Will Restaurants Ever “Go Back to Normal”?

Tom Collicchio, Judy Joo, Pat LaFrieda and others share their predictions for dining after the pandemic

March 22, 2021 10:12 am
future of restaurants industry after covid
Will the restaurant innovations ushered in by COVID-19 outlast the pandemic itself?

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of interviews with thought leaders from a number of industries about the impact of  COVID-19 and — more importantly — the improvements they expect to last well into the future. Get to know Post-Pandemic America.

Chefs are fundamentally inventors. They take disparate parts, subject them to complex chemical processes that change their sensory properties, and then rearrange and combine them into new and exciting things.

But over the last year, their instincts as innovators and improvisers have been put to the test in a much different capacity. After COVID-19 forced dining rooms in restaurants across America and around the world to close approximately one year ago, the people at the fore of the hospitality industry were forced to recreate their entire business model to stay afloat.

Though the innovations that have arrived over the last 12 months weren’t enough to save the countless restaurants that were forced into an early retirement, they arrived nonetheless, providing glimmers of hope, delight and escapism in an otherwise grim era. From takeout cocktails to outdoor-dining solutions and ghost kitchens, new products and experiences sustained many businesses through a tough time that, mercifully, appears to be coming to an end.

But as restaurants attempt to leave that terrible year behind and embrace a new normal, how many of those inventions-of-necessity will the industry carry with it into a post-pandemic future?

To find out, we spoke with a panel of six chefs and restaurateurs that included Top Chef judge and Crafted Hospitality founder Tom Colicchio, chef and Philips Kitchen ambassador Donatella Arpaia, and butcher and Meat: Everything You Need to Know author Pat LaFrieda. Here’s what they envision for their industry’s immediate future, and the ways in which the legacy of COVID-19 will be instrumental in it.

Tom Colicchio of Craft

“Restaurants have done things like turning their restaurant into a grocery store. That’s not going to continue. They’re going to have to go back to being a restaurant. Things like doing takeout, I think that will continue. But I’ll tell you when it’s going to stop. It’ll stop in December, because I suspect December is going to be crazy busy. There’s a lot of pent-up demand and there’s a lot of cash that has been saved. Households have been saving cash like never before. Companies that had to forego holiday parties last holiday season are going to come out and they’re going to spend. Come December, I think restaurants are going to be as busy as they’ve ever been. A lot of that to-go stuff is going to stop when that happens. I know people are saying this will change the business forever. I don’t know if it does. There are some things that will change.”

“The restaurant industry, like a lot of industries, isn’t equitable, and pay rates and things like that will change. Making it more inclusive, I think that’s here to stay. Clearly Black-owned restaurants have been having a moment. I think that will continue, especially when you look at the contributions that culture has made to dining and hasn’t really been given proper credit for. You’re going to start seeing regional African food talked about in just the way regions of Italy or regions of France are talked about. That’s exciting and I think that’s here to stay.”

“In terms of how the restaurants are actually run day to day, I don’t know. Right now people are just trying to find revenue wherever they can. I never did takeout in my restaurant, but all of a sudden I started doing takeout. People didn’t think of my restaurant as a takeout restaurant, so I was wasting my time. We were only doing a couple of orders a night, so we stopped that right away. I think that restaurants are going to go back to being restaurants. They may operate differently, again, in terms of being inclusive. But in terms of these additional revenue streams, I have a feeling once we get back to full operations a lot of those things are going to get pushed aside because it’s going to be too busy to do both.”

Donatella Arpaia of Prova Pizzabar

“Many people will still be reluctant to dining even after COVID passes. Physical/paper menus will be a thing of the past, which is good for the environment, although I do miss these menus.”

“Outdoor seating in cold climates will be preferred as people recognize how infections spread easier in closed-in spaces. Customers will expect better sanitation practices now. I think these better sanitation protocols will stay in place and we will all benefit from this. I do believe there will continue to be less human contact and that digital platforms will become even stronger, as I find most people don’t want to speak to a person to place an order. This was already happening anyway, but the pandemic ushered it in more quickly.”

People will expect more from to-go and delivery services, and the restaurant industry will continue to respond and improve in this area. I also believe that people living in urban cities who never really cooked before and were forced to start cooking for the first time will continue the trend of home-cooking. This is a good thing. I love to see families cooking and eating together at home. As people fall in love with cooking, they will value better quality food too — which in turn, will force restaurateurs to do a better job if they want to keep their customers.

“Sadly, I think the ‘mom and pop’ restaurants will be harder to start now and only the very strong chains that had tremendous financial backing to withstand the pandemic will survive. I also believe that there will be a return to fine dining — and design and environment will return in a big, but different way.”

Pat LaFrieda of Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors

“My predictions for the impacts of the virus on the restaurant industry change depend on the year in question. Year 2021: a reduced demand for indoor dining, huge expenses in PPE for the operators.”

“Year 2023: a return to pre-COVID demand for indoor dining, regret in perpetuity for the wasted expense on PPE.

“Several years after … NO. I do not believe any different procedures will live past 2023 in the restaurant industry. I believe those who avoid indoor dining due to paranoia are doing so erroneously. Mask wearing will fade away as it did every other time it was utilized, including the Flu of 1918. After 2023, no, all formats will be subject to the same risks, successes and failures as they were pre-COVID.”

Judy Joo of Seoul Bird

“The restaurant industry and eating out is completely changed forever. Restaurants are going to be delivering a lot more and to a much wider area now, as people will continue to want to eat at home and have high-end dining experiences at home. I also think outdoor dining is here to stay and will just become part of our normal lives now. The tightly packed, indoor dining may eventually return, but in the interim — social distancing will definitely remain in place.”

“Also, all of these sanitation measures are here to stay — which I am personally glad about. All of these new cleaning and sanitation practices make things more healthy and safe for everyone. There is going to be a lot of pressure put on the restaurant industry to make sure all these safety measures are in place and continue to stay in place. Reviews online will start to reflect how safe a customer feels when dining somewhere. Restaurants that are able to survive during all of this will be the ones who put safety and health first. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is here to stay. It’s just going to continue to mutate, so restaurants are going to have to be constantly adapting, pivoting and evolving with this virus.”

Restaurants that have great outdoor seating are going to do very well, anywhere with nice open-air spaces, gardens, rooftops, all that stuff, especially in the summer months. These outdoor spaces will be an asset to restaurateurs that they never thought would be so incredibly important.”

“Also, anybody that can really master the type of delivery model where they take it in-house and drive all of the business to their own website will be very successful. This way, they don’t have to give up such a large percentage of their profits to these outside delivery services, which really can take a toll on the business and be very costly.”

Dan Jacobs of DanDan

“I’m an optimist. I’m hoping that the lasting effects will be positive ones like more equitable pay between front-of-house and back-of-house staff members, women and men and people of color. We’ve started operating with four-day work weeks and a starting salary of $700 per week for line staff plus a share in additional tips. Something we’ve learned is that we will never go back to a seven-day workweek. Cooking can not be everything. We all need to find other things that we can get into. We are also working on healthcare for any employee that wants to opt-in. I think our customers have realized the effort we put into their experience as our guests and that they will appreciate what restaurants bring to their lives even more.”

“I also hope through this crazy, shared pandemic experience that the customers feel the same level of empathy for us that we feel towards them. Nothing can ever truly replace indoor dining because of liquor sales. If you live in an antiquated state like Wisconsin where I am, the liquor laws lean so far toward the three-tier system that there can never be cocktails to-go legislation. So here in Milwaukee and in other cities in states with similar laws in place, takeout/delivery cannot sustain a restaurant. So, support your favorite independent restaurants however you can and tip hard! Without your continued support, the landscape of the city-specific dining scene will be a wasteland of Red Lobsters, Applebees and Olive Gardens with a sprinkling of fast-food giants for variety.”

Marie Petulla of Union Pasadena

“The pandemic has given way to incredible challenges and amazing opportunities. The conscious decision to ‘dare greatly’ has defined our restaurants’ personal survival and success. Pivots, creative development, constant problem-solving and multitasking are what this industry is all about. Through a lot of laughter and frustration, our team adjusted our procedures, organization and execution to create a stronger and more viable restaurant. The pandemic has taught us to streamline operations in ways we had not thought of before.”

“As for the future, the collaborations and organizations that have emerged throughout the pandemic have created opportunities for all of us to get involved in policy change, to celebrate our restaurants and the diversity within. These organizations and the spirit of collaboration will continue to manifest, making the industry itself more dynamic. The one thing that this pandemic has demanded is flexibility — the future in my eyes is collaborative and finding balance.”


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