Illustration by Hunter Myers
Illustration by Hunter Myers

When the dust settles and the country begins to reopen after the COVID-19 crisis, it will happen in phases. Mayor Muriel Bowser won’t ring a literal or figurative dinner bell announcing the city’s restaurants and bars are fully back in business once the city’s stay-at-home order lifts.

Because many of D.C.’s small, independent businesses have not been able to secure significant financial aid, a number of them will close, succumbing to the economic realities of months of depressed sales. Those who do make it will carry on operating under stressful conditions as they slowly relaunch.

Restaurants have reinvented themselves throughout the crisis to keep up with evolving public health restrictions and keep staff and patrons safe. In the immediate term, when diners return to restaurants, they may encounter fewer seats, staff members wearing masks and gloves, and contact-free ways to settle the bill. 

“People will come out of this feeling a level of stress,” says Neighborhood Restaurant Group founder Michael Babin. “Not just financial, but stress and anxiety when they’re in groups. That could be really bad for restaurants.” 

“Restaurants are places to relax and unwind, where you’re supposed to leave the cares of the day behind,” Babin continues. “Walking into a beer garden where lots and lots of people are together—how long will the anxiety last? It’s antithetical to everything we’re trying to accomplish with our guests.”

Babin says the restaurant industry was in a “fragile place” before the outbreak of COVID-19 and in need of “a gradual correction of supply and demand.” At least 90 D.C. restaurants and bars closed in 2019. Some operators blamed landlords for increasing rent once their five- or 10-year leases came up for renewal. Others wondered if D.C. was dense enough to support its restaurant boom. “If things had been more in balance before, we’d be looking at a different situation. This is crushing,” Babin says.

Though any return to dine-in business is still a ways away, local restaurateurs like Babin are also thinking about what long lasting impacts the global pandemic may have on the hospitality industry. Everything from supply chains to labor and service models could change. They shared six predictions. 

The city could give restaurants more enforcement responsibilities.

Pizzeria Paradiso founder Ruth Gresser opened her first restaurant in 1991. Since then she’s gone on to open four more pizza shops across the region. Despite weathering economic recessions and the post-9/11 spending freeze, Gresser hasn’t encountered anything as damaging as the COVID-19 crisis. 

She worries about how closely the restaurant business is tied to entertainment. Restaurants will reopen sooner than venues like concert halls, sports arenas, and theaters, which will likely lag farther behind because they host larger crowds. 

She also wonders what role restaurants will play in enforcing public health measures once they can welcome people back into their dining rooms. Having a liquor license already requires restaurants and bars to “become an arm of the law” when selling alcohol, according to Gresser.

Designated employees are required to attend alcohol awareness training every two years. These individuals are then tasked with making sure their establishments don’t overserve patrons or serve anyone underage. The ABC Board can issue fines or suspend licenses if businesses fail to comply with the District’s liquor rules.

Gresser thinks staff might have to participate in additional training in the aftermath of the crisis. 

“Will there be some standard now for food service employees that requires some kind of test to walk through the door?” she asks. More importantly, could liquor licenses be on the line if Gresser and her employees don’t keep up with new duties? 

The bond between restaurants and charitable causes could weaken. 

Restaurants and bars donate thousands of dollars in food and drink to charitable events; open up their venues for fundraisers; and find ways to raise money for causes they hold dear every year.

“Millions upon millions of dollars have been generated because of restaurants,” Gresser says. “I don’t know that restaurants are going to be able to afford to be the vehicle charitable organizations go to for supporting their fundraising.” 

Even in trying times, Pizzeria Paradiso is doing what it can. Earlier this month, Gresser launched the 10,000 Pizzas Initiative. She’ll donate 1,000 vegetarian pies a week for 10 weeks to feed vulnerable families and frontline workers. Each pizza will come with a coloring sheet from Art Works Now, a nonprofit organization Pizzeria Paradiso has backed for years. 

While she’s made it work, Gresser recognizes that not every restaurateur will be able to afford to give in the future. “Who is going to step up?” Gresser wonders. “These charitable organizations are crucial to the well-being of our society.” 

This could be the time to reconsider labor models.

One of D.C.’s most restless restaurateurs, Erik Bruner-Yang, is spending the crisis interacting with customers and staff. He openedToki Underground almost 10 years ago and subsequently opened Maketto, Brothers and Sisters, Spoken English, and ABC Pony

“What I’ve enjoyed from this moment is the reconnection, the personal connections, I used to have when I was just one restaurant,” he says. “My role [lately] has been looking at numbers on a page. That doesn’t matter right now.” 

He also started the Power of 10 Initiative, based on the math that if a restaurant receives $10,000 in donations, it can create 10 full-time jobs for restaurant workers to cook 1,000 free meals for neighbors who need them. After kicking off in D.C., Power of 10 launched in Los Angeles and will soon expand to Chicago, Charlotte, North Carolina, and New York.

Restaurants, according to Bruner-Yang, will have the opportunity to start fresh once the public health crisis ends. “There’s a good opportunity to revisit a no-tip model,” he says. When restaurants are up and running under normal conditions, he explains, it’s hard to make drastic changes. “Here’s a good opportunity to revisit a more equitable pay system because we can start all over.” 

He acknowledges that eliminating tipping would work for some and not others. The heated discourse surrounding the 2018 ballot measure that sought to eliminate the tip credit demonstrated that a contingent of workers and owners strongly opposed getting rid of tipping. “In the long run, it’s more fair,” Bruner-Yang says. “We can provide better benefits. We can pay people more. I think now people will be like, ‘Yeah, that makes sense,’ from customers to employees.” 

Off-premise dining may stick around. 

Shouk co-founder Ran Nussbacher is convinced Washingtonians will be ordering in with greater frequency well into the future, especially in the fast-casual sector. 

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, the vegetarian Israeli fast-casual restaurant has continued its usual take-out and delivery operations out of its K Street NW store. They’ve also added “hood drops” that allow people who live in areas outside of delivery ranges to get Shouk delivered at coordinated times. 

“I see this crisis as accelerating shifts and trends that were underway already,” Nussbacher says. “Off-premise dining is nothing new. We’ve known for the past few years it’s only been accelerating. I think now it’s going to get a boost.”

“We also have generations of customers that are being forced to learn how to order online for the first time,” Nussbacher says. “We see that with our food drops. Elderly customers are getting comfortable with it.”

Shouk uses Caviar, Uber Eats, and other third-party delivery apps. Those services have come under fire during this public health emergency for not doing enough to lower their commissions for struggling restaurants who are more dependent on them than ever. In response, some restaurants have tried doing delivery themselves. Nussbacher doesn’t think that’s sustainable. 

“It’s not realistic to have a delivery driver on demand who sits around waiting for the next delivery to come in,” he says. “That’s not a model that scales and it’s not something any restaurant can afford. The reason these services exist is there is no alternative.” 

The supply chain could become more local. 

During the COVID-19 crisis, some restaurants have turned away from large purveyors who’ve been inconsistent in terms of delivery schedules and product availability. Chefs are getting their produce, grains, and proteins from local farmers instead, and the supply chain looks a little different. 

“It’s going to create more of a local economy naturally and more local interdependence,” Babin says. “I’m in favor of it. I hate the reason it’s happening and I don’t know how long it’ll last, but it’s a good reminder to a lot of people who don’t normally think about it. Local is a more resilient system and regional economies with lots of interdependence can be a good thing.” 

Viruses can spread easily in large factories and industrial operations where employees work in cramped quarters. Perdue Farms closed a Delaware poultry processing plant at the end of March after two employees tested positive for COVID-19. Four Tyson Foods employees working in Georgia died in April from the virus. At least 634 employees at the Smithfield Foods processing plant in South Dakota tested positive; the company has also been fighting outbreaks in other states. 

“If the Smithfield Plant is an indication of what we can expect from large producers, then the value of small, local producers is going to be great even if the price is higher,” Gresser says. Consumers will have to play their parts because restaurants will have to pass along some of the increased costs. “What’s the maximum that people will pay for a pizza? In the last few years it’s gotten tighter. If we’re going into an economic downturn, there could be further tightening.” 

Food is in the spotlight, but independent restaurants may not have the opportunity to advocate for their needs. 

Many media outlets are regularly covering how restaurants are coping with the COVID-19 crisis. Because of this, Gresser thinks customers are bonding with their neighborhood eateries and watering holes like never before. 

“They’re recognizing how important these outside-the-home homes have been to them and how important the individuals are who work in them,” she says. “That’s why you’re seeing the generosity toward all of the restaurant relief funds.” 

Babin agrees. “People are focused on restaurants in a way they haven’t been because they’re aware of the pain that’s being felt,” he says. “There can be some good things that come out in terms of a seat at the table.” 

But Babin and Gresser aren’t sure these new bonds will last forever or lead to better representation when it comes time to advocate for their needs with local and federal legislators.

“The restaurant industry isn’t a monolithic thing,” Babin says. “Comparing a giant chain to an independent restaurant is like the difference between Nike and a guy who makes shoes one pair at a time. They’re both in the shoe business, but the similarities end there. I worry the voices that are listened to are the giant voices who have a different perspective and agenda than independents.”

Just look at the White House’s Economic Council for Restaurants. It includes the CEOs of Chick-fil-A,Subway, Outback Steakhouse, Papa John’s, and McDonald’s, as well as Thomas Keller, Wolfgang Puck, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Daniel Boulud, well known and acclaimed, though not particularly diverse, fine-dining chefs. The people on the council have little to nothing in common with mom-and-pop shops that make urban dining so enjoyable. 

“I worry about a huge consolidation and the idiosyncratic parts of the business getting squeezed down,” Babin says.