Will Fine Dining Recover After COVID?

Nearly a year on from the initial wave of restrictions and closures brought about by COVID-19, a shell-shocked world continues to consider its post-pandemic prognosis.

At the time of writing, based on reported numbers – COVID has directly afflicted well over 100 million people worldwide – more than a quarter of them in the United States – and taken nearly two-and-a-half million lives, about half a million of them in the U.S. Take into account the emotional toll of a year’s worth of fear, grief, uncertainty, and isolation, and even the luckiest among us haven’t emerged unscathed. We will blow through this anniversary still mired in the muck, though the development and ongoing deployment of multiple vaccines offer hope that the less rife After Times aren’t TOO far down the road.

All this, and not even a word about financial implications. That restaurants are living on knife’s edge even in the best of times, and among the industries most devastated by the pandemic is well-trodden ground. While COVID’s lasting impact on restaurants won’t be known for some time, year-end data released by the National Restaurant Organization provided a window into a brutal year that was:

  • Restaurant and foodservice sales in 2020 fell nearly 30% shy of expectations of $899 billion.
  • As of December 1, 2020, more than 110,000 establishments remained shuddered, temporarily or permanently
  • Of restaurant owners whose businesses are permanently closed, nearly three-quarters don’t anticipate opening another restaurant.
  • As a result, an industry that, at the start of 2020, was expected to account for roughly 10% of all U.S. payroll jobs – about 15.6 million – currently employs fewer than 10 million people.

Unsurprisingly, 54% of family and casual dining operators reported staffing levels more than 20% below those expected in “normal” conditions. Meanwhile, a whopping 62% of fine dining establishments said they are operating with less than 80% of normal staff.

Even with the hopeful glimmer of light at the tunnel’s end, it’s fair to wonder what the After Times have in store for fine dining. By all accounts, pent-up demand among consumers is significant, and the initial rebound in revenue for surviving restaurants is likely to be sharp. However, amid the financial fallout of the pandemic, will customers have the same appetite for meals costing hundreds of dollars per head?

The answer, in fact, may just be a somewhat resounding “yes”.

There is a convincing case to be made that top-flight tasting menus, even those with price tags of $200+, won’t bear the brunt of the belt-tightening.

On the one hand, sure, predictions of the demise of fine dining seem reasonable. After all, unemployment and, vitally, underemployment, are up, disposable income is down across the “doing fairly well” set, and elevated levels of consumer debt and stricter (in theory, at least) lending standards will make it tough for some consumers to live very far beyond their means. Something almost certainly has got to give. However…

It’s fairly safe to assume that mass vaccination and the merciful end of this pandemic aren’t going to inspire people to want to do less. Within, say, the last 48 hours, you or someone you love has probably said the words “I CAN’T WAIT to go to a concert/sporting event/play again!” These are not affectations or lies. Your mileage may vary on whether, as some have predicted, COVID will give way to another “Roaring ‘20s”, but there’s simply no denying that, in fact, people want to do cool stuff again!

From a financial perspective, the simple price of entry for two – to say nothing of parking or concessions – into a concert, sporting event, or the theater can easily approach that of a high-end tasting menu. Add in those incidental expenses, and a reasonably nice, reasonably priced dinner, and there’s a good chance you’re right there.

“But that’s just dinner – this is an experience!”

To treat fine dining as one would a quick bit at a food court or a casual dinner at a local restaurant is disingenuous. A meal at a truly top-tier restaurant is a three-to-four-hour immersive social experience. It’s theater, but you’re encouraged to talk while it’s happening. More than at any high-dollar outing, what’s happening is actually happening to you. And you don’t have to figure out where to grab dinner afterward!/Plus, your really fantastic dinner is included!

Finally, there’s the question of safety. We’re all eager (to put it mildly) to strike “social distancing” from our vocabularies. That doesn’t mean that everything that’s we’ve done over the past year – and will do in the coming months – will simply vanish from the collective memories. For some, three hours of shouting in an arena, eighteen inches from your neighbor, will, for a while, be a nerve-wracking proposition.

It bears mentioning that, with neither lead time nor much warning, more than other entertainment venues, restaurants have already shown an ability to adapt to the circumstances. Many of the fine dining restaurants around the world that did reopen were met with strong demand.

Needless to say, fine dining in the midst of a pandemic hasn’t looked much like it did before. Some began offering in-home dining experiences and curated meal and snack boxes. Like virtually all eateries, fine dining had to integrate delivery and takeaway into an operating model that has historically depended on the freshness of food, the immediacy of service, and the atmosphere in the room.

Onsite, of course, those that could, for as long as they could – weather permitting – utilized whatever outdoor space they had available to create a safe and pleasant dining environment. Indoors, that many of these restaurants prioritize intimacy and privacy for each table and tend not to have high capacities is a built-in advantage over restaurants that rely on large, energetic crowds for the atmosphere.

Thanks to some combination of resource limitations, safety concerns on the part of restaurants, and legally mandated curfews or restrictions on operating hours, some launched lunch service for the first time, added “sanitizing specialists” to the staff, or required guests’ contact tracing details at the time of reservation.

Tasting menus were reduced, as were kitchen visits and chef’s tables. A la carte was offered where it never had been before. Partitions were added between tables. In many places, foreign products, which might be perceived as risky, and whose procurement and transport would pressure already extra-slim margins, have given way to high-quality local, organic produce.

Many have also adapted their safety measures so that they provide more than just safety, but contribute to the experience. In the interest both of de-crowding the kitchen and kicking up the theater of the restaurant, some dishes are now be finished at new, small staging areas, or “show kitchens”, located in the dining room. Partitions separating tables are being designed to fit with the décor and provide additional privacy for each table, rather than simply serve as blunt and depressing reminders of dark times. If ubiquitous hand sanitizer is here to stay – it almost certainly is – why not be the restaurant that blends its own, with accents from different herbs, spices, and flowers?

Simply put: what top-dollar entertainment option is better suited to provide peace of mind to its patrons than one whose very foundation is built on attentiveness, cleanliness, and individualized service? Combine that with absolute top-quality food and drink, and the argument that fine dining is once again about to have its moment looks quite strong.

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