Chefs entertain some possible scenarios for post-COVID restaurants, but the data might tell a different story.

By Greg Baker
December 10, 2020
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Chef Ian Boden of The Shack
Ian Boden plates a dish at The Shack
| Credit: Sera Petras Photography

It was an innocuous conversation, really. Just some socially-distanced restaurant industry friends talking about what we'd do when this is all over and we reach a point of near-normalcy in the After Times. Everyone had dealt with some profound stressor or trauma since COVID-19 hit—losing family members and being denied the chance to properly grieve, struggling to prevent the loss of their restaurant business, or just old-fashioned financial hardship. We are not unique, unfortunately, and who among us hasn’t craved a little escapism in the midst of all this? Most of our conversation revolved around food and celebration, and it left me questioning what restaurants will look like on the other side. Without a doubt, we’re going to see an uptick in low-cost, quick-service restaurants. But what does the future of higher-end restaurants hold?

I remembered a dinner in 2018, where the event organizers tasked each participating chef with creating a course that embodied a decade, past or future. Kelly Fields, chef-owner of Willa Jean in New Orleans, drew the 2020s as the final course. Fields created a sweet plate that was composed mainly of beets. Beet cake, beet greens, candied beets, every stage of beets. In her imagined dystopia, beets were the only available food. While intentionally tongue-in-cheek, this dessert could have been unintentionally foretelling. Now fueled by this memory, I imagined a Mad Max, post-apocalyptic scenario ahead, but I had to escape my echo chamber and ask chefs around the country what they thought. I also needed a reality check with Kishan Vasani, co-founder and CEO of Spoonshot, an AI data analytics company specializing in “providing unintuitive intelligence for food and beverage innovation.” 

Kelly Fields Beets Dish
Kelly Fields' post-apocalypse beets

Before going further, I need to mention that to use the word “struggling” to describe the current state of restaurants and bars is deeply dismissive to everyone in the industry. It is also insultingly lazy when we could instead be drawing from the exceptional well of English and not-English terms that “struggling” pales in comparison to. "Fakakta" is a good start. As Chef Matt Bolus of the 404 Kitchen in Nashville put it, “The restaurant industry is a hobbled giant, trying to get out of the hospital right now.” 

There was a recurring theme to what my friends shared: a longing for foods and environments that reminded them of simpler times, but have fallen from favor in the last few decades. Every city has a restaurant holdout—dark rooms festooned in crushed velour wallpaper with spacious banquettes that evoke the tawdry elegance of long-past decades. “I’m going to go to one of those places and order caviar and a dirty martini, and I don’t even like those things,” my wife Michelle said. Others meditated on long-forgotten steakhouses, power broker lunch spots, and faux-swanky Neapolitan pizza. Putting a finger on exactly what was driving this proved to be complicated. Was it luxury? Familiarity? Nostalgia? Just wanting to exist somewhere and sometime simpler?

Chef Norman Van Aken, one of the founders of modern American cuisine, responded to Michelle's caviar-and-martini dreams saying, “While these are hedonistic things, they are also things with great clarity. There’s going to be an appreciation of things done with great simplicity, like a grilled cheese sandwich with a perfect bowl of tomato soup. Likewise, for a well-prepared ribeye with perfect onion rings and a terrine of béarnaise.”

Every chef I spoke with shared similar opinions about the decline and probable demise of the “mid-fine” dining space and “restaurants so precious that they almost seem to claim, ‘you’re not going to get our food, customer,’” as Van Aken put it. Vasani’s data agrees with the former, showing that interest in gastropubs or mid-fine dining has decreased by 31% this year and 51% since 2016. Our visions of restaurants-yet-to-come diverged from there.

“Here in New Orleans, the tuxedoed servers never left. It’s funny to think of it as a flashback or a return to something. We’re so far behind that we may be ahead for the first time,” Fields joked about my friends’ nostalgia. “I think that there’s always going to be an audience for that [old school dining], but the size of that audience is what it really boils down to. I don’t particularly see a future like that, and it might just be my perspective because I don’t see it for myself—that over-the-top, extreme elegance, overabundance.”

Fields added, “For my group of peers and me, knowing that I can go to this one restaurant once a month because that’s what I have in the budget, and that every time I’m going to have a stellar experience from the food to the ambiance without it being overly fussy—that's going to go a lot further than the once-a-year lobster dinner and caviar.” 

When it comes to Willa Jean, now and in the After Times, Fields offered this, “The lesson for me over the years—this past year, in particular—has been to nourish and feed people in a way that counts. I feel like every person’s dollar counts, and people are going to be very particular about how and where they spend that dollar to get the experience that they want.” Fields’ viewpoint at first glance may seem incongruous with the original hypothesis, but when viewed through the lens of a customer craving clarity, it does fall in line.

While innovation in American restaurants is a relatively new concept, really only dating back to the mid-1980s, about 20 years after nouvelle cuisine took hold in France, it peaked in the last decade with astonishing speed. From the Offal Offensives of 2011 and the Lardcore Wars of 2013 to the Vadouvan Campaign of 2017, food media and experiential diners have been on an endless search for the next new thing. Maintaining relevance in the media—and customers’ consciousness—hinges upon constantly creating something never before seen or pulling up something quite old that a chef could tout as “new.” It takes a toll. 

Weariness with the constant necessity for innovation sets in for many chefs and customers, who in their heart of hearts desire familiarity. No one I spoke with sees a whiplash so sharp as a return to the cocaine-and-junk-bond-fueled dining extravagances of the '80s, where caviar service featured animal-shaped ice sculptures and bottles of the vodka du jour. But the diners I consulted do see those years with something more than nostalgia. Perhaps it’s the combination of that desire for clarity, some elegance, and a bit of extravagance that has been lacking in many of the last decade's mid-fine restaurants, commingling with memories of better days.

Chef Ian Boden of The Shack
Ian Boden plates at The Shack
| Credit: Sera Petras Photography

Ian Boden, chef-owner of The Shack, in Staunton, VA, provided a counterpoint, “There’s definitely a market segment that will want boundary-pushing food, but customers will remain guarded with their dollars,” he said. When I presented him with the idea of customers craving staid steakhouse classics and dated dishes like crab royale that fell into the category of “country club food” 30 years ago, Boden cited Charleston’s McCrady’s Tavern’s truncated experiment with foods of the Gilded Age (think oeufs en gelee and calf’s head soup) as an example. 

“Do people’s palates lean that way? These classic dishes that you’re talking about were developed in an environment that doesn’t and can’t exist anymore,” Boden said, referring to the traditional brigade system of days past. Smaller kitchens and tighter labor budgets drastically shrank the size of an average kitchen staff and like many industries, the end product had to be adapted. It’s quite plausible that classical cooking styles fell from grace mainly because over  time, dishes lacked the care and execution of the original versions and crumbled from iconic into bland sadness. 

Van Aken values innovation but sees it as having less of a part in the conversation in the coming years. Dining as, “Eh, it’s Tuesday, I’m hungry, let’s try that hot new place that just opened” has had its heyday and might not be seen again for some time. Van Aken described the historical back and forth of European and North American cuisine over the decdes, from the adoration of complexity back to craving simpler foods, and noted Jean Francois Revel’s 1982 book, Culture and Cuisine

“We have periods of economic and political stability that allow us to go off on these artistic forays and make things cooler, cuter, or brainier. Then the shit hits the fan, and we find ourselves wanting pulled pork, or scrambled eggs with caviar and crème fraiche,” Van Aken explained. This concept is not limited solely to diners of means, either, “People will find what they wish to find, and that will bring them joy within the economy they have.”

Spoonshot’s data leans towards Boden’s view. “Interest in nostalgia across the entire food and drink universe is 33 times higher than in the fine-dining space," Vasani said. "We don’t think that nostalgia is going to be as big a driver in fine dining as it is in the overall food and drink space, at least not in the general sense. Personal nostalgia might be a bigger driver—shared memories and moments. These might be opportunities for fine dining restaurants to capitalize on, rather than the broad-strokes concept of nostalgic food.”

Chef Matt Bolus of 404 Kitchen
Chef Matt Bolus of 404 Kitchen

Depending on who you listen to about economics, as a country, we’re either enjoying the most robust economy ever, or we're on the brink of a years-long global depression—or both. Bolus recognizes the looming possibilities of an economic downturn in the US and disruptions to the global supply chains due to worker shortages, tariffs, job losses, and failing real estate markets. American farmers and ranchers, facing a severely down year with 40% of total US farm income expected to come in the form of subsidies, are facing adaptation for the sake of economic sustainability. 

“Diners may very well view a steak and baked potato as craveable,” Bolus said, “Because that big chunk of beef might be the only part of the cow that made economic sense for the farmer to not throw in the grinder. It’s simply what is available.” 

To Bolus’s first point, the Washington Post reported last month that the commercial real estate market is raising red flags for the economy. Vasani added this to the equation, “Another trend we expect to see is fine dining restaurants moving away from downtown or commercial areas and into more suburban or residential areas. Post-pandemic, many offices will continue to allow employees to work from home more often, if not full time. This means fewer patrons to restaurants situated in these commercial parts." 

He continued, "Since the pandemic began, our data shows a 32% decline in commercial real estate interest since the start of this year. There are two possibilities here: High-end restaurants may be able to negotiate lower rents for their space, or they will just choose to relocate closer to their patrons.” 

Left out of those possibilities is the space for inflexible landlords who won’t negotiate rents and restaurants who cannot afford to relocate, leaving restaurants to potentially close their doors, which feeds the cycle of real estate instability.

As for Bolus’s second assertion, many of us forget that it has only been a comparatively short time—and well within the span of my professional cooking career—that present-day common ingredients had the Amazon model applied to them. As recently as the early '90s, fresh foods weren’t part of a global supply chain, and diners regarded seasonally-restricted items as the height of luxury.  Although we haven’t seen as much of an interruption as predicted yet, the system is still ripe for disruption. That potential disruption may lead to something as humble as a baked potato or maybe, I dunno, beets, being cherished as an opulent treat.

Currently, suppose a chef wants asparagus, an ingredient with a short window for domestic seasonality. In that case, they need only leave a late-night voicemail, and it will arrive the next day from a warehouse where it has resided since transport across the world. Seasonality and higher prices for domestic products are drivers for sourcing imported ingredients and have made even extremely seasonal ingredients available year-round. That availability has driven our immediate-gratification culture, which displays itself in both dining and social components. Those ideals face potential challenges in ways that we, generationally, have not experienced.

But Spoonshot’s data disagrees, said Vasani. “By most accounts, despite initial disruptions, food supply chains appear to have held up well during the pandemic and continue to be relatively stable. The greater concern is surrounding food insecurity as a result of economic recession and unemployment around the world. From the perspective of restaurants, in the medium term, it doesn’t look like supply is going to be as major a problem as staying in business.”

Chef Norman Van Aken
Norman Van Aken

So, we might not see the food apocalypse, after all. Van Aken is hopeful that the early Now Times' idle resourcefulness that gave rise to things like spontaneous sourdough baking might find their logical extensions moving forward. “People are being confronted with the need for adaptation, and hopefully that grows the awareness of cooking with the seasons,” he said. “We stopped cooking around the time of WWII, and people who are professionals in every other way do not know how to chop a carrot. How do they have an awareness of seasonality when they don’t even cook, themselves?”

There is hope for that idea, despite outward appearances. According to Vasani’s data, “There is going to be a greater focus on fresh local or indigenous ingredients compared to ingredients flown in from different parts of the world. The use of such ingredients will also serve to support local suppliers and businesses, highlight sustainability, and boost the local economy. Interest in locally sourced food has declined during the pandemic, mainly because of restaurant closures, but our projections indicate a 14% increase over the coming year.” So, that’s a bit of brightness for beleaguered farmers and craft producers.

And Vasani’s team provided this prediction for the After Times. “In a post-vaccine world, fine dining restaurants will have to completely rethink the way they approach service, food, and experiences. Given how long people have been forced into isolation and limited human interaction, they will not want impersonal experiences. Opportunities for guests to experience social interaction and camaraderie need to be built into the fine-dining space to elevate the overall experience.” 

To me, that statement is the most foretelling of all. Maybe it is that elusive missing part—the simplicity of dinner in a restaurant as a meaningful social experience. It’s straightforward. It’s nostalgic. It borders on hedonistic, given the current circumstances. That could come in the form of the 37th uni preparation you've tried, or a faux-fancy pizza with an Italian margarita.

At the end of all of this searching, nobody’s right, and nobody’s wrong—except for me and my imaginary apocalypse. But the rest are observations, opinions, and conclusions based on real life and hard data in the current crisis. Of course the future could erase all of this and replace it with something different, because we really don’t know what’s coming. I believe, though, that it’s safe to run with the idea that customers will be keenly aware of how they spend their money and ensure that they spend it on what they believe makes them happy and comfortable—not what others try to make them believe. Until then, I’ll keep trying to support independent restaurants as much as I reasonably can, via takeout, and hope that my wife can have her dirty martini and caviar sooner than later.