(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- There’s no way to sugarcoat the impact of the pandemic virus on the restaurant industry.

In a Dec. 7 report, the National Restaurant Association said the industry was in “free fall,” with more than 110,000 restaurants closing since the start of Covid-19. Food-service revenue plunged an estimated $240 billion by the end of the year and restaurant staffing jobs fell 2 million below pre-pandemic levels, the NRA said.

But in desperate situations there are often silver linings. Chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, and sommeliers across the country have shown the kind of creativity you might get if you mashed up Walt Disney with Steve Jobs. They’ve been tireless in rethinking the way restaurants can work from dynamic outdoor dining situations to take-away dinners and touchless service. They’re the changes that have made a bad situation better, creating alternative revenue streams for owners and providing new ways for customers to experience their favorite places.

Lighting Up the Streets

In New York City, where the city streets act as resident’s front yards, restaurants are the de facto dining rooms and heart and soul of the landscape. After outdoor dining reopened in June, and open street plans were expanded, New Yorkers started partying outside as never before.

The vibrant outdoor dining structures lit up the streets, like the colorful, flag-strewn setup at Lolo’s Seafood Shack in Harlem and the tropical-themed expanse at Kokomo in Williamsburg. Besides helping bring the city streets back to life, they created transportive alfresco experiences for diners: Marea’s elegant blue hydrangea-festooned patio in Midtown evoked an under-the-sea vibe. These structures weren’t cheap; Andrew Carmellini spent around $50,000 on each of the handsome ones outside the Manhattan restaurants he co-owns, like The Dutch, so he can use them again in the future. Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced that outdoor dining will continue in 2021.

Meal Kits

Because customers have been constrained in going to restaurants, chefs have brought the restaurant experience to them. They’ve created nifty meal kits and to-go packages, and teamed up with bartenders and liquor companies to make first-class to-go cocktails. That’s a practice that will continue to thrive at places like Fort Defiance General Store, which has grown out of the beloved Fort Defiance Bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Stone Barns, in Tarrytown and Manhattan, created highly in-demand meal kits, including a multi-course dinner party box featuring vegetables from the farm; owner Dan Barber says he will keep that practice going.

At San Francisco’s three-Michelin-star Atelier Crenn, meal kits, such as one featuring a caviar tart, are accompanied by instructional videos from the staff. In Chicago, the Publican is now offering its popular marinated chicken, along with brown butter chocolate chip cookie dough, as a meal for four. And in L.A., Jon & Vinny’s has turned its beloved pizza into a make-it-at-home kit. It’s become such a popular category that Goldbelly has a dedicated section, with options from Gramercy Tavern burgers to pork buns and Peking duck from Jing Fong in New York’s Chinatown.

Smarter Menus

The transition from paper menus to ones accessed via QR codes is terrific. It’s more sanitary and environmentally friendly, and you don’t have to wait for the grand presentation of a menu. The touchless version has also made for enterprising innovations, such as the one at this fall’s pop-up spot Parcelle Patio in New York City. The wine list included a live-chat feature, so guests could ask a sommelier for a suggestion and they would text you back with recommended bottles.

Less Is More

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Out of necessity, chefs have gravitated toward shorter, better-curated menus. As the razor-thin margins of the restaurant industry have been exposed, along with supply chain issues, it’s a very easy way to cut food costs and waste. In Philadelphia, the dinner menu at Fork went from 20 core dishes to seven. Owner Ellen Yin describes it as a “lean mean machine” and says the change has cut food costs by 10%. A new fundraising dinner subscription service in New York City, Summerlong Supper Club, features three-course tasting menus from 16 popular restaurants including Atomix and Llama Inn; to maximize efficiencies for the restaurants, there are no substitutions or customizations. In Chicago, Pizza Friendly Pizza was created as a pared-down concept because of the pandemic: It’s just six pies and two sandwiches, from star chef Noah Sandoval. It makes the restaurant’s focus cleaner, too, even if you will miss the chef’s experimenting for the time being.

Opening Up the Books

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Some formerly no-reservations spots are now taking reservations out of safety, crowding concerns, and also to confirm nightly seatings. Even famed no-reservations spots like Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach now use reservation systems to fill seats. It doesn’t guarantee you a table–you still need advance planning and good luck to get into the perennially packed Via Carota in Manhattan, even though it’s nominally on Resy–but it has helped.


And here’s to one of the biggest positive changes that came through in 2020: the emphasis toward equality. There’s been increased visibility for Black-owned businesses, through platforms like Spicy Green Book, the website and app that highlights them with professional images. And restaurants like Vinateria in Harlem saw an increase in traffic as a result of the Black Lives Matter messaging. Greg Baxtrom, who operates Olmsted in Brooklyn, turned his Maison Yaki space into a pop-up restaurant for a series of Black chefs through the second half of 2020 and says he will be doing it again in 2021. And let’s not forget all the restaurants that turned into de facto community kitchens, feeding rescue workers and then underserved neighborhoods, thanks to nonprofits like World Central Kitchen and Rethink. Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park, one of the most high-profile restaurants to adopt the model, has said he will continue providing meals to food-insecure people, even when his restaurant reopens.

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