in some places. If people can walk in stoned, why would they need to spend money on alcohol?"
But while alcohol sales could possibly drop in certain restaurants, Miller sees another area where business could increase. "I think actually one of the big things is that more places are gonna want to do takeout. I'm actually not kidding. It's not like you can smoke out in the street. That means you're gonna have a lot of people sitting home smoking weed who want to have good food."
Food trucks could also see a boost in sales. Grilled Cheese Truck operator Dave Danhi -- the most vocal Prop 19 supporter we talked to -- sees it as a positive for business. "People are gonna go out to eat more," said Danhi. "I do think it'll help the truck industry." In fact, he could already picture the thought process of his new customers: "'Wait, you've got a mac-and-cheese, barbecued pork, grilled cheese sandwich? I think I'm gonna put the PlayStation down.'"
One of the larger fears coming from the Prop 19 opposition stems from the idea that employees could start coming in to work intoxicated, something professional kitchens are all too familiar with.
"I think that substance abuse is something that we've had to fight against our entire careers," said chef-owner Ben Ford of Ford's Filling Station. "There's a lot of hardship in that, and whether something is legalized or not is not going to have much affect on the majority of drugs we find in our kitchen."
But for Ford, marijuana, it seems, is not the issue. "I think marijuana is a beneficial medication. You know, I don't think it's one that I have to worry about much in my kitchen anyhow. I have individuals who understand the boundaries of work," Ford said. "As far as our staff goes, if they show up stoned, they're fired. Same as if they show up drunk."
Ultimately, the precise impact Prop 19 could have on the restaurant industry is not easy to gauge. But just as with alcohol -- and operating a motor vehicle -- marijuana safety is dependent on people's ability to control themselves, whether it is legal or not.
"There are drugs all around us, and drugs around the restaurant especially," said Ford. "Work is work. Play is play."
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