COVID-19 changed the way we dine out forever. Some of those changes should be permanent.
It was one year ago that COVID-19 forced dining rooms across America to close, shutting down countless restaurants in the process. In the weeks that followed, whether or not they would return to the way they once were was an open question — and it still is. The past 12 months have seen restaurants navigate changing regulations with little guidance from the government. They’ve largely been left on their own to weigh staff and customer safety against the need to stay in business. And the decision to make it work has required investing in new systems, setups, and services, all with the knowledge that any new safety mandate could change everything, yet again.
This constant need to adapt has produced a new dining culture. The notion that the customer is always right is shifting in some places — often, toward more considerations on behalf of workers — and many people have gotten used to the idea that “restaurant culture,” whatever that means, can exist outside the confines of physical restaurant spaces. With customers forced to open up to new dining experiences, business owners are finding more leeway to innovate further. For many, that translates to expanding what “dining out” means, including how it can better serve both diners and workers. For others without traditional access to capital, that means an exciting proposition to finally go into business for themselves.
There is no silver lining to the pandemic. The coronavirus has killed more than half a million people in the U.S. and decimated countless businesses and livelihoods. There can be no upside to that, and this is not an attempt to present one. But as the industry looks to rebuild, practices born out of necessity may offer ways forward into the more distant future. The previously unfathomable measures restaurants have taken to stay in business have exposed the inequities inherent within the industry, and as we envision a coronavirus-free reality, there are lessons that can be taken from the ways restaurants have managed to survive. Those lessons have the potential to not only change the way we interact with restaurants, but to bring more equity to our restaurants and our neighborhoods. Here are the hallmarks of pandemic dining we’d like to see stick around.
When cities relaxed liquor laws to give bars and restaurants a leg up, many wondered why it couldn’t be like this all the time. The notion that you could take an expertly made cocktail on a stroll to the park or have one delivered to your door was a foreign concept to most of us. It was also, unsurprisingly, delightful.
To-go cocktails will continue to benefit restaurants as they recover from the coronavirus crisis. A significant amount of a restaurant’s revenue comes from alcohol sales (30 percent according to some sources, a number that is naturally much higher for bars), and by making it possible for bars and restaurants to serve customers both at the bar and outside of it, selling more drinks in the process, that revenue can remain steady, or even grow, as our going-out habits approach a return to normal.
But normal interactions with bars should look slightly different than they did before: As it is now, not everyone is permitted to participate in this new part of drinking culture. Only those with the privilege to shell out for $15 cocktails — and look like they do in the eyes of police — are given a pass from public consumption tickets. But if public consumption is legal and normalized by cities — encouraging patrons to switch plans at the last minute to drinks in the park rather than drinks at a crowded bar, or to take a cocktail for a walk around the block while waiting for a restaurant table — perhaps the racist and classist stigma around it will disappear.
When we don’t have to be concerned with consuming drinks while wearing masks, boozy park picnics or a dinner party supplied with professional cocktails will be all the more enjoyable. Really, opening up the possibilities for drinks service will give us all the opportunity to support bars and bartenders like never before.
Outdoor dining is not new, but this summer, restaurants across the country mastered it as it became clear that being outside lowered the risk of COVID transmission. In many cases, restaurants received an assist from city programs meant to facilitate outdoor dining. In New York City, Open Streets granted outdoor dining space to restaurants without backyards or dedicated patios. The Safe Streets initiative turned Portland, Oregon, streets into outdoor dining plazas, while San Francisco’s Shared Spaces program allowed restaurants to spill into streets and parks. Restaurants invested in structures to delineate dining areas, ranging from low plywood walls adorned with flower boxes to elaborate airy cabanas, carrying their interior aesthetics outside: To dine outdoors this summer was to forget for a moment that it was the only way to dine out at all.
On a purely practical level, these city programs made it possible for restaurants to operate under pandemic restrictions at lower risk to their staff. In cities where dining rooms tend to be small and few have access to a backyard, continuing to allow restaurants access to sidewalks means more revenue.
But outdoor dining spaces should become a part of a wider, pandemic-driven movement to reclaim public spaces for pedestrians and cyclists. The need for more public spaces was made abundantly clear as COVID-19 spread, and access to the outdoors became more starkly linked to physical and mental health. As lockdowns removed cars from the roads, many viewed the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink urban space in a way that makes cities more livable for everyone. While restaurants spilling onto sidewalks may infringe on some of that walking and cycling space, there’s no question that it would do more to prioritize cities’ people and culture over cars.
Meal kits and marketplaces are two ways restaurants have managed to serve customers in light of closed dining rooms. Not to be confused with restaurant takeout, meal kits let customers take home restaurant-quality ingredients and recipes to create something that resembles the meal they’d get while dining out. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen meal kits for smash- burgers you smash yourself, roll-at-home sushi, and Xi’an noodles pulled and ripped by your own hands. Some kits include multiple courses and wine pairings, an ideal way to mark special occasions and still support restaurants. And in some cases, kits help consumers understand what makes “restaurant cooking” restaurant cooking — the combination of quality ingredients and, often, more sauces, condiments, and accoutrements than the average home cook would make on a typical night.
Restaurant marketplaces, meanwhile, saw restaurants leverage their connections with wholesalers to provide their preferred produce and high-end products directly to customers. Diners could shop the pantry items beloved by their favorite restaurants and add products like coffee beans and olive oil to their takeout or delivery, avoiding a trip to the grocery store.
The high level of convenience and relatively low risk of both offerings are attractive to people cooking at home more than ever, but more importantly, these side hustles allow restaurants to earn a small profit without having to pay for the labor to transform products into fully finished dishes. They’re a natural brand extension that could increase a restaurant’s margins while continuing to provide a service to customers who trust expert chefs with some of their grocery shopping, or enjoy the idea of a restaurant chef completing the mise en place for a meal. Often, these markets and meal kits have become showcases for independent producers and local farms, giving those small businesses opportunities to win new clients, too.
As the pandemic has laid bare the challenges of the restaurant model, the idea of restaurants as multi-pronged food brands or one-stop shops has a strong value. And in a future where restaurants act as known middlemen, the variety of produce and specialty items on offer will actively support small businesses, and ultimately change the look and substance of our pantries and fridges.
Despite everything, exciting new food businesses have opened — and many of them have done it on Instagram. Bakeries in particular have thrived in the format, as out-of-work pastry chefs utilized their home kitchens to start their own micro-bakeries. In Austin, there were cookies from Instagram pandaria Galleta; Los Angeles has cakes and pies from May Provisions; and in New York, Neighborhood Bread delivers sourdough loaves and cardamom buns to Brooklynites — just to name a few. These operations, with nimble pick-up and delivery systems that adhere to pandemic safety measures, have given restaurant workers an outlet and income while giving their customers something to look forward to.
There are limits to the form — cooking from a home kitchen means these bakers and chefs can only fulfill so many orders, and their customer base is mainly those in the know. But there’s flexibility for these internet-only businesses that doesn’t exist in more traditional structures; here, the bakers in business for themselves can determine their schedules and are, generally, not beholden to commercial landlords. Instagram provides ready-made marketing, and a simple person-to-person ordering system that evades not-so-hidden third-party platform fees. Plus, online, there’s a community with an appetite for the novelty and variety each new, cool Instagram pop-up promises.
All of these factors lower the barrier to entry for business ownership, giving those without extensive financial resources or relationships with investors a path to entrepreneurship; because of this, we’ll begin to see entrepreneurs from groups that have historically been kept off that path, not to mention food businesses that at one time may have been considered too niche to thrive.
It wasn’t until the 2008 economic downturn, as job loss prompted many to try their hands at owning their own businesses, that food trucks became a meaningful part of the restaurant ecosystem. If Instagram pop-ups, another lower-risk, lower-cost way into business ownership, take the same trajectory, it would be an unsurprising turn of events, and another ripple of creativity in a new, improved dining culture.
Restaurants were hit particularly hard by the pandemic: Not only are they generally places where people gather together indoors at close proximity, but restaurants, as a system, need reform. They operate on razor-thin margins, leaving no cushion for when disaster strikes. The situation is worse for employees, who often work for hourly wages and tips and who, without much government support, were forced to choose between their jobs and their health. Of course, not everyone was given that choice; many would get sick. Some would die.
I’d like to think that the events of the past year have trickled down into some wider awareness of the precariousness of restaurants and restaurant work. Restaurants have become a cause to support. In the past year, customers have purchased restaurant gift cards and merch, donated to GoFundMe campaigns in support of workers, and made tipping well a habit. Restaurant owners and workers have joined together to form their own networks of support and create more avenues for customers to direct funds to restaurants, including dinner series and cooking classes. When dining out approaches something akin to normalcy, that support should continue, and in an ideal world it would lead to ongoing advocacy for workers’ rights.
In a year when loyal customers watched restaurants shape-shift before their eyes, they learned more about the restaurant business — and the lack of safety nets for its workers — than ever before. It’s hard to think of a time when diners were more aware of how their city’s restaurants and the workers who make them were really doing. If we keep just one practice from pandemic dining culture, let it be this one.
Sara Wong is an illustrator with a big stubborn dog and more plants than she can handle, currently residing in Charm City.
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter