Chef to Chef: Will Coronavirus Be The Great Culinary Equalizer?

By Chef Jennifer Hill Booker
Chef Jennifer Hill Booker 4

In March, the COVID-19 virus had gained a solid foothold in the U.S. By April, the threat had become a full-blown pandemic. Its presence was felt across all corners of the foodservice industry; for restaurant owners and employees, the effects were particularly devastating.

One by one, independently owned restaurants, as well as those owned by huge restaurant groups, began closing their doors. After the first round of state-mandated restrictions and stay-at-home orders, more than 26,000 restaurants had closed, according to data from Yelp, leaving those still open scrambling to find ways to be health compliant, but also profitable. By July, almost 16,000 restaurants had permanently closed, with more shutting their doors daily.

Call me an optimist, but I believe the restaurant industry will survive the coronavirus pandemic. But even an optimist has to admit the restaurant industry will be forever changed. In particular, how we dine, and who owns and operates these establishments, will no longer look like it did before March. I must say I don’t believe that’s necessarily a bad thing.

COVID-19: The Great Disrupter

In the future of foodservice, the pre-COVID-19 restaurant model will be a thing of the past. Gone will be the hierarchies of who decides what acceptable restaurant food is, who gets the best chef and the most prestigious food awards, and more importantly, who gets the financing desperately needed to open and operate a viable foodservice operation.
Although people of all nationalities and backgrounds can be found in restaurants across the country in both the front and back of the house, racial and gender disparity is nothing new in the foodservice industry. One has come to expect that the ownership and faces of a restaurant are seldom the same people cooking that food. I believe that the coronavirus is changing that.

COVID-19 has closed tens of thousands of restaurants without regard to who owns them, hinting that big restaurants that spend hundreds of thousands — even millions — on a traditional dining concept may be a thing of the past. Perhaps restaurants designed on a smaller scale that can offer a mixed in-house and off-premise dining experience are the future.

Many of the restaurants currently open were either able to pivot to the emerging restaurant model of carry-out, delivery and/or grab-and-go, or applied existing elements of this model to their current concepts. There are a couple of interesting points to unpack with this new restaurant model, the most thought-provoking being that this model is not new at all.

This style of service has been around for as long as there have been restaurants, but usually in poor neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color. In Mississippi, where I grew up, and in Michigan, New York, Florida and Oklahoma, where I have lived, many of our neighborhood “restaurants” were walk-ups, which are now being marketed as pick-ups. You called in your order, or you walked up to place it — usually through a window — and took your meal with you to eat elsewhere. Sometimes you could get limited grocery or pre-packaged items. Delivery, if available, was limited, and any seating was usually very sparse and/or outdoors.

Another interesting point is these walk-ups were never considered real restaurants — not necessarily because of where they were located, or even because of what was being served, but more pointedly because they did not fit into the established models of service and ownership.

I see the coronavirus creating new business models for all people. Due to a shift in where and how we eat, the culinary landscape will be forever changed. Restaurants will become less about ego and status, and more about longevity and building a community. In a sense, this pandemic is acting as the great culinary equalizer, creating a level playing field where everyone with the talent and tenacity to open a restaurant can do so.

Chef Jennifer Hill Booker is a culinary consultant and author of “Dinner Déjà Vu: Southern Tonight, French Tomorrow” and “Field Peas to Foie Gras: Southern Recipes with a French Accent,” and she released her newest kitchen resource, “Cookcentric Cookbook Journals,” this year. Learn more at ChefJenniferHillBooker.com.

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