Although large restaurant chains have lost some business during the pandemic, severely low sales and closures are not nearly as widespread as they are among smaller independents. Now that more restaurant real estate has become available at a reasonable cost, several large chains are investing in infrastructure. CEO of Domino’s, Ritch Allison, stated that the chain anticipates expansion, crediting real estate opportunities that “weren’t available in the past.” According to Restaurant Business, Chipotle has reportedly been seeking out restaurants that have not even shuttered, offering to buy their leases whenever they are “looking for relief.” Chipotle’s chief corporate affairs and food safety officer, Laurie Schalow, stated that Chipotle will proceed to “open new restaurants and sign new leases to satisfy customer demand for Chipotle restaurants.” Steve Rafferty, Dunkin’s senior director of franchising development, also said in a statement “franchisees, who are small, independent business owners, are always looking for new development opportunities, in the communities where they live and work.”
One report from Bank of America in early July showed spending at large chains decreased just 4% year-over-year, compared to a 25% plummet for independent restaurants and small chains. A survey by the James Beard Foundation and the Independent Restaurant Coalition reports that only 66% of independent restaurant owners felt confident that they would remain open in October. The IRC predicts that as many as 85% of independent restaurants may shutter for good by the end of the pandemic. Restaurant consultancy Aaron Allen & Associates anticipates that one in three may shutter by the end of the year, freeing up a significant amount of real estate for restaurant chains looking to expand.
For the month of August, the British government has been paying for a 50% discount on all meals eaten in pubs, restaurants, and cafes. The “Eat Out To Help Out” campaign has succeeded in aiding the ailing hospitality industry by getting consumers outside again and spending money at restaurants. “Last Wednesday, my God, was pandemonium,” said David Williams, co-owner of the Liverpool food court Baltic Market. “There were more people in the queue than there were inside of the building,” added Williams. Rishi Sunak, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced the campaign as a lifeline to the country’s restaurant industry, which suffered an 87% plummet in sales between April and June. On the very first day of the government’s campaign, August 3, food sales rose 100% compared to the previous Monday, according to data from British food industry consultants CGA. The government’s latest Treasury figures show that British diners have used the discount more than 64 million times in the first three weeks of the campaign. While the government program expires at the end of August, many restaurants plan to continue offering it in some form throughout the month of September. .
It would be easy to dismiss certain culinary trends as a simple “veganizing of the American diet,” says BBQ chef Steven Raichlen. But some of the most popular dishes recently have been created by omnivorous chefs applying classic techniques of charcuterie to vegetables that take well to salt, smoke, and fermentation. Will Horowitz, the chef and co-owner of Ducks Eatery in Manhattan, is well known for his smoked goat neck tacos, but watermelon ham is the dish that went viral. He serves it on a vegetable charcuterie plate with radish prosciutto. “We use the same ancient techniques of meat charcuterie — salting, curing, drying, fermenting and smoking,” Mr. Horowitz said. “The trick is finding the right cocktail for each vegetable.”
Jeremy Umansky is chef and co-owner of Larder Delicatessen & Bakery in Cleveland, which was a semifinalist in the 2020 James Beard awards. The co-author of Koji Alchemy: Rediscovering the Magic of Mold-Based Fermentation, Umansky is well-versed in meat curing techniques. Lately, though, he has been pushing the forefront of vegetable cookery by approaching plant-based dishes as charcuterie made with vegetable flesh. His chewy cured burdock jerky shares the menu with house-cured pancetta, pastrami and coppa ham. Umansky is in talks with a Japanese koji manufacturer about creating a company that will sell his koji-cured vegetable charcuterie in the U.S.
Vegan chefs have also been pushing the boundaries between techniques of meat cookery and vegetable cookery. In Philadelphia, Chef Rich Landau and his wife, pastry chef Kate Jacoby, put plant-based fine dining on the culinary map when they opened Vedge in Philadelphia. At Fancy Radish, their newest spot near the Capitol in Washington DC, a vegetable charcuterie board is the signature dish. Landau, who is vegan, likes using words reminiscent of meat, such as mushroom “bacon” and tofu “ham.” In his plant-based charcuterie board, crispy smoked shiitakes are scattered among pastrami-spiced carrots, deviled kohlrabi, and fire-charred Chioggia beets. “Our goal is not to replicate meat, but to give vegetables some of the flavors that carnivores love,” says Landau. “Our menus may be vegan, but 95 percent of our clientele are omnivores.”
Fast-food and fast-casual chains are expanding their reach, while their overall revenue has still seen a roughly 30% plummet in 2020. While the loss of dine-in service has dampened sales, the drive-thru has proven to be the most lucrative revenue stream for major chains, accounting for 65% or more of a store’s revenue. According to a recent poll, 74% of Americans have gone to a drive-through the same amount or more than usual this year. To capitalize on changing consumer habits, most chains are expediting their expansion plans for drive-thru options. Last year, McDonald’s spent $300 million to obtain the AI company Dynamic Yield, which aims to increase drive-thru sales by giving digital menu boards predictive technologies, such as adapting to the time of day, weather, and even current restaurant traffic. Taco Bell has invested in speeding up wait times with its mobile priority lanes, which incentivize customers to order by phone. The Taco Bell app also uses GPS geofencing to determine when a customer pulls in and to guarantee that the order is ready as soon as the customer arrives at the pick-up window. For its part, Chipotle has been adding drive-thru “Chipotlanes” and opened its 100th lane this month, forgoing menu boards altogether so that customers order via their app to expedite drive-thru transactions.
To assess the health of San Francisco’s businesses and plan future lawmaking, the city’s Chamber of Commerce consulted with credit card companies to analyze swipe data during the pandemic. According to Chamber spokesperson Jay Cheng, the analysis revealed that 66.8% of the city’s customer-serving businesses that remain open are restaurants or grocery stores. The data also showed that San Francisco restaurant sales fell 84% in July compared to the same time last year. Since the beginning of the pandemic in March, restaurant sales have fallen 91%. According to Cheng, credit card activity indicates that 51.5% of the city’s restaurants are not generating any sales at all, presumably because they are closed temporarily or permanently. That figure aligns with expectations of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA), a lobbying group that represents SF’s dining business. Back in May, the group’s executive director, Laurie Thomas, predicted a 50% permanent closure rate. It was “a gut number based on talking to people,” said Thomas. “Anecdotally, one out of two people can’t see a way to stay in business,” she added.