Perhaps no group has pivoted more quickly and more visibly during the pandemic than the restaurant industry. City landscapes across the U.S. have changed: tables, chairs and plywood structures sitting where cars used to park, pedestrians sharing sidewalks with diners and space heaters, thermometer-wielding hosts working double-duty as health monitors.
The pandemic has taxed restaurant workers, who are asked to provide service but haven’t received enough of it themselves, says Brandon Jew, chef and owner of Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco. “We all want hospitality,” he says. Nationally, chains and independent eateries alike have struggled to hire back staff who are opting instead to stay on unemployment or work in other industries.
For many restaurant owners, pandemic-related labor shortages laid bare what was no longer working in an industry defined by its unrelenting work culture, and provided a window for experimentation. Many restaurants reopened post-lockdown with permanently revised pay structures and operations, as well as new standards to address burnout.
“This is the very best time to rebuild a restaurant,” says Mark Canlis, co-owner of Canlis in Seattle, who compares the pandemic to a hurricane. If one room of a house is already in poor shape, “you’re not going to build that room back the same way if a hurricane has devastated your house,” he says.
While some chefs eagerly await the day when they can pack their dining rooms again, many acknowledge that Covid-19 forced an industry used to doing things one way into adopting some new practices, to unexpected success. Here, the biggest changes that are here to stay, according to restaurateurs, chefs and industry experts.