From the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Eater editors and reporters have been tracking the unfolding crisis and its impact on the food world, investigating the economic and very human repercussions, and still telling stories from the ground. And what’s emerging is the picture of a new reality — full of many “new normals” — for the restaurant industry.
Eater editors Serena Dai of Eater NY, Adam Coghlan of Eater London, and Matthew Kang of Eater LA came together with executive editor Matt Buchanan, for our Eater Talks event series, to discuss how restaurants have been impacted and perhaps forever changed due to COVID-19. Below are lightly edited excerpts from their conversation, as well as a full video recording of the talk.
Even the most powerful and/or beloved restaurants may close.
Serena Dai, editor of Eater NY: I think it’s going to be really, really difficult. I think there’s going to be a lot of favorites that are going to close, a lot of locations that are going to close, especially people that don’t have great relationships with their landlords or their landlords aren’t as flexible. Things are going to close.
Adam Coghlan, editor of Eater London: I do think there will be, the way that there was after 2008, a re-landscaping of this industry. Capital is going to disappear for a certain amount of time, I would expect lots of Michelin-starred restaurants, especially in the West End of London, are going to have to close. So there are going to be significant changes and [famous] people’s voices are necessarily going to be diminished, so they will have to find new ways to be relevant.
Restaurants will keep on coming up with creative ways to meet diners where they are, from groceries to meal kits.
Dai: I am optimistic that the industry as a whole is going to survive. I think there are a lot of really creative people who have been working their asses off innovating and figuring out what is going to make sense. I think that a lot of the business models that people have started during the pandemic will probably continue even after there’s a vaccine and things “return to normal.” There’s clearly demand for certain groceries or certain at-home products, and so restaurants are doing it because they need to; but those are things that never have to go away.
Coghlan: For those that have been successful during the period of coronavirus in their pivots, whether that’s been doing groceries and wine shops or creating meal kits — and for that to be very local, because of people’s inability to travel across the city — there are multiple stories here of that having worked extremely successfully, and for businesses having developed much closer relationships and building loyalty within their communities. It’d be very difficult for them to relinquish that element of their operation in the medium- and long-term. So I think restaurants will play a role in the provision of food as well as entertainment and occasion-dining, in a way that food shops or supermarkets have done typically.
Matthew Kang, editor of Eater LA: I do think the way that people dine is going to be different. A lot of restaurants I’ve seen, they do sort of par-prepared meals — where it’s crafted 90 percent and you go home and you heat it up, and you may even need to use your stove, not just stick in the oven. I genuinely believe that despite the huge interest in home cooking, I don’t think people are very good at it, and they will never be as good as a great restaurant, despite how hard you try. That is what economics is — they specialize in making good food and we’re hooked on good food now.
But I think what that looks like is going to be different. I’m seeing in Los Angeles and California, they passed a law a couple years ago that you can legally sell food out of your house up to a certain amount. And we’re seeing explosive growth [there] — it’s all under the radar now, but there are dozens if not hundreds of restaurants in Los Angeles where you can go and eat in their “restaurant” or get it fully prepared from home cooks. And [that’s] in addition to things like street food, which has existed in LA, and beyond. So you’re going to get a lot more of creativity.
The new, direct relationship between diners and wholesalers will remain.
Dai: For the wholesalers, they are [selling directly to consumers] now because they don’t have any other choice, but I could see a lot of them continuing to sell directly to consumers, because it’s clear there’s a demand for it and there’s a relationship now between the consumer and the wholesaler.
Coghlan: The ability of consumers to go direct to the suppliers who they’d heard about through these restaurants and who, in lots of cases, restaurants built their reputations on using, I just can’t see that that’s going to disappear. Consumers have had a taste of their own ability to access these ingredients and this produce, and I see some of the more interesting and creative operators navigating their way through that as curators, rather than creators, and fitting into a new ecosystem where consumers basically have more choice — not of restaurants, but of ways to get food.
The evolution of traditional fine dining will only accelerate.
Kang: Like in 2008 and 2009, in the last recession, you had a lot of innovation — things change and expectations change. Things like fast casual and fine dining are just going to keep going in the direction they were already going: Fast casual is going to get more sophisticated and more interesting, and then fine dining is going to get narrower and compress in appeal.
Dai: A big piece Eater NY did earlier this year was about the future of dining in general, and what we found is that people really care about neighborhood restaurants now. The idea, at least here [in NYC], of tasting menus being destination dining — it’s still there but it’s died off a lot, and a lot of the hippest restaurants in the city are places that are a little more casual, places that feel more neighborhood-y; they’re places that are rooted in their communities and are at the very least trying and telling their neighbors that they want to be there for them. ... Moving forward, it’s only going to happen even more. I don’t think destination dining is completely over, but I think that a lot of the best places in the city are going to continue to be places that are listening to their neighbors and listening to locals and serving the people around them.
The industry may realize its business practices, especially its treatment of workers, must change.
Dai: I do hope that this is a point of conversation for anyone running a restaurant about all the things that were already bad: I think the pandemic exposed so many things that were preexisting in the industry — inequities, the way workers are treated, the fact that there’s not enough health insurance. These are all things that, hopefully moving forward, the restaurant industry will build back up because there will be demand, and it will build back up in a way that feels more sustainable for the people who are still in it.
Kang: The restaurant industry [overall] is going to be okay, people are smart. I think these difficult kinds of situations are causing people to rethink things and hopefully, I do believe that workers are going to come out better for it, if the restaurant industry looks at what makes things truly sustainable.
Watch the entire panel conversation: