Restaurants have been in survival mode since March. The entire industry is in flux, and that may be the only thing that isn’t changing.
But owners and chefs are soldiering on, hoping the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t merely a mirage. Here’s some of what industry insiders tell us to expect in 2021 and beyond.
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Safety, distancing and dining outdoors
The term “social distancing” entered the lexicon in 2020, and we won’t be separating ourselves from it anytime soon. “Confidence is the most important thing that we need to re-instill in the guests,” says chef Billy Grant, owner of Restaurant Bricco in West Hartford and Bricco Trattoria in Glastonbury. Chef Tyler Anderson, owner of multiple establishments in the Hartford and New Haven areas, says distanced dining will remain. He expects there to be ripples in the day-to-day lives of most Americans that will be felt even after a vaccine, among them a lack of comfort with sitting next to a table of strangers for hours at a time.
But the lengths to which some restaurants will go will be greater than six feet. “Little safety stuff, like maybe even not having bread baskets again, and not grating cheese tableside,” Grant says. “Communal tables and banquet seating, I think some of that stuff might not come back. Coat checking, we used to check coats all the time and now we don’t. Even handshaking and hugs at the front door with regular guests.”
Dining outdoors, considered safer than eating inside, has become less seasonal than any New Englander would ever have thought. Most restaurants did well after setting up patios during the hot, dry summer, but winter is another story no matter how many heaters and tents are put up. Anderson went so far as to build greenhouses at Millwright’s in Simsbury. Unfortunately, Anderson says, many smaller owners don’t have the space or resources to pull off such an endeavor.
Takeout and delivery are here to stay
Before the May 20 reopening, the only two options restaurants had were takeout and delivery. Those options will remain prominent going forward, even for upscale and fine-dining establishments. Emily Mingrone, chef and co-owner of Tavern on State in New Haven, says takeout is necessary for survival, but creatively it’s “draining and horrible.” Good luck finding a chef who’s excited about “plating” their food in a Styrofoam container and stuffing it into a paper bag. But it requires compromise on both sides. “It’s just about stamina at this point for us,” Mingrone says. “And then for the guests, just adaptability.”
Anderson echoes Mingrone’s sentiments about the necessity of incorporating a heavy dose of takeout into future plans. “The restaurants that make it through this, there’s gonna be a recovery period,” Anderson says. “Any bills that you haven’t paid you have to pay. There’s a comeback from all this. It doesn’t just all get pretty once the pandemic ends.”
New habits for customers …
One concern Grant has is that customers may have developed new habits in their time away from restaurants. He wonders about the couples who used to come every Friday night. Have they found eating at home to be comfortable and enjoyable and less expensive? Have they signed up for a meal-kit service? Have they discovered new eateries closer to home that are more casual?
Grant also notes that people are nervous about the economy and job security. Nervous people are less inclined to spend money. He says quality will always be important but he expects the future of fine dining to trend casual, with fewer tasting menus and more grab-and-go elements.
… and relaxed rules for owners
Anderson gives a surprising answer when asked if there were any changes forced upon him during 2020 that he liked. “To be honest with you,” Anderson says. “I’ve liked every phase.” A self-described punk rock kid, Anderson says he hates rules. So he appreciates the reduction in red tape and the willingness of local governments to work with restaurant owners. Anderson says he’s been wanting to do a lot of things for a long time.
“When you have an idea, and you can’t do the idea because there are so many rules and you gotta spend six months getting some dumb shit approved that you should have been able to do,” Anderson says, “well, now you can do those things.” Those things include alcoholic drinks to go and the blocking off of city streets for expanded outdoor dining.
According to Stephen Fries, professor of hospitality management at Gateway Community College in New Haven, these relaxed rules will need to apply to landlords as well. “I think landlords are going to have to be much more flexible and less greedy if they want tenants,” Fries says. “Otherwise they’re going to see streets of empty storefronts. … Landlords have to be a little more relaxed and think profit down the line, but not at the moment.”
Layoffs hit the industry hard in 2020, but smaller staffs might become the norm. “A lot of the restaurants that I know the folks at, you’ve got the owners doing the tasks that they would normally have staff for,” Fries says. “Even on the hotel side, there’s GMs checking in the guests and taking out the trash.”
It would be helpful if customers simply followed the guidelines put forth by their local government — regardless of their beliefs, theories and opinions — instead of giving hard-working owners a hard time. “A lot of people just forget the humanity that’s behind this stuff,” Mingrone says. “We are all people that come to work everyday to give you a quality experience. Please just give us some courtesy, and we’ll go above and beyond to give you the same.”
It’s next to impossible for anyone to remember a time when it was more difficult to open a restaurant. Fries says some recent launches happened mainly because money was committed prior to the pandemic. But, going forward, prospective restaurant owners will be heavily scrutinized by financial institutions when it comes to lending money. The effects have already trickled down into culinary schools with declining enrollment and the closing or combining of institutions.
Sad but true. Many aren’t going to make it, some are already gone. “I’m a high-profile chef,” Anderson says. “I have a large team that I’m working very hard to try to keep employed. But if I’m a small restaurant with less resources, those are the people who are going to be most affected. And my head is on the chopping block as much as anybody’s, but it’s the little ones who can’t pivot because they’re operational 100 percent of the time that are gonna have the toughest time.”
The effort and money owners have poured into their businesses over the past year is beyond admirable. They’ve pivoted with every change and rolled with every punch to try to keep their livelihoods afloat and their people employed.
Fries recalls working in the hospitality industry back in the 1970s during the gas crisis when places would go to extremes to get customers. “One of the hotels that I worked at had to put gas pumps in because they were afraid that the guests would come to upstate New York and not have gas to get home,” Fries says. “So they guaranteed the people, to survive and have guests, they guaranteed them a tank of gas to get home.”
As we finally, thankfully turn the calendar to 2021, here’s to finding the fuel that keeps our restaurants running.