There is no sugar-coating it. COVID-19 has devastated restaurants.
An industry with margins as thin as restaurants simply cannot withstand a drop in revenue as long as the one COVID-19 has caused. Worse, there is no end in sight. Even as state governments ease restrictions, restaurateurs know that the math does not add up. Restaurant economics require full spaces. Limited capacity could be a death sentence.
Some say that COVID-19 will change the industry forever. Trends that already existed will only accelerate: downscale, takeout, and fast casual. Full-service restaurants, they say, are all but dead. “It’s as if aliens came from outer space and decided to totally destroy restaurants,” said chef and restaurateur David Chang. “I’m not being hyperbolic in any way. Without government intervention, there will be no service industry.”
On the one hand, it would be foolish to understate the impact of COVID-19. Here in Charlottesville, icons have already closed permanently. Nationwide, thousands more have closed, and the industry lost an estimated $80 billion through April. Even among restaurants that survive, many will alter their models, at least temporarily. Takeout programs will need to offset drops in on-premise dining.
And yet, has COVID-19 really changed restaurants forever? Are the ‘pivots to a new normal’ permanent? Fifty years from now, how will the History of Restaurants record 2020? The year everything changed? Or, a temporary deviation?
Never for Money, Always for Love
In all of my years writing about restaurants, one lesson stands out. I call it The Davidson Rule of Restaurants: “There are only two kinds of restaurants in the world: those with love, and all the rest.” Usually, it is easy to tell the difference. If the people who run a restaurant have a genuine love of hospitality – of taking care of people – you will know it from the food, the service, the entire experience.
For the people behind our favorite restaurants, serving others is their love. It’s in their blood. They go into the industry not for money, but rather for a love of caring for guests from the minute they walk through the door.
Like most chefs who own these small restaurants that have now proliferated across the whole city, I’ve been driven by the sensory, the human, the poetic and the profane — not by money or a thirst to expand . . . I still thrill when the four-top at Table 9 are talking to one another so contentedly that they don’t notice they are the last diners, lingering in the cocoon of the wine and the few shards of dark chocolate we’ve put down with their check.
Hamilton longs to create a cocoon. That longing is one of the two basic human conditions that underlie restaurants’ very existence: the passion to serve. The other is the passion to be served — the longing to linger in Hamilton’s cocoon.
And, here’s the thing about those two human conditions: they are timeless.
They have survived world wars, plagues, pandemics, and even sitcoms. And, it seems hard to imagine that they will not survive this. Yes, COVID-19 has decimated restaurants. Yes, the pandemic has ripped off the Band-Aid and exposed to the public what restaurateurs have known for decades: that their industry perpetually teeters on the edge of sustainability. And yes, consumers may be slow to resume enjoying restaurants the way they have for centuries. But, no matter the effects of COVID-19, it cannot change human nature. It cannot unwire the passion people have to serve others and the comfort people take from being served.
It’s Not All About the Food
When I first became passionate about restaurants, I was among those who believed that food is all that matters. Whether at a fine dining restaurant or at a strip mall dive, I would go anywhere for my food fix. I recall scoffing at guides like Zagat, which would assign equal weight to Food, Decor, and Service. I was a disciple of Metropolitain – the trailblazing Charlottesville restaurant founded three decades ago on the premise: “what if it’s all about the food?”
Over time, though, my view of restaurants evolved. While food quality remained paramount, I came to appreciate pleasures beyond the mere sensation that food creates on one’s tongue. Yes, part of what restaurants do is dazzle with culinary artistry. But, that’s just one part of what they do.
Imagine in the future a technology that could instantaneously transport to our dinner table a delicious meal prepared by a world-class chef. No delivery person. No wait. No fight for parking.
What a gift. Right? Well, yes. But, would even that end restaurants?
I expect not.
As convenient as the trappings of the Culture of Takeout may be — smartphone apps with one-click ordering, food delivered to your doorstep — you cannot build Hamilton’s cocoon from plastic takeout containers. It’s like trying to get blood from a stone. Contactless takeout may help slow a virus. But, in doing so, it removes the very thing we seek when dining out: contact. It’s a “unique kind of human contact,” restaurant historian Andrew Haley says of the connection that dining out provides. Which is to say, it has no substitute.
The pain is real. But, so is the human passion to serve — and to be served. Restaurants will be back.