Disclaimer: If you are a “Chicken Little” who latches onto the negative, wallows in the chaotic, and only uses your voice to propagate fear, please stop reading. Seriously. Go continue needlessly fighting with unknown people in the comments section of Facebook. There isn’t a message board here for your toxic, contrarian persona to make more hostile, so you’re genuinely wasting your time….
Restaurants have been forced to pivot to account for devastating drops in business
The State of the Union
...Are they gone? Phew. 2020. Yikes, am I right? In a year like no other, in a relative instant, everything we knew was completely thrown out of whack. In this pandemic situation where close contact is the enemy, restaurants and hospitality companies, which center around conversing and connecting, have been among businesses suffering the worst ramifications. As we rewind back to March, restaurant operators were forced into heartbreaking decisions but as professional problem solvers, the majority of the industry lept to action. We tried to pivot and make lemonade with a particularly sour batch of lemons and no sweetener in sight. Many dove headfirst into delivery and takeout options, the only viable source of revenue as doors were mandated to be closed. Makeshift patios were engineered from tents and parking lots into safe open-air dining spaces. Plexiglass structures were built to barricade diners from each other. A few particularly enterprising concepts even started selling groceries when supermarket supplies ran low. Some succeeded, but many struggled to fit a square peg in a round hole and force new revenue streams. Let’s face it delivery and takeout just aren’t the solution for every concept. That said, this pandemic certainly accelerated many much-needed advancements that the world was telling us before 2020.
Next, with uncertain endpoints to the pandemic, the difficult decision had to be made to begin furloughs and layoffs of the very people at the heart of great restaurants. Without stopping the bleeding payroll, there wouldn’t be a restaurant for these service superstars to return to. Then we studied and waited. We watched the COVID numbers rise and fall and we have done our best to keep up with ever-changing Governor mandates in the hopes of slowly returning to normal in a seemingly endless battle of one step forward, two steps back.
For as many creative, agile, adaptable restauranteurs as there are in the world, there have also been many who are more willing to simply "go down with the Titanic" while refusing to adapt. Instead, they cling to the glory days of their concept (which often occurred decades ago) and wait for the world to change around them, rather than taking action to change it themselves. Those whose staff are rarely challenged, addicted to uninspired routines and lacking for the passion to connect with guests. The writing was on the wall for these concepts before the pandemic and the situation has simply accelerated the timeline as short-sited ownership took the opportunity to fold and cash in their remaining chips.
Despite different paths to closing doors, estimates show as many as 30% of independent restaurants will have to shutter up by the end of the pandemic and 5.9 million restaurant workers have been displaced from their positions.
I know, I know. I promised a non-downer blog. Here’s where we turn things around. While our industry has been delivered an unprecedented blow, I am here to tell you: The sky is not falling. Restaurants will be back and better than ever. And here’s why.
The Biology Of Connection
Human beings are here because we are wired to connect. Pick an expert. If you want to go old-school psychology, Abraham Maslow established belongingness and love as fundamental human needs
and motivators way back in 1943. His contemporary Ray Baumeister furthered this notion with the “Need-to-Belong” Theory
which demonstrates a fundamental drive and push for humans to form relationships. Social connection expert Professor Brene Brown eloquently states that “a deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.”
The research unanimously supports that the drive for us to connect is natural, observable and profound. Perhaps the most irrefutable evidence is the fact that you are here, reading this blog likely as the result of two people connecting. Like, really connecting. The same can be said for the other 7.8 billion people on the planet.
In the most literal sense, restaurants exist to feed us. While this may be replaced by delivery meals and home cooking, the driving force behind the success oConnecting over a great meal is one of life's pleasures
f restaurants is their power as a harbinger of this biologically-driven social connection we are all wired for. The late, great Anthony Bourdain said it best: “Meals make the society, hold the fabric together in lots of ways that were charming and interesting and intoxicating to me. The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself.”
There’s just something about the alchemy behind a great meal and stimulating conversation shared in great company that creates the immeasurable magic which has driven projections that restaurants will hit $1.2 trillion in annual sales by 2030. The best restaurants act as the backdrop for these special moments by offering experiences you can’t deliver. They can’t be replicated on Zoom, TikTok, or Instagram Live. People crave them and are eager to return when it's safe to do so.
Once we accept the premise that it's likely that restaurants are here to stay, we can begin to see past our immediate challenges and envision the future of restaurants. Use whatever terminology you want. New Normal. Next Normal. However you slice it, things will be different. And that’s ok. Dare I say, it's even exciting?
Evolution is generally glacially slow, methodical and most of the time imperceptible if you’re “in it”. Progress happens in the same way you don’t realize how much your kid has grown until their yearly appointment or how you don’t perceive how much weight you’ve put on until you compare this year’s Christmas card photo to last. But occasionally, there is a meteoric shift in the environment that causes fast, dramatic, and noticeable changes. Enter 2020 my guys, gals, and non-binary pals.
The Restaurant Renaissance
So, here we stand with an estimated 5.9 million restaurant workers displaced by COVID-19 and three likely courses of action for these workers:
- They’ll find another job in the hospitality world which has been less affected or that is even thriving from the pandemic.
- They’ll move into another field and out of hospitality
- They’ll band together and innovate new and exciting concepts to create their own future
The third course is where the fun really starts and paints a bright picture of the future for restaurants. In a time of crisis, those who are most passionate are naturally inclined to fight for survival. In a rare “perfect storm” or circumstance, there are countless passionate and displaced restaurant folk who are banding together to innovate towards the future of the industry they love. They are united by their struggle and a common purpose. Their brains have been collectively thrust into creative problem-solving mode. In most cases, they are no longer beholden to the “good enough” systems that needed changing forever, but that they were "too busy" to update. They have a blank slate without the financial burdens of the past, a burning desire to get back to what they love and nothing to lose. They go into it with their team as the “board” and without the need to please “shareholders” as much as their guests. This is where it gets good again.
There are many jobless hospitality “lifers” who are currently chipping away at the problem in basements and spare rooms across the world. They are piecing together a complicated puzzle and banding together through Zoom calls, Slack channels, and Google documents to incubate great ideas and to bring them to market. They are bootstrapping, pitching, and negotiating against the word of every naysayer they hear on the news. They believe in something better and they are willing to invest the time during a crisis to create it. This, my friends, is the future of restaurants.
As we envision a society free of COVID, or at least far less vulnerable to its impact, people will be eager, nay, desperate to connect again. They’ll dip a toe to test the temperature on restaurants, and when they are comfortable enough to do so, they’ll dive back in. What will be waiting for them is a new world to explore. That world will be rich with creative innovations and progressive concepts born of the ingenuity of the passionate workers who wouldn’t listen to the “Chicken Littles” who sold their stock and invested in technology and not the most innate of all of our human instincts.
We're all inherently wired with three primary instincts: sexual, self-preservation and social
At the end of the day, we are all wired the same way and, according to the Enneagram of Personality
, we all have the same three main survival instincts: Self-Preservation, Sexual, and Social. During the pandemic, the world has launched into “self-preservation mode” during a highly unusual time for everyone, temporarily delaying our ability to fulfill our other two instincts. As society continues to open, we will naturally aim to make up for these deficits as we instinctively begin to reconvene and repopulate the planet. Guess where people go to meet people and be social? Bingo!
So the Chicken littles who likely told you that no one is going to ever want to dine out again or go to concerts, sing karaoke, bowl, play video games, dance at nightclubs, or the other dozen places that people meet people and connect are destined for a life of solitude and paranoia. You’ll find that most of them likely benefited from the pandemic in some sick way. The rest of the world is getting cabin fever and can’t wait to go out and play without fear. I’m not sure about you, but I can see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. And when we emerge, the world of restaurants and hospitality will be ripe with a renaissance that will allow for new, creative, and innovative ways for all of us to fulfill our primal need to break bread and connect. Call me an optimist, but I, for one, cannot wait.