Indefinite Sabbatical: Restaurants

Alongside hundreds of industries improvising like Second City almunni, restaurants have had to contort themselves while the threat of Covid-19 persists.

Despite the badge of being ‘essential’, the industry appears to have taken a substantial blow that may prove unrecoverable once life resumes to relative normalcy.

The world of dining now comes in black — with a touch of ominous uncertainty.

Many restaurants have had to close outright, unable to meet stringent safety guidelines or unable to make the leap toward dinner à la away.

Some are operating at a loss and are open ceremonially to support the community or serve as a soup kitchen.

Others are barely keeping their head above water, which seems superfluous to note given how historically unprofitable and logistically difficult restaurants are without a health crisis.

These dilemmas are wrecking havoc on an industry thought to be the last bastion of brick-and-mortar.

Most restaurants are designed primarily to serve in-person patrons. Takeout or delivery somewhat serves as a courtesy to let people know it exists, but not prioritized. You can but you shouldn’t — so please don’t.

There is a reason why restaurants measure success by volume of covers. Those diners provide the bulk of capital for an eatery. They help keep the lights on and walk-in stocked.

Success for the Grubhub epicure? An afterthought.

It was a hassle in a pre-Covid world: plating in a container, providing appropriate cutlery, stacking boxes to avoid spillage, all while juggling service for physically present diners.

That same hassle is why restaurants occasionally forgo takeout or delivery entirely. An absence of filled seats, however, has left little choice. Food to go has become the lifeblood of the industry.

Takeout. Delivery. Those are two words that monolithic mega-chains dabble in, not mom-pop or even fine dining establishments.

Smaller independent shops are now forced to play an unfamiliar game with unfamiliar players. The terroir of cuisine is almost unrecognizable after such regulatory stretching and pulling.

Independent operators aren’t only competing with one another anymore, they’re battling titans in efforts to survive.

Everything needs to be overhauled for the little guys: kitchen operations, menus, staffing placement, HACCP guidelines, and funding. All while cooking food that both travels well and competes with adamantium cheeseburgers and delivery pizza.

Those adjustments can be devastating for any establishment, but many monolithic enterprises have already ‘refined’ their operations by delivering a sterilized product and minimizing human interaction with automation.

Those prescribed changes in a post-Covid world cost money. Money that corporations have to burn and money that independent establishments frankly don’t have. Additional overhead like plexiglass, temperature scanners, and countless masks/gloves could cause bankruptcy.

This apparent struggle demands federal attention — and not only toward the Domino’s, McDonald’s, and Shake Shack’s who have bankrolled lobby power.

The food landscape requires an abundance of nuance that can’t be ignored. Otherwise, competition isn’t limited to just food, but will spill into federal relief and how the industry’s landscape will be restructured.

That is a frightful sight for the unrepresented thousands who don’t have a golden arch, giant bell, or racist papa.

A commission needs to be enacted and empowered. One that more accurately represents how dining looks in this country. Doing so may be the only way that relief allocation and future guidelines can be fair.

I can’t help but feel a little helpless for the industry though. Institutions of influence have clearly shown that money talks, which could lead to the diaspora of independent restaurants getting screwed even further.

This leaves me wondering ‘What will the landscape of dining look like?’ I know it won’t bear the same resemblance of a pre-Covid world.

My Orwellian fear is that once the dust settles, the landscape of food is changed for the worse, and we live a less delicious future.

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