Thriving, Imploding, Reviving – Restaurants Surviving the Pandemic

A few days ago, I joined a Zoom with Claudia Fleming, Ruth Reichl, and Melissa Clarke, held through the 92nd Street Y in NYC.  All three are reigning Doyennes of the food scene. Most of their careers have been NYC based and they all were part of the magnanimous food explosion that occurred during the 80’s. As restaurant owners, chefs, magazine editors, cookbook authors, and fabulous food writers, they know what it was, what it became and have some ideas about where it may end up.

They all agreed it would be a long and difficult journey from what-it-was-to-what-it-will-be. And no one really knows what it will be. What we do know and what they concurred is that what is going on is absolutely “heart-breaking.” It sums it up; we all feel this way. As foodies, we have a kinship to the food biz. Whether you invest in, eat in, or work in the restaurant or hospitality industry, there is really no way to say what the future will be. Many restaurants are going to outdoor eating areas where possible. Tables for now will be spaced apart. Inside eating may be a bit more difficult to achieve based on space and airflow. Restaurant employees are wearing masks, eaters obviously not, and therefore the spacing is absolutely necessary.

Parts of the restaurant industry are based on locality and proximity. Someone lives near a restaurant and goes there on a regular basis for a variety of reasons. Other parts of the restaurant industry are built primarily around the tourist business and the influx of non-local people to keep the businesses robust.

Two Scenes to Observe:

NYC – an interesting mix of what caused the restaurant scene to evolve, explode, sustain, and now implode. There have always been Michelin Star venues, good, bad and greasy restaurants in NYC. They have come and gone. Be it time passing and places became obsolete to not being able to clean up their act when the grading system came to be, restaurants have always opened and closed. There is no crystal ball to say who will and who will not weather this storm. Restaurants that have made the switch to take-away are perhaps able to pay their bills for now, but as unemployment plagues the City, fewer and fewer will be able to afford to keep them afloat. A number of restaurants have turned over their kitchens to supplying essential workers with meals. Doing good for a critical piece of the pandemic, but again, for how long will they be able to keep bringing food in and covering costs?

Bar Harbor, Maine – small year-round population dependent on the influx of summer people and tourists who came by land and sea, to a town that went from no available parking spots along to street to being able to dance in the streets it is so empty. Bar Harbor has been a holiday and summer retreat in varying forms for decades. It was a Newport, RI way up north type of place for those who ventured from NYC, Boston and Philadelphia to summer “cottages.” In 1947 a fire destroyed many of the grand old homes and fancy hotels. The phoenix that rose from the ashes became more of an everyman’s town. Regular people who could now afford a summer place bought and built homes, and much of the commercial reconstitution of the town became a bed-and-breakfast to big hotel scene.

As more and more people could afford cars, the trains ceased and eventually the cruise ships came. And they came, and they came, and they came. From a handful of ships a year to almost 200 as recently as 2019, the boats brought thousands of people who flooded the town on a daily basis throughout the season (May-Nov). That has come to a grinding halt, for obvious reasons. But what happened in between the vast numbers of people and now is that the town became a holiday mecca and for years grew as money came in. New businesses and restaurants moved further and further up the streets as more space was needed to handle the amount of growth.

There is news that people are already booking passage for future dates, thereby indicating a sign of resiliency is in the offing.

The Future Always Comes

A lot of parts must come back together and be overcome before the industry can revive. When we ask if it will revive fully, we have to leave room for what “fully” will mean going forward. Ms. Reichl noted that “no one has an optimistic viewpoint” at the moment. We are in the throes of this horrible downturn in life and it is hard to see a light at the end of a tunnel that seemingly has no end. The only thing we can control is the here and now.

The three Doyennes discussed whether people, now that they have tapped their inner home cooks, will continue to eat and cook at home, therefore rendering eating out somewhat obsolete. With certainty there will be some who do not venture out as frequently, but by nature we are social animals and eating is a fundamental social activity. Eating socially has not totally eroded, it has just shifted to operating behind closed doors for a bit. People like to be with others and restaurants up until three months ago were at the top of the list where people socialized and connected with one another. It will come back.

Some restaurants will survive. Some restaurants will revive. Some restaurants will emerge from the ashes. And some restaurants sadly will go by the wayside. There is no way to predict the future on an unknown. Instead, do what you can and must to achieve the outcome that you want. There is tremendous merit in hope. Focus on the hope. Focus on providing the community with takeaway or donated meals for now, and the future will be here before we know it.

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