The Biggest Restaurant News of 2019
2019 was a big, weird year in food news. From the public trading of Beyond Meat to Shaq becoming the face of Papa John’s, our culinary landscape is changing so fast it’s hard to keep up. If these stories have a common theme, it would probably the increasing attention consumers are paying to food and politics, and the high ethical standards they’re demanding from the companies that bring them their food.
The undisputed king of food and business stories in 2019 was the introduction of Popeye’s chicken sandwich. The first truly viable option for chicken sandwich lovers tired of Chik-Fil-A’s backward politics sold out nationwide two weeks after it launched, and for a brief moment, it seemed impossible to even glance at the internet without running into a post about the sensational sandwich, which New Yorker food correspondent Helen Rosner described as “an object of near holiness.” This fervor was fueled by everything from pro-LGBTQ sentiment to the sheer power of Twitter, and it was inescapable.
2019 is the 400th anniversary of the first ships bearing enslaved people to America’s shores. It is an especially important time to acknowledge the essential contributions of African Americans to the country's culinary history, but Kwame Onwuachi’s James Beard Award for Best New Chef (and his inclusion in the F&W Best New Chefs list) would be newsworthy in any year. The brilliant mind behind DC’s Kith and Kin, where every dish is a celebration of the African culinary diaspora, Onwuachi’s win, along with his best-selling memoir, Notes from a Young Black Chef (which is being adapted into a film starring LaKeith Stanfield), signals a new, rather overdue moment for the Beard Awards and for food culture at large.
From the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in 1906 to now, it’s long been known that immigrant labor is exploited by food companies to keep prices low. This past summer, ICE, the Trump Administration’s pet deportation agency, raided a chicken processing plant in Mississippi and arrested nearly 700 undocumented workers. The company has suffered few repercussions, which only highlights the glaring disconnect in power between the people who bring our food to the table and the convenient ubiquity of premade rotisserie chicken.
Over the course of 2019, plant-based meat suddenly became ubiquitous. The surprisingly real-tasting meat substitutes made by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have now made it onto grocery store shelves and restaurant menus everywhere, including juggernaut chains like Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts. Plus, Beyond Meat has gone public, and Impossible is on its way there. With lab-grown meat hitting the shelves soon and a multiplicity of new startups looking to further disrupt the meat market, one thing is for sure: Animals no longer have a monopoly on meat.
Anyone who pays attention to fine dining has heard the names Will Guidara and Daniel Humm, and that the two parted ways in July. During their eight-year partnership, the duo took Eleven Madison Park to the top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. By simultaneously making the restaurant more exclusive and more fun with its tableside Manhattan cart, souvenir granola, and playful takes on New York classics like eggs Benedict and black and white cookies, the pair gave fancy food permission to embrace a younger, more whimsical spirit. It remains to be seen how their split will impact the upper echelons of the food world, but the news marks the end of an era that reshaped food culture in America and abroad.
Speaking of Guidara, his wife, pastry chef and entrepreneur Christina Tosi, was at the center of one of the other most noteworthy food stories of the year when her bakery chain, Milk Bar, changed the name of one of its flagship items. The company, which also went public this year, was created almost by accident after Momofuku’s David Chang begged Tosi to make the desserts for his restaurants in the early 2000s. This was thanks in part to her captivating “Crack Pie,” a custardy dessert that brought the ire of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Soleil Ho this February. Ho called Tosi out for the pastry’s insensitive name in her bombshell article on bad food writing words, calling it “overly dramatic” and “callous.” More call-outs followed, and the bakery has subsequently renamed its famous dish to “Milk Bar Pie.”
And finally, in some of the most unexpected and amusing news of 2019, NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal became the face of pizza delivery chain Papa John’s. Last year, CEO John Schnatter, whose smiling face had represented the brand for decades, used a racial slur on a conference call and was shortly ousted, even as white supremacists touted Papa John’s as their pizza of choice. In the wake of this controversy, O’Neal, who has a proven track record as an entrepreneur, approached the company about coming on as a brand ambassador, investing in nine Atlanta locations, and joining the board. He’s already starred in commercials for Papa John’s, and will likely only become more involved in the company going forward.