Restaurants In Crisis

Interests in online recipes had dipped a bit last year—we know this, in part, because for many years we have operated a food and recipe site as one of our research tools. Then, in early March, things started to spike again. Recipe searches were in full swing.

Three weeks later, social media posts were full of pleas, such as, “Anyone have meal ideas? I’ve gone through my basics and need help!” That, in turn, launched a myriad number of recipes, along with memes and stories of exhausted cooks. I even have one friend who has been posting her recipe failures (and some of them are fairly epic).

All of which means we are ready to go out to eat again. The question is, will the restaurant industry and the food supply chain be ready to let us in the door?

For the first time that I’ve seen, the back door of the industry is open to the general public. They are seeing the production cycles, the distribution, the prioritization. Farm-to-table was always a lovely thought…but suddenly we are beginning to understand the amount of manure it takes, the logistics to move the piles, and the slim profit margins that mean only those with passion really last very long in the business.

A few of the questions are being aired publicly, such as:

  • With physical distancing requirements, and low margins, will restaurants be able to survive with fewer table turnovers each day?
  • How much will the sanitation guidelines, such as masks and gloves, give confidence versus make patrons feel uncomfortable?
  • What food items will be able to be sourced regularly, particularly now that the supply chain cycles have shifted toward grocery shelves rather than restaurant kitchens?

Perhaps the biggest question, however, is how long will our new behaviors last? We’ve become accustomed to restaurants acting as grocery stores, selling their inventory of frozen meats at a price lower than what you’d find on the menu. We’ve become accustomed to curbside delivery, and family meal packages. These are among the adjustments that may well stay with us. Other things may return to  the “old normal.”

Civileats.com does a good job of both explaining the food supply situation and identifying the challenges. Its article says, “For now, what we know is that the country is in the midst of a rapid shift in terms of the kinds of foods that will get to shelves and how they get there—as well as shifts in who is available to work, how those workers are kept safe, and new restrictions on movement between countries (and sometimes, cities).  With all this in mind, now is the time to understand what U.S. food distribution, under the best of circumstances, looks like.”

Right now we are cooking more. More of us have figured out delivery apps and grocery pick-up. We’ve been forced into a new integration of technology and food, unlike anything seen on the consumer level. It’s changing the way we will produce, distribute, prepare, and serve food in the future.

We are tracking the behaviors and working with our clients to show them what the consumer expectations are likely to be. One thing is certain: When the pandemic is over, we won’t be going back, only forward.