Ah…now is the time for everyone to start speculating about what the restaurant business will look like when all of this craziness is over. Let’s start with what we are fairly comfortable saying: whatever “normal” is will likely not make an appearance until the end of 2021 – so…let’s begin our speculation with January of 2022 to be safe. I know what you are thinking – WHAT!!!! Restaurants cannot wait that long, no way, no how – this is the end of the world, as we know it. Sorry – just trying to be realistic. Once we have a target we might at least be able to plan effectively to either re-invent or throw in the towel. At least the real bad news is out of the way.
Now, let’s think about the purpose of restaurants so that current and potential restaurateurs and chefs can choose the direction they want to take.
THE PURPOSE OF RESTAURANTS (Where do you want to fit)
- To nourish and provide sustenance
- To offer convenience
- To provide a forum for conversation
- To create opportunities for gatherings
- To reward customers
- To provide an outlet for chef creativity
- To complete a neighborhood or destination
- To rock customers world
There may be more reasons, but these are the most common. So choose where you want to sit and lets jump on the speculation train.
 NOURISH AND PROVIDE SUSTENANCE:
Without a doubt – one of the primary purposes of a restaurant and one that supports the defined needs of a guest is to fill their stomachs. There are numerous multi-billion dollar chains along with countless mom and pop operations that do a great job on this front. Of, course the food must be tasty and appealing at some level and above all else – consistent. If this is your purpose then the field is wide open and will remain so as long as the price you charge matches the level of purpose.
 OFFER CONVENIENCE:
Quite often, the restaurant that is focused on nourishment is also great at providing convenience. In a world where everyone seems to live on tight schedules – convenience rules the day. How convenient you might ask: we barely need to slow down our cars and roll down the window when our food arrives – that’s convenience. During the pandemic – those operators who have been able to convert their operations to take out, curb side, or delivery using third party providers like GrubHub and Uber Eats have hit the nail on the head. Safety and convenience are first and foremost in consumer’s minds.
 PROVIDE A FORUM FOR CONVERSATION:
The heart and soul of many communities is a place where conversation flows freely – a place where opinions reign and where judgment of others is set aside in favor of a free flow of ideas. This was (is) the design of classic coffee houses, speakeasys, and corner cafes for generations. Whether a restaurant or tavern fills the role is dependent on many factors, but high on the list is the owner’s intent on creating a mecca for this to take place. If creating this type of environment is high on your list of priorities then there will come a time, an important time, when we are able to return to this type of interaction.
 TO CREATE OPPORTUNITIES FOR GATHERINGS:
Houses focused on catering informal and formal events whether it is that tavern where people gathered after a game to celebrate a win or commiserate a loss, the banquet hall booked for weddings, reunions, birthdays, and holidays; or simply that restaurant where you can always depend on familiar faces to clink glasses with – gathering spots are important. We have felt the pain of their loss over the past year, and will need to do without them a bit longer, but in all likelihood they will return in a very robust way once it makes sense.
 TO REWARD CUSTOMERS:
There are operators who enter the business for altruistic reasons: to bring happiness to people, to reward them when others may forget to do so, or even to allow guests to find their own reason to seek a pat on the back. Great food and drink and honest, sincere service can be the sunshine at the end of a not so terrific day. This is what hospitality is all about.
 TO PROVIDE AN OUTLET FOR CHEF CREATIVITY:
The definition of a chef sometimes includes: “frustrated artist”. Individuals who dedicate their lives to the preparation of food often view the plate as their canvas and what they do as something far more than just nourishment. This may be your priority, but know that those on the consuming end may not appreciate the chef’s art form. Restaurants are businesses as well and the customer is the other end of the restaurant tug of war. Art is wonderful, but in business it must sell to have any real value.
 TO COMPLETE A NEIGHBORHOOD OR DESTINATION:
Look at your own neighborhood and point to any common point of interest that helps to bring people together and turn a few blocks of houses into a community of homes. Chances are pretty good that the point of interest will be a restaurant. Gentrification or urban renewal almost always begins with the opening of a place of dining. Focusing on this makes both altruistic and good business sense.
 ROCK CUSTOMERS’ WORLD:
Ah, then there are restaurants, restaurant owners, chefs and cooks who see the operation as a vehicle for standing out, for making people jump up and applaud, for confusing the competition and helping people focus on food experiences that they never imagined. These are the risk takers, the individuals who push the envelope, and the ones who work like crazy because they have a goal of knocking people’s socks off. If this is your objective then know that it is hard, it involves the fickle nature of consumers, it requires superhuman effort to earn and then more to maintain a reputation for “the extraordinary”. To see this as a goal is to make a lifetime commitment to constant improvement because what rocks a customer today will become ordinary tomorrow. Many have tried, but few have succeeded.
So, what will rise to the top when the Covid Monster has gone into hibernation? Impossible to say, but there are some indications of change they just might have staying power. Here are a few to chew on:
- GHOST KITCHENS are making people scratch their heads and wonder if this is the next “big” thing. Rent kitchen space, develop multiple concepts around a core of ingredients, develop a separate branding campaign including “order friendly” websites, contract with a third party delivery service and go to town. Minimal staff, no long-term lease, no property taxes, no dining room, no service protocol, and social media as your only marketing initiative. If one of those brands fails to move well then shut down the website and you are done. Much of the sizzle is set aside, customer interaction is non-existent, and the feeling of community may be lost – but it certainly is interesting and it eliminates many of the challenges that restaurants face.
- FOOD TRUCKS are not a passing fad. Eliminating the need for brick and mortar and a set location give restaurateurs a chance to take the product where the customer is and move freely when customers have a need to do the same. Limited, focused menus; high impact flavors; spontaneity, and limited staff needs make this a very attractive model for chefs and owners. Add a rented commissary kitchen space (ghost kitchen) for prep and you can scale a hot concept to multiple trucks working an entire city.
- POP UP RESTAURANTS give a chef the opportunity to experiment with concepts, menu items, styles of service and preparation, and even multiple locations. Running a concept for a few weeks can provide enough analytical data to support the need for a brick and mortar operation someday down the road. It makes sense to move in together before marriage.
- GROCERY STORE PARTNERSHIPS provide chefs with another potential outlet for their product without the headache of dining rooms, service staff, and the pressure of the clock. Renting shelf or cooler space for your product places the merchandising, collection of cash and credit, and facilities maintenance in the hands of the store. Placing your product in a location where customers visit anyway opens the door for spontaneous sales providing your packaging and point of sale merchandising is top shelf.
- BRICK AND MORTAR OPERATIONS will have a much more difficult time rising from the destruction that the pandemic is leaving behind. Lease, mortgage, utilities, staffing, and the need to convince people to visit you is even more of a challenge than in the past. There is little doubt that location restaurants will return, will service the needs of customers, and in some cases will thrive, but they’re a far greater gamble than other options – at least in the short term.
Be cautious, but through planning and the willingness to make solid business decisions you can find a market for your product and service.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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