One day in the very near future, the shelter-in-place order in my state will come to an end. Takeout containers that have sustained our restaurant through the pandemic will be put into storage, and we can finally get back to entertaining guests in our dining room. Maybe.
At my Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant EL Ideas, I don’t think we’ll return to the normal that existed prior to March 2020. That’s the tricky (and frightening) thing for myself and all restaurateurs to think about. What will the new normal look like for us? What will it look like to diners?
While no one can really know how this will play out, few will dispute there will be significant changes in the restaurant experience. This is me staring into the crystal ball...
At the minimum, we’re removing several tables from the dining room when we get the green light. You might see more partitions between tables, which will make restaurants resemble operating rooms. Dining will feel more cloistered, less social. (Also: One of the hallmarks of our open-kitchen restaurant was allowing guests to mingle with the cooks. No longer.) This means less revenue, even if we’re booked completely night after night. There’s this expectation that on the day a state lifts its shelter-in-place order, people with cabin fever will flow into restaurants in hordes. That will most definitely not happen. More likely it will happen in trickles. Which goes into my next point…
This two-month shutdown has scarred diners. Our governors could snap their fingers tomorrow and reopen everything, but little will feel the same. How do you think you’d react if someone at the next table sneezes? You don’t think the anxiety level of everyone in that dining room would shoot up tenfold? You don’t think people would nervously stand up and excuse themselves until the area could be fumigated? My point is, there’s some long-lasting trauma within dine-out culture that we’ll be living with for the foreseeable future.
This will almost certainly become the new normal. It’ll be uncomfortable for line cooks in the hot kitchen, it’ll feel foreign for servers taking orders, and I’m sure guests will feel a tinge of discomfort from the sight too. And what of sushi restaurants? Sushi chefs who rely on the tactile senses of their fingers for their masterwork will now all have to wear latex gloves?! It’s nauseating to me, but we’re all going to have to get used to it.
The profit margin (if any) for most restaurants was very tight before the pandemic. Now, aside from being confronted with people who will be too fearful or financially strapped to go out for dinner, we will also be mandated to have fewer tables with greater distance between them. Additionally, we’re only at the tip of the iceberg in regards to the strain on our food supply, and prices will be going up even more than they have already. (Have you heard about the meat shortages lately?) Simple laws of supply and demand on both of those would indicate that the cost of your meals will be increasing. In my eyes, raising prices is a last resort. Even though we’ve been taking a financial beating—we typically charge nearly $200/person for a tasting menu and are now charging $24/person for our curbside takeout menu—increasing our prices is a pill I don’t want to swallow unless absolutely necessary. Almost everyone’s going through a financial crisis right now, and finding a value matters to people more than ever.
It’s possible that restaurants won’t just be “a place that serves food.” They will become a distribution channel. For instance, at Fat Rice, the acclaimed Chicago restaurant that served the cuisine of Macau, they’ve converted their business model from a sit-down restaurant to essentially a high-end bodega. At Michelin two-starred Acadia, chef Ryan McCaskey is making cakes as a way to supplement income. Chefs are self-producing cookbooks now. They, and others, have served as inspiration for my own repositioning. For instance, in addition to serving our first Mother’s Day service ever, we’ve partnered with a local florist to be a one-stop shop for our guests.
You’ll also likely see an increase in restaurants incorporating takeout and meal kits as part of their future business model. If the experts are right and there’s a second wave of COVID-19 coming, a business based on bringing prepared foods to people’s homes may be the only consistent source of revenue for the foreseeable future.
Two months ago, I predicted that some of your favorite restaurants will be permanently closing. This wasn’t hyperbolic. More restaurants than you’d think are operating paycheck to paycheck. Because of this, many restaurateurs have already thrown in the towel. Why take on another loan and fall ass-backwards into the hole when you just scratched and clawed halfway out?
What you’ll see in the next few months are restaurant spaces that remain dark, with chairs collecting dust atop tables, or its windows papered over. Not being able to make rent is a major reason they’ll remain closed. If you’re a restaurant owner, it’s smart to talk to your landlord about renegotiating your lease. Tenants may have some leverage, because smart landlords will understand less money is better than no money.
But at least for a while, your city’s restaurant row may resemble a Western ghost town more than a bustling hub. Welcome to our new normal, folks.
I’m sorry to say there is no quick fix. Still, the best way to help our industry is by supporting those of us in the takeout game with your orders, buying merchandise (hint: like my self-published graphic novel), or donating to one of the many GoFundMe pages supporting industry folks. I know everyone wants to go back to rousing it up with friends and families in our eateries like the good ol’ days just two months ago. We do too. And though I know curbside takeout is not nearly as enticing or fun, with your dedicated support many of our establishments will be able to overcome this godforsaken virus.