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  • Writer's pictureAlex Barbatsis

Rolling Pinned: will restaurants in 2021 become what professional wrestling was in 2002?

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

Between 1998 and 2000, Professional wrestling was one of the most popular shows on television in the United States. In 2000, monthly World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Pay-Per-View shows were averaging more than half a million buys per month. Anchored by the popularity of Stone Cold Steven Austin and The Rock, people swarmed to pro-wrestling and bought T-shirts and merchandise by the truck load. Other successful companies like World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) had large rosters filled with stars like Hulk Hogan, Goldberg, Taz, Sting and hundreds more ranging from ring veterans to new trainees. Six to ten million people tuned in every Monday night to watch professional wrestling in prime time. As quickly as the popularity soared, there was a sharper downfall.

Photo by Robert Bellamy. Professional Wrestlers Mance Warner at The Basement East in Nashville
Photo by Robert Bellamy. Professional Wrestler Mance Warner at The Basement East in Nashville

AOL purchased Time Warner, which owned WCW. AOL saw professional wrestling as an expensive product not worth the hassle, so stopped production on all WCW programming. ECW’s national television show was cancelled by The Nashville Network (TNN, now known as the Paramount network) after 13.5 months of a rocky relationship where TNN were unhappy with the violent content and lack of star power. TNN brought WWE to their network soon thereafter. The ECW and WCW brands were eventually bought by WWE. Thus an ocean of wrestling avenues for talent were forced down a single spigot, and the leaks were beginning to show. Newer wrestlers who didn’t have a following or a specific muscular physique were left to fend for themselves either on a waning independent wrestling scene or forced to change careers.

WWE acquired the contracts of several wrestlers from WCW and ECW, but top stars from WCW had long contracts with AOL Time Warner. The likes of Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, Sting, and Goldberg were paid millions to stay home for the next few years. The incoming wrestlers who were used at WWE were mishandled. Diamond Dallas Page, one of WCW’s most popular good guys, was portrayed as a pervert, stalking the wives of other wrestlers. Taz was ECW’s most popular star, promoted as a terrifying suplex machine who introduced MMA style chokeholds into pro wrestling. WWE made him an announcer.

Several stars physically couldn’t return to the ring. Bret Hart was forced to retire due to head injuries sustained in the ring. His brother Owen Hart died after an entrance from the rafters where a poorly constructed and horrifically supervised safety harness plummeted him in front of 16,000 fans. They continued the show.

The two supernovas of popularity, Stone Cold Steven Austin and The Rock, soon left; The Rock to become a movie star and Austin to deal with nagging neck injuries. Programming on television dipped from a PG-13 with sex and bloody violence to a tamer PG to please television advisory boards and parent groups. Without megastars, over the top violence, and sexual appeal, fans left in droves. WWE lost 30% of its key demo audiences by 2003.

By the end of December 2020, approximately 100,000 independent restaurants and bars will be permanently closed due to the effects of Covid-19 (QSR MAGAZINE LINK). The National Restaurant Association estimates that number may be closer to 100,000. In restaurants still operating, employees are being furloughed or fired because they are not needed because of diminished service from dining bans and customer’s fear of getting sick by eating out. Hundreds of thousands jobs as chefs, servers, bartenders, bussers, dishwashers and many more are still up in the air as a return to normalcy seems more distant every day. People are stranded between having to look for a new career or fight for the small percentage of hospitality positions still available.

In 2021, restaurants aren’t predicted to be at full capacity. Bailouts for independent restaurants aren't even on the back burner. Talented bartenders, chefs, and servers will be left out because there isn’t a perceived value at the moment for their skill set. Consumers are cooking more at home, Ready to Eat meals and Bottled cocktails are being sold for cheap at grocery stores, and beverage companies are turning to celebrity endorsements to sell their products at home. Who would you choose as a Tequila spokesperson; a bartender who has spent their career researching the terroir of a mountain where agave is grown or Lebron James? Restaurants that are trying to open safely have to retrofit their spaces for an average of $7,600 of safety equipment, an investment that will take months to recoup. Many areas of the country are closed for any sort of dining option as the only option to slow the wave of Covid-19 because they can’t regulate much else. On the other end of the health spectrum, some restaurant owners aren’t worried about the safety of their employees or customers. They don’t require masks, don’t have safety measures nor have social distancing between tables. Like after Owen Hart’s death, they just want to continue the show.

While wrestling has been successful in engaging their core audience in the current climate with cheaper prices and easier access to modern and classic content, restaurants are having a harder time maintaining their customers. The main allure of going out to eat is going out. Atmosphere is the upcharge. While fast food is still thriving, higher end restaurants to mom & pop cafes aren’t generating the same amount of money from take out food as previous dine in business. With high fees from delivery companies, restaurants have run on lean teams of people to try to attempt anything near a profit margin. Without safely being able to pack tables every night, there is a dearth of jobs in hospitality. The restaurant industry alone lost 6.1 million jobs. 3.7 million people have been hired back due to the Pandemic Protection Program loans, but the loans were only given to restaurants and bars if they could allocate a majority of the money to employee wages. it's unknown how many will stay employed after the money from the loans dries up.

Restaurants echo hollowly like an empty arena while roomless kitchens take shape. Ghost kitchens, a space solely for food prep and take out, are providing opportunity for chefs to start their own business, similar to how some wrestlers can open their own individualized merchandise shop through the umbrella sites like The cheap prices of to-go options are alluring for customers willing to try different flavors on a budget as they have less income and willingness to eat out in a “safe” social-distanced dining space that has a higher price point because of more overhead like rent, electricity, and staff.

A large portion of both consumers and hospitality workers are now just waiting for a vaccine and want everything to go back to the way it was, but the way it was would be a step back from progessive standpoint. Unequal wages between back of house workers and front of house staff, lack of opportunities for minorities, customer abuse towards staff, and ownership willing to exploit anyone to get an extra dollar. While wrestlers grapple with unionization, what recourse will independent restaurant workers have? Perhaps quitting to prove a point, but someone desperate enough will take the job due to a lack of opportunity. These factors could push us out of the current culinary renaissance and back into the dark ages, where getting the right temperature on a steak would be a pipe dream, where the only alcohol free drink options are Coca-Cola products, where local produce and craft beer aren not valued because they cut too deep into the bottom line. Will we see servers who care forced out, change careers and now care for computer servers?

After the decline of the WWE in 2002, professional wrestlers were often hired on muscles alone, didn’t know or care about the basics of wrestling, and lacked the charisma needed to entertain an audience. In 2021 and beyond, will your bartender know how to make a proper old-fashioned? We have taken for granted and undervalued how good cocktails and food have become, similarly to how WWE took for granted incoming stars back in the 2000s. When we get back to eating out and drinking in a crowded bar, will we continue to turn a blind eye or will we celebrate and promote individuality, culture, and fair wages for all? When we feed the souls behind hospitality, we will all eat well.

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