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7 New Realities For Restaurants Post-Coronavirus

Stuart Franklin
Getty Images
Markings are set out on the pavement restricting the distances between tables and chairs at a cafe on the first day restaurants and cafes have been allowed to reopen since March in Luneburg, Germany. U.S. restaurants will have to follow similar rules.

Restaurants put $225 billion into the economy every year. While some are still in business, almost 450,000 independent restaurants must change operations to meet new safety measures or face the risk of closing completely due to the coronavirus pandemic. This will also impact the 11 million food service jobs — most of which were part of the initial flood of unemployment applications. 

>>Latest WUWM & NPR Coronavirus Coverage

Lake Effect contributor Kyle Cherek says that every place can't simply stay afloat by offering carry-out. Outside of operations, he also notes that many aspects of the hospitality industry could change forever due to the coronavirus pandemic — maybe some for the better.

Here's what he’s learned from U.S. restaurateurs and chefs about how they’ve adapted and the new realities they face:

1. It's all about comfort food.

"So many roads lead to comfort food. Right now, that's what people want," says Cherek. This trend is likely to carry over even after stay-at-home orders are lifted as the restaurants become anchors to their communities. 

2. Carry-out doesn't solve a restaurant's problems.

"The folks that are having success with [carry-out] are cutting their staff by 50-80%," notes Cherek. "In many cases, it costs more to repackage things and to send it out the door."

Staying open for carry-out is more about prolonging issues to hopefully reopen when it's safe than it is a viable widespread trend. 

3. Restaurants/the food industry bubble is popping under the wrong circumstances.

"In the last 20 years of the restaurant industry, we've grown more restaurants than we ever have at any time in our nation's history. So, in a sense, we have a bubble," says Cherek.

But that bubble abruptly popping due to circumstances out of our control means that 11 million jobs are lost, leading to 11 million people who go without health insurance or the ability to pay rent.

4. The "cozy" restaurant is at a disadvantage.

 "[Restaurants will] be moving their tables further away, just so that their customers are more comfortable," explains Cherek. Larger restaurants may be more equipped to cater to new social norms about distance, but restaurants built on the "cozy" ambiance could face a real challenge in having enough tables to pay the bills. 

5. Massive grocery stores may be dying. 

"The smaller grocery store that can cater to what's more fresh and specific, [customers] will always want that experience," says Cherek.

With shoppers being more conditioned toward grocery deliveries and curbside pick-ups, the acre-sized grocery store could take a hit. Stores that are meant to hold as many people as possible will continue to feel unsettling far after stay-at-home measures are lifted.

6. The model for restaurants is forever shattered. 

"The disparity between front of house and back of house, between number of staff needed, between how specials are priced and put out, between service time and service style [will change]," says Cherek.

Each restaurant will have to figure out how they put their pieces back together. But some trends that may be well suited are fast-casual dining and high-end elegant dining. 

7. Meat will be king. 

"Meat has continued to supply restaurants," says Cherek. "[The meat] industry is going to thrive for a long time as a result of this pandemic." Despite rising trends amongst meatless diets, Americans still want meat and this pandemic will not remove it from being a staple of the American diet.

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Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kyle Johnson Cherek is a culinary historian and food essayist. He was the former host of Wisconsin Foodie on PBS, and for over a decade he has chronicled regional food stories, exploring where our food comes from, and how it shapes who we are. His signature wit and keen observations have made him a sought-after keynote speaker, media contributor, and culinary storyteller. Kyle has been awarded the Wisconsin Broadcast Association Award twice for his compelling essays on food culture.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.