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Coronavirus Threw Restaurants a Devastating Curveball. An Uncertain Future Lies Ahead.

How can restaurant luminaries continue to evolve through and beyond the pandemic?

Canlis restaurant Photo by Kevin Scott

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 earlier this spring, Seattle fine-dining institution Canlis has scrambled to reinvent itself about a half-dozen times. First there were to-go meals, a breakfast bagel shed and the drive-through burger concept, which became a victim of its own success when it began causing traffic jams in the neighborhood and had to be scrapped. Then came a drive-in movie theater. Then an outdoor crab shack.

Chicago’s Alinea followed suit, nimbly shifting to producing hundreds of gourmet meal kits per night and opening a rooftop pop-up called Alinea in Residence (AIR for short). Pivots like these have offset the current chaos, for now. But even from some of the most influential trailblazers in American fine dining, questions about the future are met with genuine uncertainty.

“I no longer have a long-term strategy,” says Alinea co-owner and restaurateur Nick Kokonas. “We are generally on a week-to-week, month-to-month basis.”

Canlis crab shack

In one of its many pivots, Canlis launched a crab shack pop-up.  Courtesy of Canlis

It’s a striking confession from Kokonas, who, along with Alinea chef Grant Achatz, built success through wild culinary innovation both inside the kitchen and out, and one that illustrates the unprecedented nature of these times. As the founder of Tock, Kokonas introduced the concept of prepaid tickets, like for movies and sporting events, to the world of high-end gastronomy. With Achatz he cofounded Next, which changes menus and themes every four months. And for years he’s been challenging the industry to replace tipping with a more equitable solution, an idea he thinks will gain momentum now that the pandemic has exposed the industry’s most vulnerable workers.

“Tipping will go away. It’s inevitable,” says Kokonas, who eliminated the practice for all restaurants within the Alinea Group a decade ago. “A lot of issues around equality and workers’ rights stem from a lack of financial understanding, even among top operators. In other parts of the world it works just fine. The public is very understanding of service charges.”

Alinea dining room interior

Dining rooms across the country, including at legendary Alinea (pictured), sit empty.  Courtesy of Alinea

The pandemic is also challenging businesses to rethink the concept of real estate and certainly to optimize outdoor spaces: The parking lot at Canlis became the drive-in movie theater, while Alinea signed a lease on a new rooftop space for its summer pop-up. Kokonas also says that restaurants now sitting vacant across the country could be used as ghost kitchens or traveling pop-ups, an expansion of his longstanding idea, shared with Achatz, to take a restaurant on the road like musicians on tour.

“The most advantageous thing for a restaurant or chef to have right now is fluidity, and being willing to adapt to change,” says Achatz.

Analyst Mark Brandau of Datassential, which released a report on the impact of Covid-19 on the restaurant industry, says restaurants will need to offset emptier dining rooms by diversifying their offerings and revenue streams. That could mean anything from premium to-go meals to retail products—think signature spice blends or sauces—and take-home cocktail kits. Many examples could even have higher profit margins.

Alinea takeout

In the current climate even the most rarefied restaurants, like Alinea, are going the delivery route.  Courtesy of Alinea

Datassential figures predict US fine-dining sales for 2020 will drop by 38 percent compared to pre-Covid forecasts. So far, high-profile casualties of pandemic-related lockdowns include the Ledbury and Le Caprice in London, as well as Blackbird in Chicago. And as long as the specter of contagion persists, Brandau says, it will mean a “slow ramp-up” for on-site dining.

Still, industry professionals are confident that, like after the 1918 flu pandemic, the world will eventually bounce back. In the meantime, according to Achatz, chefs and restaurateurs should focus on the emotional side of what a restaurant provides, beyond any specific menu or glitzy design touches.

“Restaurants and hospitality at their core make people feel special, welcome and appreciated,” he says. “I don’t think that will ever go away.”

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