The coronavirus touched down in the U.S. early this year, and by mid-March, restaurants across the country were suddenly and almost entirely shuttered. The pandemic decimated, in one cruel swoop, an industry that employs more than 15 million people, and was projected to do $899 billion in sales this year. Chefs, who are ordinarily consumed by the relentless pace of restaurant work, suddenly have the time to think about what the industry might look like after all of this when it’s safe to reopen.
We spoke with dozens of chefs and restaurant owners about what comes next. Thoughts ranged from the practical—disposable menus, added cleaning protocols, increased takeout options—to bigger picture revisions, like enhanced safety nets for restaurant workers and broader acceptance of no-tipping policies. Jon Nodler, chef and co-owner of Cadence, Food & Wine’s Best New Restaurant of 2019, is among those who hopes the crisis sparks an industry-wide change.
“We can’t keep running this traditional model, the food and labor costs, and the pressure put on people,” he says. “I hope that restaurant owners, and everyone working in restaurants, is using this as a time to evaluate how to come back to it.”
With Americans longing to dine in restaurants again and eager to support their favorite spots, now might be the best time to reset the rules. Read on for what these industry insiders predict (and hope, and fear) might come when restaurants re-open.
Enhanced sanitary measures and safety protocols
“It won’t be a huge flow, but a trickle back into dining out or being around large groups of people in small spaces. We’ll probably be opening at 50% capacity, and then people getting used to going out again, and being okay with being around other people and in the restaurant, and you’re gonna have to adapt to that. And that may look like single-use menus, silverware being sealed in some sort of pouch, maybe a sign saying that tables have been sanitized before and after people sit down. Maybe servers are wearing gloves and masks at the table.” —Kwame Onwuachi, executive chef of Kith/Kin in Washington, DC
“Look for restaurants to focus even more intently on making sure their employees and guests feel safe in their physical spaces. Tables may move further apart, and operational processes will likely change to make everyone involved feel more comfortable as we get used to being around one another once more. In addition, we will likely see a short-term rise in individually packaged or portioned meals, opposed to family-style dinners, as diners scarred by our collective trauma will not want to risk infecting themselves or others when out to eat.” —Sahil Rahman, co-owner of RASA in Washington, DC
“It’s too early to tell what regulations will be put in place, which is a problem if we are to begin preparing to reopen. We need guidance from the government as to what restrictions there will be so we’re ahead of the game. My expectation is that we will see reduced occupancy in the dining rooms and bar areas of our restaurants, contactless payments, and sanitizer everywhere for guests and staff. Together we must be sure to balance the joy of dining with the new realities of COVID-19.” —Jason Berry, co-founder of KNEAD Hospitality + Design in Washington, DC
“A collaboration of the federal government, Health Department, and ServSafe should invest in a post-coronavirus safety and sanitation training program. It should focus on more in-depth cleaning standards, more strict personal hygiene practices, and implementation of food safety measures. This new training requirement should be part of passing or failing your quarterly health inspection moving forward.” —Robert Irvine, host of “Restaurant Impossible” on Food Network
Emptier dining rooms
“I think we’ve seen the end of packed dining rooms for quite a while. I can’t say how long people are going to be afraid of close contact, but as long as that fear exists I don’t see small family businesses being able to thrive, which is a sad and terrifying prospect. The large delivery platforms, however, are going to excel in this new normal. While people may be afraid to go out to eat, there will always be a need for meals. All that said, I know this industry will survive and come out the other side stronger than ever.” —Anna Bran-Leis, owner of Taqueria Del Barrio, Dos Mamis, and DC Empanadas in Washington, DC
“We’re getting creative and working harder than we ever have to keep afloat until we’re permitted to reopen. And, when that day comes, it’s not going to be a full house from the jump. We’ll still have to do takeout and balance dining room service—whatever that will look like with any new health code rules that will be put in place to keep everyone safe.” —Marcie Turney, chef and co-owner of Safran Turney Hospitality in Philadelphia
More no-tipping policies
“If tipping were eliminated altogether from all restaurants, then all restaurant employees would not only earn stable wages but we would be able to equalize pay between back of house and front of house. If every restaurant included service in their prices, it would reprogram the guests to reset what their price points are. Obviously when we will be allowed to have guests come back in, the restaurant won’t be full. Front of house won’t be earning the same level of tips so by just eliminating tips and paying an hourly wage, then the employees wage levels would be more stable and not dependent on how busy the restaurant is.” —Ann Hsing, COO of Dialogue and Pasjoli in Los Angeles
“Wouldn’t this be a good time to universally eliminate tipping? The tipping culture is a broken, archaic, macho system that can promote bad behavior and rewards only some of the people responsible for the dining experience. Or change the laws around how tips can be divided amongst restaurant workers so that it is fair for all.” —Mary Sue Milliken, chef of Socalo, Border Grill in Los Angeles
Increased demand for transparency and fairness
“The severity of this crisis has aroused an important industry-wide critical reexamination of our practices and values. Healing and improving our industry in the future is contingent upon our collective ability to pay attention to the lessons we are being shown during this moment of survival and adaptation. I’ve been encouraged by and am hoping to see a further reduction of greed and exploitation, a return to the cultivation of experience and feeling over trends and aesthetics, and an increased emphasis on organizational horizontality and transparency.” —Brady Williams, executive chef of Canlis in Seattle
“I vacillate between being paralyzed/terrified by the uncertainty our industry is facing and being thrilled by the opportunities for improvement—we are a creative bunch and I know many of us will find new and interesting ways to feed our communities. I’m excited to see what restaurant innovations spring out of this disaster. Right now, our food system’s weaknesses—underpaid labor, little or no paid time off/sick pay, lack of health benefits, incredibly tight margins, etc—are being exposed to a concerned public. I see this as an opportunity to fight for food system workers’ rights and educate the public on the societal dangers of artificially low-priced food. I look forward to benefits packages for farm/restaurant/grocery workers, that include healthcare and PTO packages, that are on par with other professions and a public that understands and is willing to pay for it.” —Mary Sue Milliken
“Damn, we have to create an atmosphere where our staffs feel like family and our customers feel like they are home cozy and relaxing by the their hearth; make food that is both nutritious, creative, and delectable; force our suppliers to begin to solve climate change with new and innovative sustainable solutions; be political fighters in the human rights movement; and we have to make money. Sounds like a breeze.” —Ron Goodman, chef and partner at Ivy City Smokehouse in Washington, DC
“I hope that pay rates go up and we, as restaurant owners, can raise our retail prices to compensate for that. I fear that wages will be squashed down, and we’ll have to be really aggressive on pricing to lure customers back in and to drive frequency of visits. I hope that unrealistic expectations of hours worked per day or week will be adjusted. I fear that we will be so tight on margins that we have to drive workers harder to make ends meet.” —Erik Niel, chef of Easy Bistro & Bar and Main Street Meats in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Renewed appreciation for restaurants
“Honestly, it’s hard to see what good will come right now, but I think one positive thing we’ll see is that diners will have greater appreciation for the hospitality industry and what goes into making and serving food. While at home, we’re seeing many home cooks tackle new, challenging recipes, like bread-baking. Now that they’re experiencing first-hand that it’s a two- to three-day process to make good bread, I think they’ll have an even deeper respect for the profession. So much of what goes on behind the scenes of a restaurant has been forgotten or taken for granted, and I believe that with more people cooking at home now and doing the work, it will be a nice reminder.” —Michael Schulson, chef and restaurateur of Schulson Collective in Philadelphia
“I think the entire country is realizing, perhaps for the first time, just how important hospitality is. I hope to see this recognition continue to be brought to life. I hope to see a shift in how we regard all hospitality professionals—that we see them for the true lifeblood and contributors that they are—not just to the economy, but to the human spirit.” —Steven Devereaux Greene, chef of Herons in Cary, North Carolina
“We talked a lot about the true cost of dining. I think it’s a hard conversation to have with guests, because they’re used to dining as it is. But I think that people are recognizing what restaurants mean to them. What I really hope to see come out of this is an understanding about the entertainment that a restaurant provides. Eating at a restaurant is your entertainment for the night in the same way that a movie or a concert or the theater is. So I hope to see people apply the costs associated with entertainment to restaurants. If you buy a concert ticket and you decide not to go to the concert, you still have purchased that concert ticket. I think that people don’t understand the parallel between that and making a reservation at a restaurant and not showing up, or calling and canceling last minute, not allowing the restaurant time to resell that seat. You can get food anywhere, but if you want an experience that’s your entertainment for the night, you essentially need to rent the table and rent the experience that you’re seeking.” —Jon Nodler, chef and co-owner of Cadence in Philadelphia
“Because people started cooking at home, their appreciation for good food and the work that goes behind it will rise. This will put pressure on restaurants to up their game to correspond with their prices, quality of food, and the overall experience they are offering. People, I believe, will not be as willing to go out to eat like they were before the pandemic, unless the overall restaurant experience is really worth it.” —Badr Fayez, chef and owner of Bowlila in Los Angeles
More protections for workers
“To predict how the industry is going to look after this is all over is a tough feat. But it reminds me of when I first started culinary school. It was 2008 and the recession was at full speed. It was so difficult to think about job searching and how a career in culinary would look. Jobs all around us started to close. Pay was reduced to unlivable wages and so many folks were displaced. I think the grandeur of our industry will now be stripped away just like it was in ‘08. And quite frankly, pastry will be put into a corner yet again like it was during the recession. My hope is, though, that through this major event we can now see our mistakes from ‘08, where we went wrong and how we failed our cooks, our stewards and our industry family. In 2008 we should have set up failsafes to protect staff and give an honorable and living wage to our workers, the true backbone of our industry. Today, I hope that we learn from our mistakes and make sure to provide and equitably take care of the folks that really make our dreams possible. Rebuilding will be hard, but not impossible. But this time let’s do it the right way.” —Paola Velez, executive pastry chef of Kith/Kin in Washington, DC
“The lesson we’re learning right now—as business owners and as society at large—is that we have to protect our workers. It’s evident that the need to have safety nets in place for restaurants has never been more important, and right now that means banding together. Restaurant owners need to protect their staff and join forces to create a union or organized group that has their best interest, and that of their workers, in mind. A group with a unified voice would help mitigate the effects of recent difficult decisions, for future shutdowns.” —Erik Bruner-Yang, chef and owner of Maketto, Toki Underground, ABC Pony, Brothers & Sisters, and Spoken English in Washington, DC.
“I think there will be greater efforts for employers to take care of their employees, in terms of pay and benefits, but also healthy and supportive work environments. And I think we will be actively pursuing resources and legislation to support these efforts.” —Christine Cikowski, chef and co-founder at Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Chicago
“Such a large number of people, as we have seen through the pandemic, have been left out from the conversation without recourse, support or much attention. A large number of people—immigrants, largely undocumented—who show up and do all of the heavy lifting making these places a reality for chefs and diners alike. We live in a country whose culture has turned into ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ whilst forgetting that we live in a country that was forged and built by immigrants whom without, most of what we have now would not exist. From buildings and railroads, to farmlands and foods. My hopes are that people see this vulnerable and marginalized faction of the industry, whom without it wouldn’t exist, and push for better legislation, immigration policy, equal pay, and humane working conditions through the entire landscape starting now and building towards a better future for the hospitality industry.” —Christian Irabien, executive chef of Muchas Gracias in Washington, DC
“Efficiency is going to be the keyword in the industry when we begin to get out of this and will continue to be the keyword for a lengthy amount of time. Restaurant staffs have been decimated by this pandemic, and for the restaurants that remained open doing carry out and delivery, they’ve worked with a small fraction of the staff they normally run with. The longer this continues, the more experience that these restaurants will have with becoming more efficient with prep, execution, to-go packaging, etc., to the point where when we are ready to reopen to the public for dine-in, there will be fewer staff members in both back of house and front of house than before the pandemic.” —Danny Lee, chef and co-owner of Anju, Chiko and Mandu in Washington, DC.
More virtual experiences
“I think it’s pretty clear though that our business will take a very long time to get back to ‘normal’ once we are able to safely reopen. There will likely be a new normal where we need to get creative to find opportunities outside of our four walls for guests to experience our restaurants and bars. There is so much untapped potential virtually—I think there is, and must be, space for both virtual experiences as well as the in-person hospitality that has become one of our hallmarks. We’ve already pivoted towards takeout and curbside pickup, and are working on virtual cooking demonstrations and classes, but how can we push these ideas further? Can we create a virtual restaurant concept that can be a partner business to our traditional concepts? At this point, nothing can be out of the question. As an industry, a founding principle for restaurateurs is to take care of other people. If we can’t do that in-person, we have to figure out another way.” —Barbara Lynch, chef and restaurateur of The Barbara Lynch Collective in Boston
“Inadequate government support and the extended nature of this crisis will be absolutely crushing for the restaurant industry and local shops across the country. The assistance offered so far has been inadequate, and without drastic action, we will see the shuttering of thousands of beloved small businesses (and struggling chains) across the country. Many will never re-open, and others, burdened by the weight of deferred rent and decreased sales will open once more, only to close a few months later, unable to meet their increased monthly payments. Tragically, yet somewhat predictably, a continued lack of access to capital and resources will result in immigrant and minority-owned businesses being disproportionately impacted and closing at greater rates than other businesses.” —Sahil Rahman
Continued rise of take-out and online ordering
“The restaurants that come out of this are going to be the ones that get really good at to-go business. I think it has a real chance to push people away from the delivery platforms, as you’ll see restaurants start to figure out that they want to control their revenue a little bit more. It’s also about figuring out how to get people to pick up instead of having to deliver. How do you get great at having a little carryout store? How do you master curbside delivery? Because the business is there. People do want the food to-go.” —R.J. Melman, president of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in Chicago
“It will definitely be slow coming back. A lot of us that haven’t previously offered take out or even explored it have learned that it’s a great revenue source.” —Christopher Gross, chef of The Wrigley Mansion in Phoenix
“As people get more and more accustomed to the convenience of having their meals come to their doors, they will be less inclined to leave their homes to get food once this storm passes. Much to the chagrin of many restaurant owners frustrated by high third-party fees, this trend is here to stay, and moving forward it will force many restaurant operators to adjust to this new reality. The real question becomes how to make the model work. Local restaurants are giving up to 30% in fees to the delivery platforms, the drivers are underpaid and underrepresented, and those companies are still losing millions annually. Restaurants are outraged, and the system is broken and unsustainable at this point. The question is what comes next, and who and how will we solve this problem. Look for many new companies and tech solutions to emerge to answer this question in the months and years ahead.” —Sahil Rahman
The rise of ghost restaurants
“Ghost kitchens will become more popular because of the low setup fees vs. the risk associated with it. It also imbeds delivery service into their model right off the bat so they need to choose the right packaging to allow their food to be delivered in the best quality possible. Ghost kitchens with a shared dining area is a much more suitable business model to allow people to come and visit and eat food fresh.” —Badr Fayez, chef and owner of Bowlila in Los Angeles
“Given the rise in delivery, as companies adapt to survive, we will see many restaurants begin operating delivery-only ‘ghost restaurants’ in addition to their normal operations. While still nascent, this model has the potential to be a modern version of familiar retail brand partnerships such as the KFC + Taco Bell hybrid stores, where they serve full menus of two different brands in one retail store footprint, helping to increase sales and cut rental costs for both businesses. These ghost restaurants will allow brands to have their traditional retail storefronts, and inside the same space, allows them to produce and serve a totally separate digital storefront, brand, and menu. While still in the early stages, these ghost restaurants have the potential to help restaurants generate additional revenue out of their existing spaces.” —Sahil Rahman
More mental health services
“The unexpected impact of COVID-19-related hardships will have lasting effects on attention paid to mental health and anxieties—not just in our industry, but across all industries. It’s going to to be vital to turn our attention more than ever to the wellbeing of our hospitality professionals and create a continuation of this ‘checking in with you/checking up on you’ mentality that we have. We will need to remain vigilant in continuing to care for one another after the return to work happens.” —Steven Devereaux Greene, chef of Herons in Cary, North Carolina.
Diversification of offerings
“We believe most places are going to be limited in capacity. We will continue our to-go and market items. We feel like most people will want to stay home still and only really go out occasionally at first, so to honor that, there will be options.” —Antonia Lofaso, chef/owner Scopa Italian Roots, Black Market Liquor Bar, Dama, Antonia Lofaso Catering in Los Angeles
“The COVID-19 pandemic has given an eerie glimpse into how agile most restaurants aren’t. Likely the industry will see growth of concepts that are agile, meaning they can serve guests in a multi-faceted fashion such as dine in, to-go and/or delivery, and retail.” —Stephen Kaplan, co-owner and COO at Rumi’s Kitchen in Atlanta
Shifts in real estate strategy
“With human behavior and work culture shifting so rapidly, there is an open question as to which locations will be most desirable for brands moving forward. Downtown locations in cities have traditionally been hot spots for restaurants, with abundant numbers of office workers looking for a quick lunch or happy hour spot. With more people working from home, there is an open question as to whether people will come back to the workplace, and the answer to that question will change the calculus around which locations restaurants choose to open in moving forward.” —Sahil Rahman
“When we reopen as a restaurant, we will have simplified menus, now disposable, and changed seating arrangements and capacity. A large portion of our menu at Capo’s will be small plates—aimed towards creating a more approachable, affordable, and fast experience.” —Tony Gemignani, chef and owner of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana and Capo’s in San Francisco
More zero-waste kitchens
“I don’t think people will give up eating meat because of COVID-19, but we will definitely see less items on the menu with more innovative approaches to a “zero waste” philosophy. Dishes will be individually portioned as sharing plates may not be an option for some time. Innovative THALI (Indian-style meal made up of a selection of various dishes which are served on a platter) can gain its popularity in upscale Indian restaurants to reduce interactions with a server.” —Sujan Sarkar, executive chef of ROOH San Francisco and ROOH Palo Alto
More local sourcing
“I am hopeful. I think super sanitized, robotic food service will not be our only option. People crave connection, and will want it more than ever after the pandemic ends. I see a strong push towards more local farming, self-sufficient food systems, and friends gathered tightly around tables to dine on foods that comfort. Yes, in the very near term, we will need to be physically distant, but when we have a treatment or a vaccine, or herd immunity, or at least a true measure of the risks associated with COVID-19, we will want, more than ever, the intimacy that only food and dining can provide.” —Josh Kulp, chef and co-founder of Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Chicago
More tech solutions
“QR code-based ordering (you can scan the QR code at your phone to access the menu items and guidelines) can replace traditional menu cards, which will reduce interaction time with servers.” —Sujan Sarkar
“We are looking at technology and all viable ways to limit touch exposure and maintain the appropriate social distancing before, during, and after service.” —Max Goldberg, co-owner of Strategic Hospitality (The Catbird Seat, Pinewood, Bastion, Henrietta Red, Patterson House, Downtown Sporting Club, Merchants, The Band Box, The Party Line) in Nashville
“As the co-owner of a bagel shop, I’m banking on people’s continued love of carbs post-COVID.” —Andrew Dana, Co-Founder of Call Your Mother in Washington, DC
More foods you can’t make at home
“As we learn more and hopefully get closer to being able to reopen, we are thinking about taking seasonal approaches to our food and beverage concepts that will really give people on every level something they can’t get at home. Things like sushi and our lamb lollichops are dishes people will be craving. We anticipate our chef-driven cocktails to outsell wines by the glass and other spirits too. Anything you can’t make at home, we will be ready to provide.” —Grant Gedemer, Corporate Director of Food & Beverage for Oxford Hotels and Resorts in Chicago
Literally who knows
“Nobody knows what’s gonna happen. Stack your cheese and mentally prepare for unpredictable change.” —Chad Williams, chef and owner of Friday Saturday Sunday in Philadelphia.
This story originally appeared on Food & Wine.