Rodney Scott, an award-winning South Carolina chef and pitmaster, recently teamed up with Today to share the secret ingredient that makes his famous Carolina-style smoked ribs great. “It may be a controversial ingredient, but I unapologetically use MSG in my seasoning rub. It is a flavor maker!” said Scott. “All the savory and hot spices and seasonings in my famous rub and sauce make these tender ribs unbelievably delicious,” he added. Monosodium glutamate, MSG, is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. Though glutamic acid is found naturally in many common foods such as cheese and tomatoes, the ingredient has been misunderstood and the subject of controversy over the years.
Between mid-June and July 10th, 72,842 restaurants permanently shut their doors, according to the Yelp Average Economic Report for 2020’s second quarter. 24/7 Tempo compiled a list of 35 notable restaurants that closed down across the nation, including Louis’, a classic San Francisco diner that opened in 1937, shutting its doors after 83 years. Blackbird, a Chicago favorite run brilliantly by Paul Kahan for 22 years also hung up its apron. Fat Rice, another beloved Chicago restaurant known for its Portugese-Chinese fusion closed permanently, although reasons were less related to the pandemic. In New Orleans, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, Paul Prudomme’s foundational Cajun and Creole restaurant, shuttered permanently after 40 years of nightly lines out the door. Other influential restaurants that closed include Daniel Boulud’s Bar Boulud In Massachusetts; David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi, Charlie Palmer’s Aureole, and Alfred Portale’s Gotham Bar and Grill in NYC; and Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon, though some Pok Pok locations remain open.
In the past five months, New York City and Washington D.C. restaurants have suffered enormous economic losses due to the pandemic, indoor dining bans, high food delivery fees, and even thunderstorms that cancel outdoor food service. Under these conditions, Michelin has returned to judge the best restaurants in both cities. “Inspectors have resumed restaurant visits in some areas, including establishments in the New York selection,” said a Michelin North America spokesperson. Many feel the inspections are surprising, given the restaurant industry’s current state of disarray. “We thought maybe this year [the Michelin guide] wouldn’t be released,” says Ellia Park, co-owner of 2-starred Atomix. “I don’t know if it’s going to be fair or not because some restaurants do delivery and some restaurants can’t do anything,” she says. “We are always trying our best here, but now we’ll be worried about [the inspectors] as well,” adds TJ Steele, chef-owner of Claro, a Oaxacan restaurant in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The Michelin organization has publicly acknowledged the unique situation for this year. “Our inspection team is fully committed to support and promote restaurants by being flexible, respectful and realistic as recovery takes shape,” says Michelin’s North American chief inspector.
When states began to lift lockdowns a few months ago, restaurants became the nation’s reopening guinea pigs. Each state navigated its own reopening rules, instituting only partial reopenings after months of financial losses suffered by restaurants struggling to get by with only takeout and delivery. As COVID-19 cases began to rise again, restaurants and bars were labeled as hotspots for community outbreaks, and they closed again. According to Louisiana state data, about one-fourth of the state’s 2,360 cases since March that originated outside of nursing homes and prisons have been linked to bars and restaurants. In Maryland, 12% of newly reported cases last month were traced back to restaurants. Though it’s unclear how many cases are being contracted from employees, workers have seen spikes as well. Since late June, restaurants in Nashville, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, and Atlanta have been forced to close temporarily due to COVID-19’s presence among employees. Bars in Texas and Florida have closed due to employee infections as well. Epidemiologists say that the bulk of new COVID-19 cases come from indoor settings, and that the risk of contracting the virus is far less likely outdoors. “As of recently, we still hadn’t traced a major U.S. outbreak of any sort to an outdoor exposure,” said Lindsey Leininger, a health policy researcher and clinical professor at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Along with delivery and takeout, outdoor dining has kept several restaurants from closing permanently. Though some states are now allowing restaurants to resume indoor dining at 25% indoor, the sustained lack of sales and whiplash effect of opening and closing with little financial relief has mostly devastated the nation’s 1 million restaurants.
While chain restaurants are faring better than independent restaurants during the pandemic, massive business interruption has forced the parent companies of Chuck E. Cheese, Souplantation, and California Pizza Kitchen to file for bankruptcy protection. Franchisees of Subway, IHOP, and Pizza Hut, as well as NPC International, which runs more restaurant locations than any other U.S. franchisee, have also filed for bankruptcy. Who’s most at risk of going bankrupt next? S&P Global Market Intelligence issued a report that estimates the odds of publicly traded restaurant companies defaulting on their debts next year based on share price fluctuations and other “industry-related risks.” Sit-down and buffet chains including Denny’s and Outback Steakhouse were found to be most at risk. Eateries that combine food and entertainment such as Dave & Buster’s are also at high risk of defaulting. According to S&P Global, the median one-year probability of default for U.S. restaurants overall did drop to 10% in July, down from its peak of 35% in April.
Dickey’s Barbecue Pit based in Dallas, Texas, is the most recent restaurant chain to join the ghost-kitchen movement. With more than 500 units, Dickey’s is the nation’s largest BBQ chain and its new network of ghost kitchens will include virtual restaurants to expand its reach in Chicago, Houston and Orlando, as well as to enter a new market using only ghost kitchens in Providence, Rhode Island. Five ghost kitchens are opening during this initial stage of the launch, and Dickey’s confirmed there are “90 other agreements for this model down the pipeline.” The ghost-kitchen network is being marketed as a fast and cheap alternative for Dickey’s franchisees to grow their store portfolio or to allow new franchisees to enter the business without investing as much time or money as they would in a typical brick and mortar store. Dickey’s is incentivizing potential ghost kitchen franchisees by offering a discount and other benefits for existing and new operators. The chains system-wide same store sales have gone up 7.4% this July with over a third of sales from digital platforms. From February to July, the average number of digital checks per store also went up 333%.