A Zagat survey of 7,000 people found that only one-third of respondents plan to dine at restaurants the week they reopen, and 20% plan on waiting three months. As restaurants gradually reopen, takeout and delivery have become essential components of most business models. According to restaurant market research firm NPD, delivery sales this April were 115% higher than last year. As a result, restaurant supply company US Foods saw a 25% jump in sales for its takeout containers, especially eco-friendly containers, specialty vented containers for fried foods, and containers for cakes and desserts. Sales of tamper-evident labels are also up 160% as restaurateurs invest in better packaging to gain consumer trust.
In Chicago, DineAmic Hospitality’s co-owner Luke Stoioff says the company’s restaurants worked hard to “make our delivery food look as beautiful as our dine-in food,” using specialty plastic tableware and packaging as well as other refinements. Some restaurateurs are even investing in custom packaging to help deliver the in-restaurant experience at home. French chef Daniel Boulud, the owner of Michelin-starred restaurant Daniel in New York thinks the Michelin Guide will soon institute a “delivery” classification to grade that service much like other restaurant services. .
Though the coronavirus pandemic has thrown the restaurant industry into disarray, Food & Wine magazine restaurant editor Khushbu Shah says, “A pandemic doesn’t cancel the work that these remarkable chefs and restaurant owners have done over the past year.” Shah completed most of the research for this year’s list just before lockdowns went into effect. The magazine’s ten Best New Restaurants of 2020 include a wide variety of venues from casual to fine dining, inexpensive to luxurious, and food trucks to white tablecloth restaurants. “The idea that a restaurant had to be a place with four walls, a front door, and daily hours felt limiting,” says Shah. “To ignore the creativity and sheer flavor that comes out of food stands, pop-ups, and trucks felt like a giant missed opportunity.” Congratulations to Automatic Seafood and Oysters (Birmingham), Bon Temps (LA), El Ruso (LA), Gado Gado (Portland, OR), Golden Diner (NYC), Molly’s Rise and Shine (New Orleans), Kalaya (Philadelphia), Nixta Taqueria (Austin), Thattu (Chicago), and Thamee (DC).
Massive food halls and public markets rely heavily on close proximity vending, high customer traffic, and communal tables. As they plan reopening amid the pandemic, safety is now the top priority. “We only have one shot at opening and we have to make sure it’s the right time,” says Didier Souillat, CEO of the six Time Out Markets in Lisbon, Chicago, Montreal, Boston, New York, and Miami. Souillat says the Lisbon and Montreal locations will likely open in late July or early August with U.S. halls to follow. Upon entry to reopened Time Out Markets, customers will be welcomed by an ambassador who will explain new health and safety rules and procedures. Signs urging customers to keep six feet apart will be posted throughout the buildings, and technology will track the hall’s total capacity based on foot traffic, sending alerts to general managers when capacity is within 10% of the 50% limit.
In Santa Monica, California, the Social Eats food hall never fully closed but immediately revamped its business and continued modifying it, at least six times, according to founder John Kolaski. “One of our first steps was implementing a contactless solution so guests can order ahead for takeout and delivery,” says Kolaski. The new online ordering platform at Social Eats consolidates all nine of the food hall’s dining concepts into one point of sale system so customers can combine items from all or some of the vendors into one to-go bag. Similarly, food halls around the country have revamped their services in preparation for safe and efficient service upon reopening.
Since March, Chicago restaurant Fat Rice has been closed for dine-in service but has continued operating as the grocery store and meal kit service, Super Fat Rice Mart. After recently posting support for the Black Lives Matter movement, owners Abe Conlon and Adrienne Lo have now closed Fat Rice altogether. Upon seeing the posts of support, former Fat Rice employees called out Conlon, sharing multiple stories of mistreatment. Some former employees tossed their Fat Rice shirts in a pile in front of the restaurant, while others burned their uniforms.
The reckoning also reignited a long-running debate over the restaurant’s cultural appropriation of Macau cuisine and Conlon’s attitude toward other cultures. The chef admitted to having an anger problem but denied claims about physical altercations. Conlon apologized for his behavior both in the kitchen and in the fight against systemic racism in the U.S., saying, “I have participated in and upheld a system that needs to fall.” He went on to say, “If Fat Rice needs to fall along with that system, I am ready for that.”
Last week, Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) presented new legislation to begin a $120 billon pandemic relief fund for independent food service and drinking establishments. The Real Economic Support that Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed to Survive Act (the Restaurant Act) aims to offer restaurants grants so long as the ownership companies are not publicly traded and make $1.5 million or less in revenue under normal circumstances. Funds provided by the bill are in addition to any loans are grants received through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and restaurants may use the grant for payroll, benefits, mortgage, rent, protective equipment, food, and other expenses.
On a call with reporters, Blumenauer said that independent restaurant revenue is down 51% from last year as a result of COVID-19 and that independent restaurants face unique challenges not faced by corporate-owned chain restaurants. Since April, the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) has been pushing Congress to create this $120 billion stabilization fund, even though the National Restaurant Association and the International Franchise Association (IFA) criticized it for not including franchisees and small chain restaurants. The latest bipartisan version of the Restaurant Act does include franchisees but only those with 20 locations or less.
Five restaurants in Slovenia, the tiny yet fertile country bordering Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, and the Adriatic Sea, have just received their first-ever Michelin stars. Celebrated chef Ana Ros earned two for her restaurant, Hisa Franko, and several other Slovenian restaurants earned one each. “Finally we have confirmation that Slovenia is a good gastronomic destination,” says Ros. “It comes at the right time because times are not easy for tourism and restaurants.” Hisa Franko, located on the Italian border in Kobarid, has attracted an endless parade of destination diners who can’t get enough of Ros’s hyperlocal, hyperseasonal ingredients and boundary-pushing dishes like mock guacamole made from lovage and smoked eggs, suckling pig stuffed pasta, and fermented wild magnolia flowers. Another first for Michelin’s just-released 2020 Guide to the “Main Cities of Europe”: Krakow, Poland now has a restaurant with a Michelin star in Bottiglieria 1881.
Last week, this season’s Top Chef All-Stars television show concluded, and Bay Area chef Melissa King emerged victorious. Up against chefs Bryan Voltaggio and Stephanie Cmar, King was tasked with serving a group of culinary legends in Tuscany, Italy. Her winning dishes of char siu glazed octopus with fennel, squash agnolotti with Szechuan chili oil, grilled squab with persimmon porcini and fermented black bean, and Hong Kong milk tea tiramisu successfully honored Italy’s culinary traditions while infusing them with the food and flavors of her Chinese family. Her final tiramisu dish brought eighth-generation Italian butcher Dario Cecchini to tears. “It respected the traditions of Italy,” said Cecchini. “Melissa made an interpretation of one of our traditions and she made it from the heart.” Fusion food can be tricky both culturally and on the palate. “I do a lot of research,” said King. “I travel to these countries, I eat the food of the locals as much as I can. I tried to keep the authenticity of the flavors and the tradition that is behind [it] in all of these cultures, but hybrid[ize] it in a way that’s very subtly and tastefully done.”
While closing dining rooms due to the coronavirus, Michelin 3-star restaurants around the country pivoted their operations to continue providing high-quality meals through takeout and delivery and by feeding medical employees and others on the frontlines of the pandemic. Chef Dominique Crenn began brainstorming right away when her Michelin 3-starred restaurant, Atelier Crenn, was ordered to close in March. Crenn and a skeleton crew of around 20 employees have been making hundreds of meals a day for hospital workers, firefighters, and even a domestic violence shelter close by. She plans to continue offering some of these services after the pandemic subsides.
Alinea in Chicago, owned by chef Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, would normally welcome guests with a $365, 18-course tasting menu. Now the 3-star Michelin restaurant is offering six-course to-go feasts for about $50. The move has been extremely successful and has helped re-employ the entire restaurant staff with 80% of their previous pay and benefits. Other restaurants like Eleven Madison Park have begun feeding frontline workers only, and the acclaimed NYC restaurant now serves 3,000 meals a day to those in need.