I have been doing that research on the role of cities in our human civilization, and I remember the moment of first inspiration to go down this particular rabbit hole. It was the beginning of March, 2020, when the first epidemic lockdown has been imposed in my home country, Poland. I was cycling through streets of Krakow, my city, from home to the campus of my university. I remember being floored at how dead – yes, literally dead – the city looked. That was the moment when I started perceiving cities as something almost alive. I started wondering how will pandemic affect the mechanics of those quasi-living, urban organisms.
Here is one aspect I want to discuss: restaurants. Most restaurants in Krakow turn into takeouts. In the past, each restaurant had the catering part of the business, but it was mostly for special events, like conferences, weddings and whatnot. Catering was sort of a wholesale segment in the restaurant business, and the retail was, well, the table, the napkin, the waiter, that type of story. That retail part was supposed to be the main one. Catering was an addition to that basic business model, which entailed a few characteristic traits. When your essential business process takes place in a restaurant room with tables and guests sitting at them, the place is just as essential. The location, the size, the look, the relative accessibility: it all played a fundamental role. The rent for the place was among the most important fixed costs of a restaurant. When setting up business, one of the most important questions – and risk factors – was: “Will I be able to attract sufficiently profuse customers to this place, and to ramp up prices sufficiently high to as to pay the rent for the place and still have satisfactory profit?”. It was like a functional loop: a better place (location, look) meant more select a clientele and higher prices, which required to pay a high rent etc.
As I was travelling to other countries, and across my own country, I noticed many times that the attributes of the restaurant as physical place were partly substitute to the quality of food. I know a lot of places where the customers used to pretend that the food is excellent just because said food was so strange that it just didn’t do to say it is crappy in taste. Those people pretended they enjoy the food because the place was awesome. Awesomeness of the place, in turn, was largely based on the fact that many people enjoyed coming there, it was trendy, stylish, it was a good thing to show up there from time to time, just to show I have something to show to others. That was another loop in the business model of restaurants: the peculiar, idiosyncratic, gravitational field between places and customers.
In that business model, quite substantial expenses, i.e. the rent, and the money spent on decorating and equipping the space for customers were essentially sunk costs. The most important financial outlays you made to make the place competitive did not translate into any capital value in your assets. The only way to do such translation was to buy the place instead of renting it. Advantageous, long-term lease was another option. In some cities, e.g. the big French ones, such as Paris, Lyon or Marseille, the market of places suitable for running restaurants, both legally and physically, used to be a special segment in the market of real estate, with its own special contracts, barriers to entry etc.
As restaurants turn into takeouts, amidst epidemic restrictions, their business model changes. Food counts in the first place, and the place counts only to the extent of accessibility for takeout. Even if I order food from a very fancy restaurant, I pay for food, not for fanciness. When consumed at home, with the glittering reputation of the restaurant taken away from it, food suddenly tastes differently. I consume it much more with my palate and much less with my ideas of what is trendy. Preparation and delivery of food becomes the essential business process. I think it facilitates new entries into the market of gastronomy. Yes, I know, restaurants are going bankrupt, and my take on it is that places are going bankrupt, but people stay. Chefs and cooks are still there. Human capital, until recently being 50/50 important – together with the real estate aspect of the business – becomes definitely the greatest asset of the restaurants’ sector as they focus on takeout. The broadly spoken cooking skills, including the ability to purchase ingredients of good quality, become primordial. Equipping a business-scale kitchen is not really rocket science, and, what is just as important, there is a market for second-hand equipment of that kind. The equipment of a kitchen, in a takeout-oriented restaurant, is much more of an asset than the decoration of a dining room. The rent you pay, or the market price of the whole place in the real-estate market are much lower, too, as compared to classical restaurants.
What restaurant owners face amidst the pandemic is the necessity to switch quickly, and on a very short notice of 1 – 2 weeks, between their classical business model based on a classy place to receive customers, and the takeout business model, focused on the quality of food and the promptness of delivery. It is a zone of uncertainty more than a durable change, and this zone is
associated with different cash flows and different assets. That, in turn, means measurable risk. Risk in big amounts is an amount, essentially, much more than a likelihood. We talk about risk, in economics and in finance, when we are actually sure that some adverse events will happen, and we even know what is going to be the total amount of adversity to deal with; we just don’t know where exactly that adversity will hit and who exactly will have to deal with it.
There are two basic ways of responding to measurable risk: hedging and insurance. I can face risk by having some aces up my sleeve, i.e. by having some alternative assets, sort of fall-back ones, which assure me slightly softer a landing, should the s**t which I hedge against really happen. When I am at risk in my in-situ restaurant business, I can hedge towards my takeout business. With time, I can discover that I am so good at the logistics of delivery that it pays off to hedge towards a marketing platform for takeouts rather than one takeout business. There is an old saying that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in the same basket, and hedging is the perfect illustration thereof. I hedge in business by putting my resources in many different baskets.
On the other hand, I can face risk by sharing it with other people. I can make a business partnership with a few other folks. When I don’t really care who exactly those folks are, I can make a joint-stock company with tradable shares of participation in equity. I can issue derivative financial instruments pegged on the value of the assets which I perceive as risky. When I lend money to a business perceived as risky, I can demand it to be secured with tradable notes AKA bills of exchange. All that is insurance, i.e. a scheme where I give away part of my cash flow in exchange of the guarantee that other people will share with me the burden of damage, if I come to consume my risks. The type of contract designated expressis verbis as ‘insurance’ is one among many forms of insurance: I pay an insurance premium in exchange o the insurer’s guarantee to cover my damages. Restaurant owners can insure their epidemic-based risk by sharing it with someone else. With whom and against what kind of premium on risk? Good question. I can see like a shade of that. During the pandemic, marketing platforms for gastronomy, such as Uber Eats, swell like balloons. These might be the insurers of the restaurant business. They capitalize on the customer base for takeout. As a matter of fact, they can almost own that customer base.
A group of my students, all from France, as if by accident, had an interesting business concept: a platform for ordering food from specific chefs. A list of well-credentialed chefs is available on the website. Each of them recommends a few flagship recipes of theirs. The customer picks the specific chef and their specific culinary chef d’oeuvre. One more click, and the customer has that chef d’oeuvre delivered on their doorstep. Interesting development. Pas si con que ça, as the French say.
Businesspeople have been using both hedging and insurance for centuries, to face various risks. When used systematically, those two schemes create two characteristic types of capitalistic institutions: financial markets and pooled funds. Spreading my capitalistic eggs across many baskets means that, over time, we need a way to switch quickly among baskets. Tradable financial instruments serve to that purpose, and money is probably the most liquid and versatile among them. Yet, it is the least profitable one: flexibility and adaptability is the only gain that one can derive from holding large monetary balances. No interest rate, no participation in profits of any kind, no speculative gain on the market value. Just adaptability. Sometimes, just being adaptable is enough to forego other gains. In the presence of significant need for hedging risks, businesses hold abnormally large amounts of cash money.
When people insure a lot – and we keep in mind the general meaning of insurance as described above – they tend to create large pooled funds of liquid financial assets, which stand at the ready to repair any breach in the hull of the market. Once again, we return to money and financial markets. Whilst abundant use of hedging as strategy for facing risk leads to hoarding money at the individual level, systematic application of insurance-type contracts favours pooling funds in joint ventures. Hedging and insurance sort of balance each other.
Those pieces of the puzzle sort of fall together into a pattern. As I have been doing my investment in the stock market, all over 2020, financial markets seems to be puffy with liquid capital, and that capital seems to be avid of some productive application. It is as if money itself was saying: ‘C’mon, guys. I know I’m liquid, and I can compensate risk, but I am more than that. Me being liquid and versatile makes me easily convertible into productive assets, so please, start converting. I’m bored with being just me, I mean with money being just money for the sake of it’.