Food culture has been on a steady rise since the early 2000s with the popularity of travel shows like No Reservation and Hell’s Kitchen. While personalities within the food and restaurant world were able to enter mainstream stardom, so did the popularity of restaurants themselves. The restaurant scene within a city became a major reason to travel to a destination, and the “foodie” personality was growing amongst the population. Despite this ever advancing food culture, the work environments in this industry has unfortunately remained the same. The coronavirus has changed habits and social environments in such a way that this can no longer be the case. The restaurant industry must change as a whole, or risk dying in the wake of progress and pandemic.
The situation presented by coronavirus in early March was already an unprecedented obstacle to the restaurant industry of 2020. Lockdowns across the country meant that businesses that usually relied upon a steady flow of clientele, now had to either close down completely or offer takeout only. This was not only a blow to the amount of possible profit businesses could take in, but also a major blow to staff as well. There’s no need for a restaurant floor staff if there is no floor to maintain. Therefore it is understandable why so many restauranteurs and employees would rush back to their work places when allowed to do so by their governors and mayors even with the risk of sickness looming over.
Unfortunately, this return to business lacked the guidance necessary to healthily survive a pandemic. The same way rules are being established on a state to state, and sometimes city to city, basis, the guidelines on operating a restaurant during a pandemic have yet to reach an industry standard. While indoor restaurants are no longer allowed in Los Angeles, restaurants in Texas were allowing 75% capacity at one point. The restaurant industry itself is asking for more guidance as well. Taken from AP by Juan A Lozano: “Sean Kennedy, a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association, said his organization has told officials that the hospitality industry is ‘just looking for consistency, transparency and forward-looking rules.’”
“We’ve followed every guideline, we’ve practiced social distancing, sanitized, cleaned and sanitized again. We turned our parking lot into outdoor seating and offered family style meals to go. Unfortunately, the recent resurgence of the virus has affected us as well as the surrounding community.”
Letter from Tommy Cvitanovich owner of Drago’s
It seems these “forward-looking rules” are absolutely necessary, both for guests and employees as the virus continues to spread through restaurants across the country. It was found that there is a direct correlation between people returning to their natural habits in the restaurant world and spikes of cases in areas. “Analyst Jesse Edgerton analyzed data from 30 million Chase credit and debit cardholders and from Johns Hopkins University’s case tracker. He found that increased restaurant spending in a state predicted a rise in new infections there three weeks later,” wrote Amelia Lucas for CNBC.
While it is wrong to place blame solely on one industry in this pandemic, it is possible to makes this correlation when considering the amount of interaction between guests and employees. This may also be made worse by one oversight in guidelines presented to restaurants and bars. There is no federal guideline stating that businesses that experience an employee sickness are required to inform the public or shut down. In terms of this the CDC guideline states:
In most cases, you do not need to shut down your facility. But do close off any areas used for prolonged periods of time by the sick person:
Wait 24 hours before cleaning and disinfecting to minimize potential for other employees being exposed to respiratory droplets. If waiting 24 hours is not feasible, wait as long as possible.
This is simply irresponsible and dangerous when considering the services and products that restaurants provide to their customers. “Without a required level of transparency or legal obligation to protect their employees, these restaurants might be allowing sick workers to prepare food in the kitchen and refusing to allow servers to wear masks,” wrote Amy McCarthy for Eater. There aren’t many other industries that have such a close experience with their customers, and this must be considered when thinking about safer environments for the future.
The change in habits is something that is also affecting the possible future of the restaurant industry. The livelihood of a business is determined by the amount of sales, and this is increasingly important when your product has an expiration date. This leads to restaurants surviving based on how busy they are at their very busiest, and trying to maintain that as much as possible. It is better for the life of a restaurant to have a never ending wait list, than it is to have even one empty table at night. This is not possible in a world where social distancing is setting hard limits on capacity.
“Look what happened; we were just coming off what was supposedly the best economy our generation has seen and two weeks without sales and we’re all in trouble, wondering how we can continue. It was small guys, big guys, everyone. You just didn’t see an impact that fast or sweeping in other industries.” - Robért LeBlanc
Some restauranteurs are using this as an opportunity to change their business models in a way that was previously impossible. These changes are focused on lowering the number of necessary staff. The hospitality group LeBlanc + Smith is making huge changes within their businesses, going from a staff of 150 to about 60 salaried employees. "We looked at 100% of what we were doing, and then said let's take the top 30% of those actions, what does this look like if we just do those?” said Robert LeBlanc to Ian McNulty for NOLA News. This change was not only based on the current situation with coronavirus, but also due to a lack of sustainability within the industry.
“Menus are shorter, with room for specials. Kitchens have to operate with fewer cooks. Profit per dish has to be higher. All the dishes have to be practical for takeout and delivery service,” wrote McNulty. This creates not only a completely different experience for guests, but a different work environment for employees that provides better, more reliable wages, and the opportunity to learn instead of enduring burnout in a dead end position. While some business owners are focusing on the human aspect of their industry, others are entertaining the idea of robots in the workplace. Dee-Ann Durbin and Terence Chea wrote for AP, “Starting this fall, the White Castle burger chain will test a robot arm that can cook french fries and other foods. The robot, dubbed Flippy, is made by Pasadena, California-based Miso Robotics.”
“What used to be forward-thinking - last year, pre-COVID - has become current thinking,” Vipin Jain, the co-founder and CEO of Blendid
The most interesting part of this cybernetic news is that it predates the onset of coronavirus, but was push through by the pandemic. “White Castle and Miso have been discussing a partnership for about a year. Those talks accelerated when COVID-19 struck, said White Castle Vice President Jamie Richardson.” This highlights a major issue within the restaurant industry; change has been needed for years, but no one was willing to take the risk. People have known that it is not sustainable to live off of tips and a $2.13 per hour wage covering some taxes, but that has been the norm for decades. This has led to a lack of reliable, experienced employees, but never before was it necessary to change to maintain a business. Now innovation is necessary for survival.
“We’ve missed opportunities in the past because we’ve been unwilling to take the risk.
But now everything is different. If we’re ever going to work it out, now feels like the time.”
- Robért LeBlanc
Take Peru’s largest LGBT nightclub, ValeTodo Downtown as an example in innovation and change. “Instead of slinging cocktails at the bar or dancing on stage, ValeTodo Downtown’s famed staff of drag queens will sell customers daily household products as the space reopens as a market while nightclubs are ordered to remain closed.” If it is possible for nightclub to make the decision to become a grocery store to better insure their survivability and serve their community, it is possible for the restaurant industry in the United States to change in the ways that it was unwilling to change before. The livelihood of the industry, its employees and their customers depend on it.