As I’ve been sitting here secluded from society for week upon week, my mind has started to wander; how exactly will the chips fall when we return to normal. I hope we return to the old normal quickly and without much incident, I really do. I fear there’s a new reality awaiting us though, and it’s going to ripple through the hospitality industry for years to come. From where I’m sitting, a glass of wine permanently in each hand (remember you can’t touch your face that way) here’s what I suspect is coming down the road.
Communal tables go the way of the dodo
A no brainer. Who’s going to want to sit next to a complete and unknown stranger, with an even stranger and unknown medical history. No one, that’s who. And who’d miss communal tables in truth. When we protested in the past, restaurants told us we were the ones in the wrong; we just weren’t as suave, sophisticated or effervescently social as our oh so evolved European cousins. As a former European I can tell you first hand we hate the damned things too. No one wants to sit next to Larry from Delaware sloshing his Manhattan around while bellowing about his stock portfolio. Shut up Larry.
Any place where people congregate and communicate more than just words, well, these places are going to feel like something from a bygone era overnight. I’m thinking sushi bars, buffet lines or any business were you’re invited to dig in as a group.
Remember that time when the diner in front of you in the buffet line put the ladle back into the wrong trough. Remember how you’d raise your eyebrows in disdain before continuing to dig in anyway. Not anymore you won’t.
Who even knows how food and drink festivals function after this. The lining up to get in, the thronging crowds to get a bite or a pour, and the grubby little hands grasping around for samples. Oh yeah, samples in stores, lol.
Before all of this, my own levels of germophobia would make Howard Hughes nod approvingly, you’re all going to join me after this is over. There will be no shame if you decide to use a UV blacklight to inspect your dining area for stains and spills before you sit. Those restaurants that insist on placing silverware directly on table tops will finally need to rethink their lunacy. I’ve been mocked previously for suggesting bringing your own flatware rests to such dens of insanitary iniquity. No more, you’ll want some too.
Look, I never wanted to touch that virus-smeared point of sale terminal before this. I sure as hell don’t want to after we’re done with it. Tech giants have long been pushing their contactless mobile based systems. This pandemic is likely the killer application in encouraging more and more of us to stop swiping, touching and pressing things. You might trust your own germ-laden device to fling money across the ether, but someone else’s screen? Erghh. Expect to be using Apple Pay or what not a whole lot more often. Or at least starting to investigate how it actually works now.
As for cash, well we were already getting it’s spot ready in the museum before 2020 started kicking everyone’s butt. I can’t see this year doing anything but accelerating it’s rapid decline.
Timmy: What’s that mommy
Mommy: That’s a $20 bill Timmy
Mommy: Well in the old days we used to stuff pile upon pile of soiled paper into our wallets and purses and pockets. We’d grubbily pass them from person to person without a thought for where’d they’d been or exactly how many restroom floors they’d falled on
Timmy: Get away from me right now, I’m calling social services
Fine dining will continue to struggle
Some of the priciest tables across the land were already struggling to put wallets in seats before this began. Regardless of your thoughts on when we’re going to come out of this, many of us are going to come out demonstrably poorer. Poorer and infinitely more cautious with what funds we do have. There’ll be less luxury dollars to go around, and the choices to spend them at will almost assuredly decline.
Comfort food continues to grow
Those restaurants that offer affordable food that puts a smile on faces – they’ll continue to grow apace. There will be more focus on value. Speaking of which…
Delivery services will continue to boom
If you’re part of the same deluded camp as David Chang (who thought delivery services where going to be niche for another 10-15 years) – you haven’t been paying attention. Just hang out with a group of millennial for a day, wait actually don’t hang out with anyone, scratch that.
Every industry is being disrupted by tech whether they like it or not. Restaurants stamping their feet on the ground in Rumplestiltskin like rage won’t stop the careering freight train of change that are consumer habits, preferences and desire. We want it here, not there. We want it when we want it. What you want is fairly irrelevant.
Innovation, creativity, changes
What with necessity being the mother of invention and all, smart businesses are already retooling how they can meet demand. Restaurants have become pantries and larders for fraught home cooks. Jimmy John’s are now offering bread to go if that’s your thing while local experts Caputo’s have taken their entire educational operation online. A whole slew of family meal deals have sprung up to meet customer needs.
Those that don’t meet customer demand, will of course inevitably find themself in this last prediction.
Closures. Oh so many closures
There are going to be a lot. When a Goliath like the Cheesecake Factory pulls out their threadbare pockets and shrugs at their landlords with a meek smile, you know things are going to be even tougher for the smaller guys. CF aren’t alone in this, Brio recently filed Chapter 11 and Punch Bowl Social had the funding rug pulled swiftly from under their experiential feet.
Unless banks, lenders and landlords suddenly have an Ebeneezer-like moment, many will have no choice but to fold; and I think we can all place savvy bets on how likely that road to Damascus moment will be.
I hope I’m wrong in many of these. Except the communal tables. I really hate those things. And Larry.
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Hi, I’m Stuart, nice to meet you! I’m the founder, writer and wrangler at Gastronomic SLC and The Utah Review; I’m also a former restaurant critic of more than five years, working for the Salt Lake Tribune. I’ve worked extensively with other local publications from Utah Stories through to Salt Lake Magazine and Visit Salt Lake.
I’m a multiple-award winning journalist and have covered the Utah dining scene for more than a decade. I’m largely fueled by Uinta Cutthroat, alliteration and the use of too many big words I don’t understand. I ate all the pies.