10 takeaways from this year’s American Express Trade Panel

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This year, chefs and restaurant owners from across the country convened virtually for the American Express Trade Program's restaurant panel to reflect on the challenges and rewards the past 18 months have presented for hospitality. In conversations moderated by Food & Wine editors Kat Kinsman and Khushbu Shah, as well as Ashley Christensen of AC Restaurants, industry pros hashed out the core takeaways of one of the most traumatic periods in restaurants' collective history. Here are just 10 of those lessons.

Restaurants are about more than food.

"This pandemic has proven that you can cook or bake at home –– most everyone has a kitchen. But you can't create a sense of occasion. Restaurants have never been about caloric sustenance, they've been about gathering and community." –– Sang Yoon, Chef/Owner of Father's Office and Lukshon, Los Angeles

The flashiest pivots don't always pay off.

"Our drive-through burger stand was a PR sensation. We had international press coverage for serving a burger, and we don't get that normally. But it bled money. It was a financial disaster, and it really pissed off our neighbors because we had a thousand cars in line at a four-way intersection. No one could get out of their homes. We had to hire a traffic company and were spending a few thousand dollars a day on traffic mitigation." –– Brian Canlis, Chef/Owner of Canlis, Seattle

It's now easier to throw out the rulebook.

"The pandemic gave us permission to rewrite rules and to allow our customers to say 'Ok, we're on board'. We're a 71-year old restaurant and we reopened with a new executive chef and menu. If we had done that two years ago, people would have revolted and burned down the building. It's fun that we now have permission from customers to think outside the box." — Brian Canlis

Communicating new safety standards with guests is key.

"We used our email newsletter and social media to communicate our guardrails and safety precautions with guests. We made a point to be warm and empathetic, knew that we have to make plans that work for us during this period and move forward confidently with that."  –– Sue Bette, Founder/President of Bluebird Hospitality, Burlington VT

It's hard to put a price tag on a pivot.

"Overall, [the pivot from Trick Dog to Quick Dog, a pandemic-born takeout concept] was a financial loss. In our case, that loss was offset by PPP loans and we're fortunate to have that capital as a safety net that we could use. But we've been seeing that loss as the opportunity cost of exploring Quick Dog. We would've lost less money if we had just shuttered, but there are benefits that aren't quantifiable. It's hard to put a dollar on everything even though that's what we're trained to do as restaurateurs. It's a little bit squishier." -- Josh Harris, founder, Bon Vivants Hospitality, San Francisco

Seize the opportunity to shake up paychecks

"I knew if I wanted to change the pay structure, now was the time to do it. Now everyone's making over the living wage in our area and we've seen vast improvements with our back-of-house."  — Katie Button, CEO/co-founder, Katie Button Restaurant Group, Asheville, NC

Returning to work has to seem worth it for workers.

"For us it's been about imagining "What's in it for them?" rather than "What's in it for us?" and looking at things from an employee's position. We have a flat front-of-house and back-of-house model, there are no levels like a lead bartender or host, everyone did everything from the day we opened our doors. That helped a lot, because we created a sense of balance instead of hierarchy. People want to feel on equal footing and it allows for opportunities for cross-training. — Kendra Anderson, co-founder, Modern Queens Consulting Group, Denver

Takeout will never replace dining in.

"For us, dining in is still king. You can't sell someone another beer through takeout, so if you're a bar owner, the takeout model is really just a bandaid and not part of the business model unfortunately. We really rely on guests who want to come in the door and socialize for a few hours. That's not replaceable through an app. Dining in is here to stay." –– Sang Yoon

Fewer staff means fewer tables. 

"Our rule is simple: if we don't have enough people, we take tables out. It's not about that one $20 transaction, we want to create a relationship with you. It's not about getting you a hot taco, it's about having a good time. Our sales will have to scale with our staff––we can't expect to do the same sales when half our staff is out." –– Scott Lawton, CEO + co-founder, bartaco

Let people stay home if they're sick.

"A generous sick pay benefit is really helpful. Sick people coming to work means no one wins. If people know they can be sick at home, that's really huge. We're big proponents of calling out sick, it's a heroic thing." — Brian Canlis