In the face of the greatest challenge in generations, America's chefs, bartenders, and restaurant owners are reinventing their food, their businesses, and themselves.
This was not going to plan. On Monday, March 16, I was supposed to be in Austin, Texas, wrapping up a weeklong event at South by Southwest, where I would have been making Scandinavian craft cocktails alongside some of the top chefs in Denmark. Instead I was home in Portland, Oregon, essentially unemployed, alone on the patio of a brewery enjoying one last beer before my entire industry ground to a halt.
A few other lasts had occurred at the end of February, before I had any inkling of how drastically the "novel coronavirus" would disrupt the hospitality business. My last flight to New York City, which I happened to share with a friend who, upon landing, discovered his phone blowing up with congratulations for his bar's James Beard Award nomination. Our last extravagant celebration that night, with champagne and exquisite French food and gigantic bottles of rare Chartreuse someone had smuggled over in suitcases from Europe. My last venture into food tourism, taking the Staten Island Ferry out to find lunch in America's largest Sri Lankan neighborhood.
So many aspects of this ordinary trip seem impossible now: flying on planes, taking public transportation, casually running into friends, and, more than anything else, packing into restaurants and sharing dishes and drinks without the specter of a deadly disease hanging over us. By March 16, it was clear those things would be going away for a long time. The executive order shutting down businesses in the state was still a day away, but Oregonians were already staying home. I'd worked a couple of bartending shifts the week before—two of the slowest and lowest paid of my career.
Those last nights before the executive order I hesitantly visited a few of my favorite bars, torn between a desire to honor the virtues of social distancing and a desire to offer a last gesture of support to friends in my industry. I came up with ways to rationalize the visits: The places were mostly empty. The only people out were other service-sector folks. We all knew our time was up. I imagine it's what being at Lehman Brothers in 2008 must have felt like, if people at Lehman Brothers were covered in tattoos and worked for tips. "See you on the other side," we said as we parted ways, tapping elbows instead of hugging and having no idea what that would mean.
A few months into life under COVID-19, we're beginning to figure it out. The combination of state lockdowns and public fear of the virus has gutted the hospitality industry at all levels, taking down businesses of every size and stature. Serving a quality product and cultivating a loyal following is no guarantee of success in the present crisis. Through no fault of their own, many beloved places will shutter forever. But amid the grim news, some of the top bars and restaurants in the country are finding innovative ways to survive. They provide hopeful glimpses into the possible future of a drastically altered dining culture.
First, the Bad News
There's no sugarcoating it: The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated bars, restaurants, and other hospitality businesses, driving unprecedented levels of unemployment. The economic shock is difficult to fathom. Prior to the current crisis, the highest number of unemployment claims filed in one week in the United States was 695,000. In the last week of March, claims exceeded 6 million. By mid-May, more than 36 million Americans had filed, a grim statistic that still undercounts the damage. No industry was hit harder than leisure and hospitality, which shed at least 8 million jobs—nearly half the sector—in just two months.
In various states and cities, restaurants were forced by emergency shutdown orders to cease all on-premise service. Many business owners made the decision to shut down independently for the safety of their guests and employees. And politics aside, consumer demand fell drastically as awareness of the pandemic took hold.
Predictions for the year ahead in the restaurant business are dismal. A James Beard Foundation poll of 1,400 predominantly small and independent restaurants found that nearly 40 percent had closed at least temporarily and that only 20 percent of owners in jurisdictions that had shut down felt confident they could remain solvent. Industry observers predict that a quarter to half of bars and restaurants won't survive.
Government responses have focused on providing aid to workers. In March, the federal government passed a temporary boost to unemployment benefits. It also implemented the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal fund aimed at keeping workers on payroll.
Less has been done to ensure the viability of small businesses; slow response times and inadequate funding excluded many from the initial round of Paycheck Protection Program loans, which favored larger chains. And the relief that was available wouldn't be enough for the long term: Businesses were going to need to find ways to make it on their own.
From Haute Cuisine to Hamburgers
Aaron Barnett is the chef-owner of St. Jack, a French bistro in Portland, which in current conditions means he's also the chief dishwasher and prep cook. Prior to the official statewide shutdown, he made the difficult decision to lay off most of his staff and transition into takeout. Unfortunately, meals that work well in a dining room often don't translate to delivery.
"A lot of French food doesn't travel well," Barnett says. "You can't serve an emulsified sauce and expect it to be good after 25 minutes in a car." Instead, more casual menu items, such as the hamburger and frites or the fried chicken sandwich, are leading sales. "I don't know when St. Jack became a burger joint, but we're selling a lot of burgers now."
Barnett also looked into how restaurants serving other cuisines package their takeout so he could adapt the practices to his own cooking. Vietnamese pho, often delivered with the broth in a separate container for the customer to reheat at home, inspired Barnett's own takeout pot-au-feu, a French stew. "I made a porcini consommé that you can boil and pour over the top," he says. "It's tough coming up with fun dishes like that, but they work out really well."
Barnett isn't the only high-end chef unexpectedly flipping burgers these days. In mid-May, René Redzepi of Copenhagen's Noma—frequently named the best restaurant in the world and a pathbreaking leader in New Nordic cuisine—announced that Noma would temporarily reopen as an outdoor wine garden and burger bar. You see it, too, at Portland's Gado Gado, a Beard-nominated Indonesian-Chinese restaurant that has won national acclaim for its rijstaffel, an elaborate family-style feast of curries and sambals. Gado Gado has morphed into Oma's Takeaway, where diners pick up bags of "Asian stoner food" such as the "Omazing Burger," a burger accented with Asian touches like coconut-herb butter and a side salad of pickled papaya.
Some of these changes simply reflect the need to serve food that travels well for takeout or delivery, but even as restaurants gradually reopen to diners, they will face pressures that limit the potential for high cuisine. Restaurateur and Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio predicts a "dumbing down" of restaurants and a move toward comfort food. That can still be delicious, of course, but it will favor certain kinds of dishes—burgers, pizza, barbecue—over labor-intensive preparations that require a full dining room to be economically viable.
Beef Ribs of Instagram
Top-tier restaurant food isn't just about tasting good. It's also about looking good, both in person and on social media. Yet no matter how good they taste, meals in to-go boxes and plastic deli containers will never be as Instagrammable as the dishes at contemporary restaurants. Nonetheless, social media is proving essential to making takeout a viable option for restaurants that would have barely considered that market before.
"I can't imagine not having it," Jen Quist says of social media. Quist is co-owner of the Portland restaurant Bullard, which she opened in late 2018 with chef Doug Adams. With a downtown location in the lobby of a temporarily closed hotel, her neighborhood has become dead to foot traffic. Fortunately, Bullard's large-format Texas-inspired dishes sell out almost immediately when Quist posts them to the restaurant's Instagram account. That account directs customers to Tock, a reservation website for high-end restaurants that has pivoted from securing tables to securing food for pickup or delivery.
"We're doing 60 meals a day, five days a week," Quist says. Everything they serve is true to the style of the restaurant, with an emphasis on smoked meats, though they've had to be flexible due to the unpredictable availability of ingredients. "We've taken a pause on our beef rib because that's been hard to get," she explains. But when they can offer it? Even at $82 for dinner for two, their beef rib is snapped up within minutes. "What's really been amazing to us is the repeat business and the bond we've created with people who've supported us the whole way through. We see the same people a few times a week every single week."
Though the ubiquity of smartphones in restaurants was often lamented, the fact that so many potential customers now have internet-connected devices on them at all times is offering businesses ways to adapt that would not have existed in previous decades. Advertising dishes, queuing orders, taking payments, and arranging deliveries are all enabled by phones. And social media platforms allow restaurateurs to stay in touch with their clientele, if only virtually. "It's the only way to connect with people," says Quist. "We see how people interact with us because we interact back."
Rolling Back Prohibition
For some bars and restaurants, the lockdowns mean adopting an entirely new playbook. That's especially true for drinking establishments, many of which are now operating in a legal environment that would have been unimaginable as recently as the beginning of this year.
Three weeks before the lockdown in Washington state, bar manager Keith Waldbauer had just opened the doors at The Doctor's Office, a brand new cocktail lounge in Seattle. "We barely had a chance to establish our systems," he says. "We were just getting into our groove."
The Doctor's Office is an intimate 12-seat bar with obsessively curated classic cocktails, each one fine-tuned through a process that involved blind tasting hundreds of different combinations of ingredients. It's the last place one would expect to find a to-go option, in part because, until recently, such an option would have been illegal. But when Washington liquor regulators unexpectedly allowed bars to sell cocktails for takeout or delivery, Waldbauer adapted the "global tasting room" concept for the new model.
Those perfect cocktails—Vespers, Manhattans, Negronis—now come in 4-ounce glass bottles for the customer to drink at home, with the garnishes packaged in mini compostable to-go containers. The bar is also drawing on its extensive liquor selection to offer flights, featuring 1-ounce pours of rare spirits like Macurichos Tepeztate mezcal or Nikka Yoichi Japanese whisky. Eventually Keith wants to offer virtual spirits classes taught by his bartenders, getting them some hours of work and bringing part of the intimate bar experience home.
Yet state laws still prohibit some bars from making drinks for off-site consumption. On the West Coast, the freedom to sell cocktails to go is a striking divide. It's now allowed in Washington and California but still prohibited in Oregon. The option is high on the wish list of seemingly every Portland restaurateur with a spirits license. "I'm so jealous of my friends in Seattle who get to do that," says Bullard's Quist. Or as St. Jack's Barnett puts it, "I would fucking kill to be able to do it."
The cocktail revival that began in the aughts has turned bar programs, once an incidental part of a meal, into a vital part of the contemporary restaurant experience. That's especially true at Kachka, an acclaimed Russian restaurant in Portland owned by Bonnie and Israel Morales that's famous for its house-made vodka infusions. Their piquant horseradish vodka is a signature of the establishment—but one they're forbidden from sharing in a takeout format.
Before the closure, "we would make 18 gallons a week," Israel says. "If we were allowed to sell cocktails and infusions [during the lockdown], I probably would have to hire two more people just to keep up with it. The number of requests and people offering to bribe us to sell our horseradish vodka is amazing." But unless Oregon law changes, he'll have to keep turning potential customers away.
Changing Your Business Model, and Your Identity
Toward the end of 2019, Bonnie and Israel expanded Kachka by opening Lavka, an adjoining deli and eastern European grocery. In the COVID economy, that's turned out to be a better idea than they could have possibly imagined, positioning the restaurant to continue operating with much more than basic takeout. "I'm a restaurateur, not a grocer," Israel says. "So it's not even just changing your business model. It's changing your identity."
Lavka provides customers with hard-to-find deli products as well as mundane goods that became scarce due to disruptions to supply chains. "What's been really big for us? Toilet paper," Israel says with a laugh. He also buys 200-pound bags of flour and breaks them down into two-pound portions, feeding the nation's sourdough baking frenzy.
Through their website, the couple has started selling frozen bags of their popular Siberian pelmeni, flavorful dumplings filled with pork, beef, and onions, shipped anywhere in the United States. None of this replaces normal business, but it has allowed Kachka to keep 10 employees working. "It's the restaurant version of finding change under your couch cushions," Israel says.
At Lazy Bear in San Francisco's Mission District, chef-owner David Barzelay has also found grocery sales essential to success in the new environment. The Michelin-starred restaurant normally offers two sold-out seatings per night featuring a multi-course tasting menu at around $200 per person. Now it's doing "Camp Commissary," a menu of takeaway breakfast foods, sandwiches, and pantry items such as cultured butter, pickles, and take-and-bake cinnamon buns. Barzelay says the hot food acts almost as a loss leader: Guests come for a sandwich, but they leave with a bag full of provisions.
No Anchor, a beer-focused restaurant in Seattle, has similarly had to switch gears. When the state shut down, owner Chris Elford found himself with gallons of IPA and no way to sell it. Rather than let it go to waste, he saw an opportunity. "We already had a beer vinegar mother going," he says. "All of our vinegar has been made from run-off from our taps from day one." Those 35 gallons of IPA became the starting ingredient for No Anchor Provisions, the restaurant's new line of vinegars and vinegar-based hot sauces.
Like many other business owners, Elford expects provisions to be part of his strategy for the long term. Bars and restaurants may reopen soon, but in many cases it will be at half their pre-COVID capacity. Complementing food and drink for consumption on-site with packaged goods for consumption off-site is likely to become a more essential part of the bar and restaurant business than ever before.
The Limits of Coronavirus Cuisine
Even as states reopen, the pandemic will bring new challenges to the dining experience: Both employees and guests will need to stay farther apart. That means fewer tables in the dining room, fewer cooks in the kitchen, and fewer dollars per square foot. Hours of operation may be restricted during the initial phases of reopening, and in some places face-to-face bar service may be forbidden. A deep nationwide recession will cut into demand, and a massive decline in tourism will eliminate a source of consumers willing to make expensive nights out a memorable part of their travel experiences. All of that adds up to limit culinary ambitions.
Other limits are less obvious. Contemplating the future at St. Jack, Barnett envisions switching from paper menus to hand-written chalkboard easels. But that will entail shrinking the number of items available. And the restaurant's lengthy wine list? There's no way they could print a new one for each customer, especially not in waste-conscious Portland.
Another concern is that suppliers may not have as much to offer. Behind the scenes of the modern restaurant or bar is an intricate web of purveyors whose businesses are also facing extreme disruption. Some restaurateurs are trying to head this off by designing their takeaway menus to help ensure that the suppliers they most rely upon will still be in business when it's time to reopen. "By focusing on a few purveyors, we can make a big impact," Barzelay says. He cites Sonoma County Poultry's "Liberty Ducks" as an example. The fowl make their way into Lazy Bear's bahn mi sandwich as breast, confit, and liver pâté, as well as into take-home provisions including stock, duck fat, and whole cuts.
But as with so many workarounds, this approach can only help so much. The contemporary cocktail renaissance, for example, grew in a symbiotic relationship with specialty importers such as Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz. Seed's company helped revive the market for esoteric spirits like crème de violette, a French liqueur flavored with violet flowers, and Batavia arrack, a funky Indonesian rum. These and other once-forgotten bottles are now mainstays of the American cocktail scene.
Though Seed is still seeing growth for many products, he notes that the ongoing trade war has rendered the wine and spirits business particularly fragile. Tariffs are driving prices up at the same time that incomes are going down. After the Trump administration threatened in February to impose additional taxes, many importers and wholesalers began to stock up in anticipation, leaving them with less cash on hand when the virus hit. Seed worries that "the dual punch of tariffs and recession" will "harm all but the most durable of producers."
The New Normal
When you think of Texas barbecue, you probably don't think of Portland, Oregon. Odds are you don't expect to hear East Coast–sounding names like Matt Vicedomini, and you definitely don't expect to run into an Akkapong "Earl" Ninsom. Yet Vicedomini and Ninsom are partners in Eem, one of the hardest-to-snag tables in pre-COVID Portland, a current James Beard finalist for best new restaurant, and the place that even Texas Monthly declared in 2019 to be "simply the most exciting barbecue restaurant to open this year."
Eem isn't Texas barbecue in the traditional sense—it isn't traditional anything, really. The hit restaurant arose through the collision of two very different culinary lineages. Ninsom moved from Thailand to Los Angeles in 2000 to learn English and work in his cousin's Thai restaurant. He eventually settled in Portland, achieving success with expertly prepared Thai cuisine, ranging from upscale regional tasting menus at Langbaan to casual fried chicken at Hat Yai. Vicedomini, meanwhile, grew up in Long Island, began cooking barbecue with a Texas-trained pitmaster while living in Melbourne, Australia, and also ended up in Portland. There, he refined the art of smoked meats, building up a cult following at his rough-hewn Matt's BBQ cart.
The two married their talents at Eem, where barbecue brisket gets sliced for spicy jungle curry and chopped for wonderfully smoky fried rice. The combinations are unexpected and mind-blowingly delicious.
The creativity that makes Eem (and places like it) so much fun arrives via circuitous, unpredictable paths, combining traditions, techniques, ingredients, and approaches to hospitality in new ways. Often they fail; sometimes they make magic. That magic will be harder to come by in the post-COVID restaurant economy.
When we think of things going back to "normal," we really mean back to what we may eventually regard as a golden age of restaurant culture. The flourishing of the last decade or so was enabled by travel, immigration, international trade, intricately connected local suppliers, traditional food media, internet communities, and smartphones capable of taking professional quality photographs. Most of all, it was enabled by increasing prosperity and an openness to new experiences.
Prosperity and openness are both threatened now, the former by the economic crash and the latter by the fear that social gatherings will transmit an invisible and potentially deadly virus. The dream is that an effective vaccine will be developed in record time and we can hit a reset button on this year; the restaurant and bar economy, emerging from its deep sleep, will come back to life and pick up right where it left off.
The reality is likely to be far more difficult. Census data reveals that new business applications are already plummeting, and that likely portends a greater stagnation to come. Adam Ozimek, chief economist at Upwork, a global platform for freelance and remote workers, and an adviser for the Economic Innovation Group, a public policy organization advocating for economic dynamism, notes that a wave of business failures now would have effects for years. "When we're talking about a loss as high as 25 percent to 50 percent of restaurants and bars going under, that's going to do massive damage to the credit and capital of people in this industry," he says. Those are the same people who possess the local knowledge required to find new opportunities in their communities.
For Ozimek, it's personal. Although he's an economist by day, he's also a partner in Decades, a bowling alley, arcade, restaurant, and bar in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "Our one-year anniversary was the day before we closed," he says. They're currently offering takeout, including items such as an enormous 40-ounce soft pretzel, but it's not enough to sustain a business with that much real estate.
"When your restaurant fails and your debts go bad, entrepreneurial capital gets lost," Ozimek says. This means that not only would many existing restaurants go out of business but also that new firms would be slow to replace them. "We don't know what the fall, spring, and next summer are going to look like for the virus risk, so it would be a risky time to start a new venture," he says.
A wave of closures followed by the slow entrance of new firms is a worst-case scenario for hospitality, dashing the hopes of existing business owners while closing off opportunities for up-and-comers. The near future is likely to favor chain restaurants at the low end and culinary stars at the high end. Success will depend not just on quality and location but also on the technological and social savvy to stand out in a market where more people are staying home and discovering food via their phones. That creates additional barriers for potential new entrants hoping to make a modest beginning.
Still, for all the well-founded pessimism, the restaurant business appeals to people who find ways to adapt. Barzelay is undeterred from plans to open another restaurant later in 2020 and notes that his own career was born in the previous recession. He graduated from Georgetown Law School in 2008, began working as an attorney in San Francisco that September, and was laid off eight months later. He had taken up cooking as a serious hobby while in law school, and he debuted Lazy Bear as an underground restaurant at his apartment in September 2009. "I didn't start it as a test concept or even to make money," he says. "I started it because I had time." A decade later, he has a brick-and-mortar and two Michelin stars, plus an upscale cocktail lounge nearby.
The near-term outlook for restaurants is gloomy, with widespread unemployment and business closures all but certain. But this will gradually create opportunities. Commercial rents will drop. It will be easier to hire workers. Regulations swept aside in the emergency, such as bans on selling takeaway alcohol and restrictions on outdoor dining, could be permanently eased. Technologies from smartphones to delivery robots will continue to change the way we find, pay for, and receive our meals. The uncertainty of the pandemic, which may rise and fall in waves, will perhaps lead to a boom time for pop-ups: short-term ventures where out-of-work cooks and bartenders can try out new ideas, polishing them in preparation for when conditions become more secure.
Barnett is less pessimistic for the industry than some others, though he notes that things will have to change, such as moving tables outside, requiring servers to wear masks, and of course relying more on takeout hamburgers. "If you're stuck as a chef or an owner where you think you can just plug ahead doing what you've been doing, you're going to be sadly mistaken," he says.
As for what comes next, "I don't know if it will be a disappearance or a renaissance of fine dining," Barnett says. But whatever it is, "we'll find a way to make it as pretty and nice and charming as possible."
That's also the view of Kachka's Israel Morales, who notes that some reinvention will be healthy. "I think a really big mistake would be to assume that everything will go back to normal," he says. "This is the new normal. So embrace it."