Without question, just about every type of business feels the effects from COVID-19 but for various reasons restaurants remain front and center in this conversation. Maybe it’s because most of us would like to go to the corner bar to drown our sorrows over the new coronavirus with a drink. Or perhaps it’s because people often use restaurants as a gathering place to bring friends and family together to share a meal and a laugh during challenging times like these. Right now, that’s not an option.
“The irony and sadness of this for the foodservice industry is that we are the providers of experiences and facilitators of social gatherings,” says Karen Malody, FCSI, principal for Culinary Options, an Oregon-based foodservice consulting firm. “It’s great that takeout is available but it’s the experience that people are being robbed of. It’s happening so we have to deal with it.”
Dark dining rooms in restaurants leaves many to wonder what the industry will look like when this crisis is over. After the decision to shutter dining rooms in Texas’ Dallas and Harris Counties, the Texas Restaurant Association warned that 25% to 30% of the state’s independent restaurants could close. No doubt this is a topic of conversation in markets throughout the country.
There is some encouraging news for the restaurant industry, however. Understanding the restaurant’s role as a social gathering place, Chipotle will host virtual hangouts for up to 3,000 people during lunchtime. In addition to promoting healthy social distancing, the daily gatherings known as Chipotle Together will feature participation from a variety of celebrities, according to Ad Age.
In addition, it’s times like these that can bring out the best in the restaurant industry. And here in Chicago recent days have provided two such examples.
With COVID-19 further darkening an already cloudy forecast for the Chicago restaurant industry, a group of 74 local chefs and restaurant owners, ranging widely in terms of experience and resources, gathered to discuss next steps for their businesses. As Josh Noel of the Chicago Tribune notes in his article describing the scene, the gathering was as much a therapy session as it was about strategy. What made the event so remarkable, though, was the willingness of big-time chefs like Rick Bayless, Stephanie Izard, Paul Kahan and others to share how their businesses weathered similarly turbulent times of the past. Regardless of their industry status or pedigree, everyone realizes they are all in this together and share the same concerns for their businesses and their employees.
And speaking of celebrity chefs, The Trotter Project, which honors the legacy of legendary Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, has developed an online resource to help fellow members of the restaurant and hospitality community in the Windy City and nationwide. It features a running list of local and national resources as well as virtual ways to help those in the most underserved communities who need assistance.
Indeed, just because dining rooms are darkening doesn’t mean the restaurant industry’s bright light of hospitality has been extinguished.