Last week during my live broadcast on Facebook one of the viewers asked me this question. To answer, first I will say I have some expertise in the area. From a family whose group sport was food, I began appreciating restaurants at an early age. In 1992-2000 I operated a commercial American Bakery in Athens, Greece. When later that year, I arrived in San Diego, I worked at restaurants and for some well-known caterers anywhere from busser to line chef to head chef. I also had a food handler’s license and a food manager’s license which I managed cafes and a booth at the convention center. So, I really considered what was being asked.
First, let’s get an idea of what is being mentioned in the news. I read an article from EATER. January to February there was a decline at Chinese restaurants because of the supposed link to Wuhan. February to March going out to dinner plans dropped by about 10 %. Early March diners chose to buy groceries and cook at home more than ordering or going out. Mid-March finds restaurants ordered to close sit down service. Yelp tracked a 40 % drop in hours restaurants were open. As we entered April and now May, many staff were laid off or furloughed or having reduced hours. “A number of fundraising campaigns and nonprofit-driven grassroots efforts may ameliorate or defer some of the losses restaurant owners and workers are facing, but short of a massive, government-backed bailout, in the form of rent abatements, tax deferrals, disaster relief loans, and other kinds of relief, it’s hard to say what the restaurant industry will look like when we finally emerge from our houses in the coming weeks and months. “From canceled dinner plans to delivery app downloads, app data reveal how COVID-19 has brutalized restaurants”
Now let’s look at some of the industry opinions about where we are going. I looked for some online reports from the industry and particularly liked what I found in Hospitality Technology. More progressive restaurant brands have preached the importance of supply chain visibility and the ability to track product literally from farm to the backdoor to the plate. The technology to accomplish this exists but can be costly.
Staying on the topic of food safety and cleanliness, it is not outside the realm of possibility to suggest that there will be increased scrutiny and visibility into the adherence of restaurants to a higher level of quality.
This may be imposed and enforced by the FDA. We may see the involvement of groups that publish this information through the established social channels such as Yelp, promoted to act as overseers acting “for the safety of the consumer-at-large. Safety over Efficiency!
- The cleaning of a credit card when handed to an employee and the cleaning of it upon return
- The cleaning of a POS terminal between transactions or when a different employee uses it
- The changing of gloves between customers or the regular use of hand sanitizer between customers
- The sanitizing of a tray prior to delivering it to the customer
- Placing items like napkins and condiments behind the counter and requiring customers to ask for them
In the P-C19 world, it may be that we re-think many of our current business processes to support improved safety over labor and production efficiency.
While none of these tasks are lengthy, they will all increase the delivery times and speed of service. While this is true, it should be expected that few customers will complain, and in fact the optics of this level of care and focus on cleanliness should be well received by most if not all customers. In the P-C19 world, it may be that we re-think many of our current business processes to support improved safety over labor and production efficiency. Let’s talk about employees: “The reality is that 75 to 95 percent of the kitchen staff in L.A. is undocumented. They don’t have savings, they work two or three jobs to survive, and what little extra money they have gets sent back home to extended family in Central America and Mexico. We knew it was going to get ugly for a huge part of our industry that was being forgotten.”
And what about the farm stands??
But soon, the farm stand is going to become an online store, where orders will be placed, and we’ll harvest for those orders. We’re going to pre-pack them and do curbside pickup. And we’re expanding the market to have local meat, dairy, and things people need to make their meals. It feels like our responsibility to help move any existing food in the system and be there to help meet people’s demands. Every farm has some overages, so if we can pool that, that consolidates the need for people to drive across the county trying to find eggs. [The news about farmers dumping products] exposes some of the hurdles in an efficient but not necessarily flexible or sustainable food system. That’s the push and pull the agricultural system is always dealing with, but it’s much more visible now.
To get a real feel, I spoke with Lou Bruscianelli, Executive North American Sales Director for a company about the supply chain challenges. Their company provides plastic gloves, aprons, pastry bags, and other critical kitchen cleanliness products. We spoke today. All gloves are sold out, and more supplies on order. They are made in China; prices are changing daily. It may take a few months to get here by traditional shipping methods. They are working with some clients to see the possibility of Airfreight. They investigated ordering more masks and that was a difficult product to find. They are considering adding disposable body coveralls to their products. It’s a daily task finding who can supply, how long it will take, and anticipating future orders.
I also spoke at length with David Spatafore, owner, He was kind enough to answer my questions. The thirteen venues that make up his group are in the full range of foodservice from high-end dining to pizza and ice cream. The impact of COVID -19 has touched each of these in a different way. They combined resources when take out only orders became the normal. The head chefs from Stake, Leroy’s, and Little Frenchie combined offerings to bring a good variety of what patrons can order. They had two pizza locales and moved operations to the one which was more easily adapted to social distance rules and already offered take-out and delivery. I asked about what they are expecting about opening the venues as summer approaches. The State is carefully giving rules and changing them along with how our world is changing. The State of California immediately saw how this was going to impact the food industry. ABC laws were adapted so beverages could be included in take out. He operates an open food market type place at Liberty station and seeing as draft beer products might expire, they can fill “growlers” for patrons.
One of the major challenges is the loss of food products. Its been a difficult battle with insurance as the “Covid-19 Virus” isn’t a natural catastrophe like a flood or fire.
So, it’s still a gray area of how the government can help with this a story that changes daily! I investigated this as Coronado is one of the area’s most popular destinations for tourists. The whole region’s economy is suffering as it’s the first year these following events have been canceled: Coronado Flower show, The Del Mar Fair, Comic-Con, Pride, and even one of the events I help to run The Optimists Sports Fiesta. The longest-running triathlon. Some of the area is destined to be open in June. The question then is how to keep supplies coming. Eggs and vegetables come from local owners, though meat does not. The staff must be creative as there is no pork and the supplies of other products can fluctuate. We also discussed staffing. Besides kitchen staff, there is a complete network of folks that were keeping things going. They had to let go of 270 individuals. Unemployment can seem a more stable solution as businesses gear up to open. There are many unknowns that make owning a business in these times more challenging than ever,
How this affecting the food industry is definitely big news: “One prominent chef estimated that 75% of independent restaurants may not make it.” What can the average American do to help? Advocate with your Representative or Senator for the importance of restaurants in the local economy and local culture. During these moments in history, the ones who are clamoring the loudest are the ones who get served.” The article poses a very poignant thought: What we need to do is design a whole new regional food system that can withstand these shocks and others that will come along. And that could be very exciting. Some thoughts and strategies to overcome objection would include:
- Increased spacing between tables and/or breaking up larger rooms into smaller sections
- Greater access (and visibility) or hygienic products such as wipes and sanitizers on tables and in public areas
- Cutlery, glassware, and plates cleaned at tableside (or brought to the table packaged) for customer assurance
- Removal of salt and pepper shakers and provide either in packets or on-demand
- Servers behind the counters in restaurants that offer buffets or salad bars
- Coverings over meal plates that are removed tableside
- Pay-at-table functionality to avoid passing a credit card to a server
- Offering e-receipts in lieu of paper
- Digital menu boards or tablets with anti-microbial screens in lieu of paper menus
This means a whole new way of doing business, change usually happens at varying speeds, and with Covid-19 change is as rapid as the virus is spreading. My advice to you all is embrace the change it will teach you so much about yourself and inspire your creative and fighting spirit.