Shutdowns, bankruptcies and re-openings in times of the 1.5-Meter-Economy – the coronavirus crisis has undeniably taken its toll on the restaurant industry. But parallel to the dark sides of the crisis, new dining concepts are springing up and spark excitement. An Amsterdam based restaurant started using greenhouses as “corona-proof” eating pods. Is this how we will dine in the future – and which structural changes in the restaurant industry do field experts predict?
Coronavirus crisis: sour with a little kick
“In the beginning it tastes sour and it gives you a little kick but then you start to enjoy it,” says Giulia Soldati when asked to describe the crisis with a taste. She works as a chef in the Amsterdam based restaurant Mediamatic Eten, which has recently received a lot of media attention for their new concept.
Behind her, waiters are balancing long wooden boards with food on their hands as they make their way to the little greenhouses that are placed along the waterside. Instead of plants, excited people are sitting inside them, patiently waiting for the waiter to place the board onto the table in their glass dining area. A process that would have seemed overly cautious and rather peculiar just a few months ago, has become the new daily business of the Amsterdam restaurant.
Like other restaurants all over the globe, Mediamatic Eten was confronted with a challenging situation when the pandemic emerged. They were forced to close their doors to the public and had to come up with ways to adapt to keep their business on track. First, they used the time to renovate the kitchen. Then, the staff brain-stormed for a coronavirus-proof approach for the restaurant.
One of the major challenges besides hygiene was to combine hospitality and the 1.5-Meter-Economy – two elements that are essentially at odds with each other. A solution was found when someone had the idea to sit in one of the little greenhouses that were prior used for an art project. The glasshouses would separate groups of customers from each other and at the same time provide an intimate and unique dining experience. The concept of the “Serres Separees” was born.
For the process of serving, they designed long wooden boards so that the waiters could transfer the food into the eating pods while keeping distance. Plastic shields to wear around the heads completed the new equipment. Once they made their creative approach public, the little greenhouses appeared all over the web. When they offered the first spots for reservation, they were quickly fully booked.
But the Amsterdam restaurant is by far not the only restaurant that came up with a creative solution facing the restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In Sweden, a couple opened a restaurant with a social-distance-friendly approach that they originally used for passing on food to a relative. With the help of a basket and a rope, their plant-based dishes are transported directly from their kitchen window to a table placed in the middle of a meadow. Bord för En – translated “table for one” – only counts one seat and serves only one person a day.
In times of the coronavirus, hygiene measures are more important than ever in the restaurant industry, but not only for health reasons alone. The Dutch gastronomy professor Peter Klosse is of the opinion that hygiene measures also serve a function of signalling responsibility: “I believe that’s what people want to see. That a restaurant takes things seriously.”
Why delivery isn’t an option for all restaurants
Another widely used method by restaurants was switching to delivery. But this doesn’t work for all restaurants. While delivery may work for restaurants in bigger cities, it usually isn’t profitable for locations in rural areas or for businesses in the luxury-sector. “It’s not easy to have complicated and elaborated dishes delivered because it’s still a lot of work to prepare it at home. So, for these types of restaurants delivery is not really a solution,” Klosse says.
This also applies to higher-end restaurants like Mediamatic Eten. “For the luxury side of the restaurant world I believe that taste and quality are becoming much more important. I believe the mission of the luxury side of the restaurant world is to use food to create beautiful experiences and memories. And that can’t be easily put into a box,” he explains.
Hopes that the pandemic changes the industry to the better
The professor, who also co-owns the Michelin star level De Echoput, is convinced that a part of the industry has been focusing too much on the price or efficiency. He hopes that the crisis will open the eyes of the whole industry, including many colleagues, and make them understand the importance of being a good partner to small enterprises and farmers of local industries. “Let’s realize that just buying things cheap may not be the best idea. I think we should strengthen the local industries.”
Another lesson Klosse hopes that the crisis teaches people is that restaurants are a serious business and should not be opened up carelessly. “I believe there is a lot of hidden poverty in the gastronomy. It would be good if this crisis also makes clear that there is no sense in operating a restaurant when it doesn’t give you enough money to live from.”
In terms of permanent changes in the restaurant industry, Yale professor Paul Freedman believes that the whole structure could change. “Five years from now, things will not have returned to where they were before,” he says. The professor for medieval cuisine estimates that at least 25 percent of the restaurants will not come back. “And when they come back, they’ll be different.”
With that many restaurants dying, new space is available for a new generation of restaurants. However, that doesn’t automatically mean that new investors can step in. Freedman explains that in New York even celebrity entrepreneurs would have trouble “making it” due to the high rents. Therefore, he supposes that the paradigm has to change first.
Impact on meat consumption and fine-dining
Freedman trusts that some of the changes that we will see in the future are accelerations of trends that were already happening. A decline in meat consumption would be one of them. “There’s a turn-away from meats in the direction of plant-based substitutes. Partly because of health-fears, partly because the pandemic is linked to climate change and environmental crises.”
The new guidelines in the industry, including online reservations to keep too many people from visiting a location at once, could make the restaurants more efficient and less crowded. Whether a lower number of people eating at once is a positive development depends on the personal preference. “For me that would be great. In many restaurants I find it hard to have a conversation because of the noise. And if there’s more space it will feel less claustrophobic,” the professor says.
While take-out and delivery would flourish in the future, Freedman thinks that restaurants which depend on service, atmosphere and experience will suffer. “I hope I’m wrong, but I think it will set back fine-dining and at-table-dining and it will have a long-term effect more in cities than in the countryside. Places that could do well, could be places that have a lot of outdoor business and places where space is not so important.”
With people arguably flying less, Freedman thinks that high-end institutions like “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants,” who depend on people flying in from all over the world, should start implementing a more simple and local approach to minimize the damage.
Food and our society: What will change?
“After the immediate emergency there are two kinds of trends”, says Paul Freedman, “One is that people will cook at home more because they have learned or relearned and because they’ll have less money. The other one is that people start indulging and eat more expensive foods.” The professor thinks that both responses will be present, like they also were in the middle ages after the Black Death. “But which one will be the prepondering one, is hard to predict.” In today’s context with one group doing more cooking at home and the other one using more delivery and take-out, sit-down restaurants are left in the middle and will therefore suffer.
Once the pandemic has died down, Yale professor Freedman is convinced that there will be an opportunity for sit-down restaurants again. However, they would not be as fancy for a while. “Partly because the economic effects will be continuing and partly because they will still need to be more cautious about certain things which is going to spoil or change the experience,” Freedman says. “Do I have to think about whether the menu the waiter handed me was wiped down? Is my tableware going to be compostable? None of that is so terrible – but am I paying 150 Dollars for this?”
Even if going back to “pre-corona” was possible, Peter Klosse doesn’t deem it desirable: “Back to normal is a bad idea because normal gave us the problem. Everyone who says, ‘let’s get back to business as usual’ makes a very fundamental mistake.”
In the Amsterdam restaurant, the guests have just finished their dessert. The glass surfaces of the greenhouses reflect the golden light of the setting sun. The first guests leave their Serre Separee and thank the director Willem Velthoven for the extraordinary experience. “Maybe we should have done this before,” Velthoven says.