In the restaurant industry, 2020 was anything but business as usual.
Hampered by stop/start stay-at-home orders, COVID closures, and a lack of leadership (and support) from elected officials, nearly 1 in 6 restaurants have closed, some 3 million employees remain out of work, and sales are down by a staggering $240 billion nationwide. And as protestors took to the streets to call for social justice, many restaurants were also forced to look inward, and finally address long-standing inequalities within their own kitchens. It would seem that the entire restaurant landscape hasn’t just shifted, it’s been set ablaze.
But what will rise from the ashes? Can a reeling industry rebuild on the fly? Where do restaurants go from here? To find out, we spoke to more than a dozen industry professionals from restaurants across the U.S. Here’s what they had to say about the year that was, and what to expect in 2021 and beyond.
Francesca Chaney, Chef and Owner, Sol Sips, Brooklyn
“Sol Sips is a community-minded restaurant focusing on making plant-based food accessible, whether it’s through the choices on our menu or community organizing, which has a lot to do with education. We do everything from free and sliding-scale cooking classes, to sliding-scale brunches and meal kits. We’re a restaurant first, but always look for ways to feed and co-exist in our community.
“What stood out to me about the restaurant industry this year was how quickly it mobilized and supported the protests around police brutality and state-sanctioned violence against Black and brown people. It supported community organizers who were on the ground doing the grassroots work, whether it was posting to social media or giving away food in Union Square. When the pandemic hit, food is something that became even more important, because now we’re talking about sustaining our bodies during a pandemic, and that was one of the driving forces that kept us open.
“I look forward to seeing the humanization of the restaurant industry - and not focusing specifically on the restaurant as a machine that pumps out orders. Because it’s more than that. It’s an all-around human process. There are people who cook the food with their hands and put it in the box, and the box is received. And every single dish is going into someone’s body, which then fuels them in the day and contributes to the quality of life they have, even if for just 45 minutes after they ordered the food. [We need to have] more reverence for the people who are making the food, and the actual food itself, the resource, and see the restaurant industry as human and authentic and genuine, as opposed to a numbers game.”
Kim Prince, Chef and Owner, Hotville Chicken, Los Angeles
“I would call 2020 a test of faith. We’re literally winging it on a prayer [laughs]. You don’t see stuff like this coming. I remember on March 15, it was like, ‘Here’s this order from the mayor through the Health Department: Shut down your dining rooms.’ It was out of the blue. You didn’t see it coming and you didn’t know how long it would last. Then you started hearing about ‘essential businesses,’ and the word ‘essential’ was one I never really paid attention to before, in all my years of being around food, even as a little girl back in Nashville in the ’80s. Well, people can’t survive if they can’t eat, so my first thought was ‘Dammit, we’re essential. Everybody eats fried chicken - it’s like air, everybody needs it - so we kept frying.’
“With each passing month, it’s been a struggle. We didn’t have delivery before. We’ve partnered with Postmates, and we’re surviving. Without it, we’d be closed. We had to struggle to get the PPPs, because we didn’t do a 2019 tax filing. We’d only been around for a few months. We’re not doing the same volume of catering, either. No holiday parties, no catering, it’s not happening. So it’s just been one loss after another. You have to rely on faith and push through.
“Another round of relief assistance to businesses that have remained open has got to happen. Our numbers are down, all [restaurants’ numbers] are. This industry basically had three months of great volume, and then a 40-60% drop-off in sales, so you have to find a new number to operate off of, a new goal to hit every day, so we can make payroll. We need access to grants, and they need to simplify the application process, because restaurants owners aren’t grant writers. The time it takes to apply for some of these grants, it’s like you’re trying to become a tax professional or lawyer. It hasn’t been easy. We’re surviving off what comes through the door. I have to hope and pray I’ll get more customers. ”
Dammit, we’re essential. Everybody eats fried chicken - it’s like air, everybody needs it.
Eric Rivera, Chef and Owner, Addo, Seattle
“I didn’t have the option of getting help from other people - I don’t have investors, I don’t have people to answer to - so I said ‘F*ck it, we’re going to have to go this alone.’
“My approach was putting myself in the space of a diner at home. I started thinking beyond dinner. Maybe you’re planning meals for a week, or a celebration. Maybe dinner lasts until lunch. We’ve run everything from $5 microwave meals to truffle dinners and cook-at-home classes. I abandoned the idea of a traditional restaurant, and we’re busier than ever. If you think about it in terms of guest occupancy, I have 22 [seats] in my restaurant, plus an eight-seat chef’s counter - so, that’s 30 people. We’re doing way more than that now. On some days, we’re serving hundreds. It’s more efficient. And the fuss has been taken away, which is cool - we definitely don’t have to worry about f*cking garnishes anymore.
“I feel like we’re going to be doing a form of this for the next two years. A lot of the meal stuff - delivery, meal kits, that kind of thing - is going to be permanent. I’m working on our own delivery system and getting more unique pantry items to market. It’s forced us to think in a new way - we’re focused on making a revenue center out of the space, rather than worrying about bringing people to the space.”
“When I started seeing the coronavirus spread from Asia to Europe, I never thought it would impact the entire world. But things started to escalate, cases were rising, and we saw restaurants in Chicago and New York start to shut down.
“In New Orleans, we were in the height of spring season - we had just finished Mardi Gras - and had all of these upcoming things booked. We only had a couple of cases at that time, maybe four or five, but during that week it started to spike quickly in Louisiana. The thing is, we don’t have a large enough population in New Orleans to support all of these restaurants without the balance of both locals and tourists. People ended up losing everything because they were trying to keep their staff and keep their families afloat, which is just not possible without funding. A lot of restaurants have tried to hold on as long as possible.
“Most people have this short-sighted vision of the restaurant industry as just a server, a cook, a sommelier, a general manager, and an executive chef, but that’s not all the employees. The restaurant industry employs so many people, directly and indirectly. I’ve had farmers we work with calling to say they need help selling their produce because restaurants have closed. I remember there was a story about a farmer who had to throw away a million pounds of onions because of restaurant shutdowns. With the second wave of coronavirus, it happened all over again. If people want to see these restaurants survive, they need to push for The RESTAURANTS Act to pass. Without it, nine out of ten restaurants will be gone.
“I think we’ll see a smaller, more tight-knit restaurant community because of COVID. We’re all going through such a dark time, I think you’ll see smaller and more creative menus with a focus on comfort. As chefs, we started out in this industry because we want to make people happy. That’s our driving force. When you come to a restaurant, it’s a meeting place where you exchange more than just food and wine. You exchange memories. Dining in a restaurant becomes something nostalgic, where all five senses are touched. As chefs, we’re very romantic. That’s what made us fall in love with cooking and having a restaurant in the first place.”
Ari Kolender, Chef and Partner, Found Oyster, Los Angeles
“Found is an East Coast-style oyster bar that’s more of a ‘bar with food’ than a real restaurant. I’m from South Carolina, and my partners are from the Boston area and Cape Cod - there’s a lot of tradition in what we do - and we bring it all together in LA.
“Our first day of full service was in December, and the weekend before the COVID closures [in March] was our busiest weekend ever. There’s no playbook for how to keep a successful restaurant going during a pandemic, so we sold off our inventory - seafood, wine, whatever - and then we took about two months off. In May, we opened our Overboard concept, selling fried chicken and Southern-inspired sides, but by June, business had really begun to slow down, so we got to work on the process to build an outdoor patio - petitioning the city for approval, and all that. That opened in November, and again, the response was super-positive. Now we’re looking at a potential shutdown again [Editor’s note: LA County ordered restaurants to cease outdoor dining on November 25], so who knows what will happen, but I hope the city allows us to keep these patios going forward. It’s not only good for business, but it would turn LA into a different kind of city - a city that mimics something in Europe. I’m hoping that will be the case, and that all the red tape that goes along with it, and opening a restaurant, for that matter, will be looked at again. But who knows?”
Jennifer Kim, Chef and Owner, Passerotto, Chicago
“Passerotto was a Korean-American restaurant mirrored after my dual upbringing in Chicago and summers spent in Korea. It incorporated stories of my family’s immigration to the U.S. and how our identity with Korean food changed as we assimilated and acclimated to American life. [Looking back on 2020], one thing I would have changed would have been shutting down the restaurant sooner. We had explored the idea in May but had remained hopeful for government assistance, so we continued with takeout and delivery service until mid-September.
“I’ve also been reflecting on ... community-focused and worker-first environments with little-to-no hierarchy of power. A lot of places have shifted their business model to be more collaborative, working with other restaurants, artists, small businesses, micro-economies to share space, both physically and conceptually. The next year or two is going to be a regenerative state for the industry. Future-building, community networking, mutual aid, anti-racism and anti-oppression work are going to be important pillars as we rebuild and re-imagine a new future.”
André Hueston Mack, Sommelier and Co-Founder, & Sons Hospitality Group, Brooklyn
“My wife and I started & Sons Hospitality Group pretty much right at the beginning of COVID. It consists of a wine and ham bar, a provisions store, a bakery, a wine shop, and a breakfast taco joint. We used COVID to motivate us. Instead of pivoting one concept, we just started a completely new one that was more COVID-friendly, if you will. Once COVID hit, we were completely OK with temporarily shutting down the ham bar and focusing our attention on the provisions store, which we opened a few months later.
“The next six months are very crucial. I think any type of… shut down here in New York City will bring many restaurants to the brink. It is paramount that we continue to raise a unified voice for restaurant relief all throughout the country. The announcement of three different drug companies presenting vaccines does present a light at the end of the tunnel, and now it’s more about maintaining and improving consumer confidence. I still can’t believe that there is no bailout plan for the restaurant industry, and that they have left all of us to die. The restaurant industry is made up of incredible creatives and individuals that are resilient. No matter what is thrown our way, we will find a way to survive, unfortunately with some casualties. From the wise words of Drake: ‘I learned working with the negatives can make for better pictures.’ Ironically enough, I feel like we’ve handled things pretty well and hindsight is 20/20, so we like to keep things moving forward.”
Cara Haltiwanger, Chef and Owner, Calabama, Los Angeles
“I’ve been in this business since I was 14, doing everything from washing dishes to bartending and cooking on the line. The whole time, I was kind of treating my job as my test kitchen, too. I was doing lots of Southern food, bar food, handheld stuff, and then, I settled on my breakfast sandwiches and hot sauce. I was pushing along, doing morning pop-ups, getting the hot sauce side of the business popping, but then COVID hit. My brother and I were talking, and he was like, ‘Do you think you could just do this from your house?’ We weren’t sure, but we decided to go with it - and that’s how we started using a pulley-and-bucket system to drop sandwiches from my fire escape.
“It turned out, people loved it. I provide a Southern hospitality vibe, and people responded to that, even if they were getting it from four-stories up. In March, Jimmy Kimmel featured us, and that raised our profile even more. Now, it’s become a destination. And I think all of this is a testament to what I love about this business - that we’re highly adaptable and hard to kill. That we’re gonna rise up and we’re gonna make it work. That’s the essence of the food service industry, and it’s what’s going to keep it going. Restaurants are reaching out to pop-ups to collaborate now - they used to consider us competition, now they realize they can’t survive without being creative and rolling with the punches.
“When pop-ups first started getting popular, back in 2008-09, the question from customers and peers was always, ‘So, when are you opening your brick-and-mortar?’ Pop-ups were always considered like, a step on the way to owning your own restaurant. Now, I think people see that you don’t have to have a brick-and-mortar to be successful.”
Pop-ups were always a step on the way to owning your own restaurant. Now, you don’t have to have a brick-and-mortar to be successful.
Kalb: “It’s been really, really crazy. One thing I’ve learned is that neither of us mind working - Ospi is a huge restaurant, and we had no choice but to open during the pandemic. We could either stop construction and give investors their money back, or keep fighting and trying to figure it out. [So] sous chef, executive chef, busboy, dishwasher, GM, whatever we needed to do, we did it.”
Saka: “Since we were opening Ospi, we weren’t part of the daily operations at Jame. The day they shut down dine-in [in LA County], we were out of Jame. But then, suddenly we were back there for 90 days straight, because El Segundo and the whole South Bay are so community-centered that, within the first week of shutdown, we probably had takeout orders from every regular customer. We were able to keep almost all our back-of-house staff on, and after a week we were busy enough with takeout that we were able to bring back two front-of-house people, too. Jackson and I could never be at Ospi without a strong team at Jame.”
Kalb: “We were very fortunate, and very lucky. But I also learned not to be fearful. I was scared sh*tless for so long, and it was double for Ospi, because this place is big, and we didn’t have a community foothold, so it was a challenge. I made a lot of bad decisions based on fear initially, and we all had to fix them as a team. I’ve definitely learned how important it is to have your head screwed on right - especially since everything is up in the air right now, and will be for the foreseeable future. It’s not like once COVID dies down, things will just open up. We don’t know what the industry will look like in six months, or a year. Obviously, we’re hopeful, or else we wouldn’t be doing this.”
Joshua Lewin, Creative/Culinary Director of Juliet & Company, Somerville, MA
“Our company values people, first and foremost - that’s been part of our mission statement since we opened Juliet almost five years ago. We don’t rely on tipping. We pay living wages, and every position in the restaurant should have the potential for being a career. It’s expensive and sometimes difficult to invest in people. If you’re looking at short-term profits in any given year or quarter, you may say, ‘Well, those are questionable choices.’ But in a year like this, we realized what had always been theoretical to us - this is an investment in the long-term, and is worth it.
“The restaurant industry is a business whose labor model is predicated on the idea that people are temporary and replaceable. A lot of times, restaurant jobs are treated as odd jobs or temporary jobs, unless we’re talking about the highest levels of leadership - the chefs, maybe the sommeliers, the managers, the dining room managers and captains in fine dining. But unless you’re in one of these roles, all the support or entry level positions are very low-paying, and the people in them are considered temporary, and therefore are not highly valued. The issue is baselines of compensation, baselines of security. Not living paycheck-to-paycheck, or even shift-to-shift. I believe and hope the industry realizes that it has the opportunity for larger-scale change in how people experience their jobs.
“I know there are a lot of people who want to do better by their workforces, but don’t know how, and are concerned about profitability and expenses increasing, and not having the tools institutionally to fix that problem. I’m hoping that having this large workforce start to speak up - start to realize their lack of security - will shift the balance so it actually incentivizes business owners to do the right thing, which isn’t easy.”
Johnny Lee, Chef and Owner, Pearl River Deli, Los Angeles
“Pearl River Deli is a Cantonese-focused casual concept that dabbles in other Asian cuisines as well. We’ve tried to keep travel in mind [with our menu], but from time-to-time we make something that doesn’t travel well because we believe it’s delicious. It’s been a struggle trying to balance cooking things we want to cook, while at the same time considering what dining in the pandemic is like.
“I question whether … I should have just kept things as a pop-up. Opening a business this year has come with all the usual financial responsibilities, but with the pandemic, all the downsides, too. I want to see better government support for independent restaurants - even before COVID we were on an unsustainable path. Our current tipping system promotes inequality between front- and back-of-house [staff], and there needs to be a change in laws to make them more flexible. There also needs to be a change in American dining culture, because even if we, as operators, wish to eliminate tipping, customers wish to keep it in place - despite paying the same price in the end. I do hope that people will learn to value independent restaurants more, and realize that if they want to keep seeing the amazing and dynamic restaurant scene we have now, somebody has to pay more for it, whether it be the diner or through some sort of government subsidies.”
Naama Tamir, Owner and Operator, Lighthouse, Brooklyn
“Lighthouse is a casual restaurant and bar in Brooklyn serving modern-Mediterranean, locally sourced, fresh food, cocktails, and natural wine. Lighthouse adheres to social and environmental good practices - fair wages, waste reduction, local procurement, clean energy, and kindness.
“We did not close Lighthouse through quarantine and made swift changes to the operation. We became experts at pivoting. [The pandemic] was the first time that we looked at sales with such attention to better understand what our guests want and need. If I could change one thing about how we handled 2020, I would have tried to work with other restaurants and organizations more. I think collaboration and unity would have been helpful to all of us. And I would have been more vocal about our initiatives, the support we provided to our staff, hospitals, and the community.
“I’d like to see a sustainability shift for zero waste and smaller carbon footprints, and a more collaborative industry instead of competition. Food is one of the most wonderful - but also devastating - things in our system. There is a lot to do, and restaurants can’t do it on their own, farmers can’t do it on their own. There needs to be legislation, technology, innovation all coming together, and an incentive - potentially from the government - to get everyone to shift. If we go ahead and really change things systemically, there is a more sustainable model not just for the environment, but financially.”
[We need] TO see the restaurant industry as human, as opposed to a numbers game.
Victor Villa, Taquero, Villa’s Tacos, Los Angeles
“We started selling tacos in 2018 in the front yard of my grandma’s house in Highland Park. We would do it every other weekend, but eventually we started taking it more seriously - I quit my job, and we’d load our grill into my Subaru, and set up at block parties and bars. We were rolling, and then COVID hit and pretty much put everything on pause. We had to figure out how to move forward, and the answer was to go back to our roots.
“We moved to the backyard and set up the current system - people place timed orders through Instagram, show up, and we run it out to your car. It’s time consuming; it takes a lot of effort to knock out orders every five minutes, but we’ve perfected the system, and been able to communicate directly with our customers, so that’s helped us not just survive, but grow. Whether you’re a family operation like us, one of the most famous places in LA, or even a big corporate chain, you have to constantly find ways to innovate, and then go with the punches. If you don’t, I don’t think you’re going to survive.”