What’s Next for Restaurants, According to Nick Kokonas

The Alinea Group co-owner and founder of restaurant reservation system Tock on what "restaurant" will mean in five years.

Too Small To Fail | What's Next For Restaurants?
Photo: Abbey Lossing

Being in isolation so long, it is impossible for me to envision the future. So many colleagues in the hospitality industry are devastated that the restaurants they passionately built are closed, perhaps permanently. At The Alinea Group, which celebrated its 15th anniversary this May, we’re working hard to reinvent our five restaurants and reemploy our team. Looking past next week is difficult, next month is uncertain, and next year? Well, that’s a lot farther off than it usually is.

But I’m hopeful in the long term. Whatever people build is never as strong as the people themselves. The hospitality we are missing during our national quarantine was invented by people who wanted to serve others and make them happy. The desire to create those connected experiences is not going away.

Three days after Chicago was mandated to shelter in place, Alinea began serving to-go meals. Instead of ordering in a steak plus sides and dessert for upward of $50, for $35, you could get beef Wellington with mashed potatoes and crème brûlée from Alinea, or handmade rigatoni alla vodka with Caesar salad and cheesecake from Next. Within three weeks, we were serving over 1,250 dinners every evening. Something wonderful happened: Our social media feeds filled with posts of families together around their kitchen tables, thanking our team for making their night special. The way we connected was equally powerful and personal, though different, and entirely unimaginable eight weeks ago.

Read more: Bars Must Change for Good After Coronavirus

In the past, personalized hospitality meant a jovial host with a mental Rolodex of regulars and their preferences. Now, it means meeting diners where they live—on social media, email, and infrequent, timely text messages.

Moving forward, restaurant teams will be more important than restaurant real estate. Pop-ups, pop-ins, and touring restaurants will be reinvented. In the same way that musicians play in venues around the world and theaters stage productions that move from city to city, great restaurant concepts might want to adopt these practices to create fluid brand experiences in flexible spaces. A ghost kitchen one night might become a unique pop-in another.

Everyone knows about private dining rooms, chef’s counters, and kitchen tables. Expect to see more of those, as well as new, creative offerings that highlight a restaurant’s individual cuisine, one table at a time. The Aviary, the bar I own in Chicago with chef Grant Achatz, offers a seven-course kitchen table experience, three- and five-course drink flights with paired food, à la carte menus, and our speakeasy, The Office, all under one roof. Offering experiences, not just menus, allows us to serve different types of customers at different price points and to vary those choices by days of the week, times, and seasons. What was once a high-end solution may become the norm as restaurants are forced to have fewer tables and fewer patrons in the same physical space.

At the beginning of 2020, asking the question, “What will ‘restaurant’ mean in five years?” was usually an exercise in looking for hot food trends or tracking an up-and-coming chef. Today, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, that discussion is existential. We haven’t even started to lay the new foundations, but somewhere there is a young chef dreaming of opening her own restaurant. She has a clear vision of how it can work, and she will find new ways of connecting with customers. Leases are attractive. People are slowly dining out again. And that’s how our restaurants will come back to life: new, vibrant, more diverse, and, yes, different.

Nick Kokonas is the co-owner of The Alinea Group in Chicago and the founder of Tock, a restaurant reservation system.

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