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The future of restaurants, according to Seattle chefs

Like so many of you, everyone here at Refined can't wait to visit our favorite restaurants again. But, the dining landscape we find when we return will undoubtedly be far different than the one that existed just a couple months ago, before the Coronavirus pandemic. I talked to 11 different chefs and hospitality pros from nine different restaurants to try to get a sense of the future of the industry. There are no firm answers here. Each restaurant faces it's own unique set of circumstances and challenges, but there is no doubt big changes are coming.

Chapter 1: Fill in the Blank

Seattle Refined: Fill in the blank for me. A year from now Seattle's restaurant scene will...?

  • "Not be the same as it was before. It's going to be quite interesting I think. I think we're all trying to learn what the new 'new' is going to be. We all have these unknowns that we can't actually figure out. There's no crystal ball we can rub." - Edouardo Jordan (Chef/Owner: Junebaby, Salare, Lucinda Grain Bar)
  • "I don't know what it will be, but I'm excited to be a part of it. I think it's going to be dynamic. I think it's going to be hard. I think in many ways it's going to be scary and in many ways going to be exciting." - Mark Canlis (Co-Owner, Canlis)
  • "Refined in some sense. Not in a more fine dining sense, or more dialed in. I think it's just going to be a little bit tighter and sharper because iron sharpens iron. I think you're going to see a more resilient, scrappier group of restaurants that have been through some hard times and come out on the other end better for it." - Brady Williams (Executive Chef, Canlis)
  • "Be totally different." - Alia Rocher (Co-Owner, Tarsan I Jane)
  • "It's been totally different and it's going to be more different in the future."- Perfecte Rocher (Chef/Co-Owner, Tarsan I Jane)
  • "Limping along. I think a lot more sparse than it was and leaning very heavily on fast casual takeout concepts maybe peppered in with a couple of very brave, indignant fine dining applications." - Brendan McGill (Chef/Owner, Hitchcock Restaurant Group)
  • "Be completely different and not necessarily negatively." - Brian Clevenger (Chef/Owner, General Harvest Restaurants)
  • "Survive, hopefully. Gosh, I haven't thought about a year from now in a long time. I feel like I'm think about the next day more than a year from now." - Renee Erickson (Chef/Co-Owner, Sea Creatures Restaurant)
  • "Oh, I'm going to guess probably figuring it out a little bit. I don't think we'll be back to normal." - John Sundstrom (Chef/Co-Owner: Lark, Southpaw Pizza, Slab Sandwich + Pie)
  • "I'm stuck in the middle on where things will be." - Tom Douglas (Chef/Owner, Tom Douglas Seattle Kitchen)
  • "Be very different. It's not even going to resemble anything from what we were two months ago, five years ago, 20 years ago. It's going to be a whole different ballgame. Essentially, we're starting from scratch." - Eric Rivera (Chef/Owner, addo)

Chapter 2: The Challenges of Re-Opening

Restaurants in Seattle, and throughout the nation, are facing unprecedented challenges.

"What I've been thinking and what I've been saying is 75% of restaurants will re-open in some way, and that after a year of that, I would suspect 50% of those would either have to close or find some sort of new capital," said Tom Douglas.

Perhaps the only certainty during this decidedly uncertain time is the next 12 months will changes the restaurant community in our region forever.

It's an unfortunate reality restaurants will close. A lot of them.

"This whole thing is just having your head on a swivel," said Eric Rivera of addo. "It's not restaurant. This is not restaurant. This is not - zero percent. None of this is that anymore. This is a whole different ballgame."

But, re-opening presents its own set of challenges. None of the chefs and restauranteurs I talked to are planning on opening for dine-in service immediately when Phase 2 begins. Why? Well, as the world has changed, the entire restaurant landscape has changed as well.

"When you think about hiring people back, you're having to bring them into a situation that has been flipped upside down and train them into a role that wasn't the same role they left," said Renee Erickson of Sea Creatures. "So that's going to take time because we're not just re-opening with the same staff doing the same kind of service. Hopefully we're re-opening with the same staff, but everything is different. How you show up is different. How you have to wash your hands is different. How you have to sanitize everything constantly is different. How you have to wear a mask. How you have to change your gloves. All of that."

Food is one thing, but running a business with a whole new level of safety regulations, is another.

"Food is the easy part," said Rivera. "Maintaining the business running, maintaining safety with our employees, maintaining safety of the space, then making it all work. It's going to be that many more steps. The last thing I want is for somebody to come in here and get sick. Then we have to close and we have to do all these steps and processes, and someone can die. It's not worth it for what we're serving for food, and that's black and white. There's nothing around that. It's just, going out to eat is not worth dying."

But it's not something that is completely foreign to restaurant industry folks.

"There’s always been a high degree of the public’s health and safety that has come to mind when you’re in the food service industry," said Brady Williams of Canlis. "Sanitation, cleanliness, all those things are paramount and we’re super aware of it because we have to be, but in a public health crisis, when there’s a huge light or magnifying glass on you during this time. So, it has to be the first thing you think about when you show up to work every day. But also how you conduct yourself away from work too."

That magnifying glass can be exhausting.

"We’re already playing this game," said Mark Canlis. "Saying to your staff 'Look, when you go home, everything you do is going to come back to us 8 in the morning. So you better think twice about that'. They’ve done an incredible job – I’m so proud of them. But, I think that adds to a level of exhaustion."

Exhausting - and anxiety inducing.

"For me, it feels like there's an anxiety to it," said Erickson. "An anxiety to constantly be cleaning and not touching surfaces and an anxiety of monitoring what other people are doing too. Guests are leaning on stuff and it's normal, it's not like anyone is maliciously trying to get you sick, it's just how we live in the world. I don't know, I think that's the questions we're going to have to ask ourselves, whatever it ends up looking like, do we want to do it?"

That's one of the main questions the people I talked to were asking themselves, when determining when they would consider re-opening.

"We don't want to open at this moment because we don't know what is going to happen in the fall season too," said Perfecte Rocher of Tarsan I Jane. "If something happens, we are not ready for another challenge like that. We will close the restaurant. That is the reality. We don't have investors like other restaurants. We invested all our money back and went from 60 seats to 50, 40, 30, 20, three renovations. A lot of work to get to this point. We don't have another opportunity to fail. If we fail, buh bye. Maybe [I'll] become an Uber driver or something."

Chapter 3: Service Won't be the Same

With limited capacity and no bar service, at least temporarily, restaurants will need to figure out ways to make up for that lost revenue, which means diners may have to get used to the idea of ordering their meal before they ever walk through the door.

"If someone says your restaurant can only be at 50% capacity then you need to maximize your [table] turns as fast as possible," said Edouardo Jordan of Salare. "So you might have only a 45 minute time period to sit down and dine outside your home in a restaurant. Food might not be coursed out anymore because it's coming all at once just to meet that timetable so you can turn that table three times in a day. The amount of interactions that happen [at the table] might change too."

It's all about diminishing the contact points.

"It's most likely what we'll end up doing is some sort of prix fixe experience to start where you've ordered your food in advance, you've probably paid for it in advance," said John Sundstrom of Lark. "There may be some options for extras like if you decide you want a cocktail or dessert or something, but the idea would be to take out as many of those interactions where you have to drop a new menu or have someone stand at the table and ask you questions or answer questions."

That includes paying and ordering.

"Frankly, I think we're looking at a phone service where even if you're in-house, you order on your phone, you pay on your phone and we bring you the food," said Douglas. "So those are the kind of things that are going to be available to us in the near future that we're going to have to figure out. We can eliminate so much of the interaction and still have the camaraderie of service and of neighborhood and all the fun part of being in a restaurant."

It definitely changes the experience and camaraderie we're used to when going out for a meal.

"There's the whole issue of what does that even look like? We can buy good looking cloth masks, but still, having a server come up to your table and try to talk to you through a mask, that doesn't sound like a real lovely anniversary dinner experience or whatever it is," said Sundstrom. "So, there's a lot of little tricky parts like that, that are going to feel different, look different and we want to do in a way that is welcoming, elegant, all of that, but I think that's going to be tricky to figure out."

There's an important distinction to make there, though.

"I would say service is going to be different. Hospitality will not," said Canlis. "Hospitality is the way we make you feel. Hospitality is how much I care and you can smell the difference a hundred feet away of someone who cares and someone who doesn’t. We all have that within us. So, I think it’s like, you can tell when someone is smiling underneath a mask, you can see it in their eyes. That will never change. I think that you’re going to have this outpouring of hospitality. You’ve got a whole army of restaurant industry people pent up, who get filled up just serving and loving on people and so that’s just going to be poured out when we turn the economy back on."

Chapter 4: The Cost of Dining Out

As an industry, restaurants are usually reticent to raise prices for fear of sticker shock, but with capacity at least temporarily limited, and additional expenses like personal protective equipment for staff, there's a chance it will cost more to eat at a restaurant even if the cost of your entree doesn't go up.

"I’m not going to say food is actually going to cost more, but the act of going to dine might cost more," said Jordan. "There might be service charges that are not typical. I talked to a few chefs and one example might be an actual COVID-19 service charge in the sense that 10% might be added for the fact that we have to now source and try to find sanitizer stations where people can sanitize their hands. Are we offering gloves to guests? How many masks can we actually procure for our staff? All of that costs. All of these new procedures are going to cost. So there’s an added procedure that we’re going to have to actually pass on because the restaurant industry was already fragile."

More safety measures could inherently mean more cost.

"Yeah, food will cost more. If you were to take the safety part of it out, the cost of food is going to go up," said Erickson. "We're going to have less farmers farming. Nothing is going to be cheaper after this, I don't think."

But not everyone agrees.

"I don't think [it will cost more to eat out] and the number one reason why is restaurants were getting priced out," said Douglas. "High-end restaurants were already getting priced out of the marketplace. You don't have to go to a high-end restaurant to get a delicious meal. A high-end restaurant is more about tablecloths and atmosphere, or not. So, I think the consumer was already phasing out high-end fine dining as a regular option. I don't think that will change...I know 75% of Seattleites still have jobs and well-paying jobs, but there's a lot of people who won't have funds, the discretionary funds, when this is all over to eat out in restaurants, or at least fancy restaurants."

Like everything else involving COVID-19 right now, the answers and next steps are unclear.

"I don't know yet. I mean the easy answer is yes, [the cost] probably does [go up], but we don't know how much, we don't know when," said Brian Clevenger. "Those things will be determined. If we're at half capacity how to do we make up that extra loss? The easy answer is cost of product, right? So, we're going to look at other avenues instead of that, but I'm willing to bet a common theme, not just in Seattle restaurants, restaurants in general that have capacity restrictions, they're going to have to do something."

So what else can restaurants do? One option, providing value to customers in other ways.

"It all starts with value, if your guests feel value, and this whole value equation now equals safety, where maybe it hasn't before," said Clevenger. "So now you have to put this safety factor, which we've always had it just maybe hasn't been acknowledged by all of our guests because it's not something we've put at the forefront, that's now something that's in that factor of value. What is the guest receiving when they're dining with us? Now at the forefront is safety, maybe followed by experience and food. We have to account for that."

For some chefs, that means changing the way a restaurant operates. Take for instance, Brendan McGill's Bainbridge Island institution, Hitchcock.

"One of the options we're exploring there that might be kind of left field or going in the opposite direction of the way most people are actually pivoting - is to actually make it a chef's tasting only," said McGill. "In some ways we're offering a greater luxury by saying instead of 50 people in this room, there's 20 people in this room. You guys have it all to yourselves. So, maybe there is a future where people will be paying for the luxury of not being within ten feet of anybody. We'll see if the consumer understands that value and is ready to pick up the tab for it."

Tarsan I Jane earned four stars from the Seattle Times for its gorgeous tasting menus, but with just ten seats, all at a chef's counter, owners Perfecte and Alia Rocher are considering other options for their dining room.

"Our guests have been so awesome," said Alia. "The greatest reward in having Tarsan I Jane are those connections we established. And that's I think - that broke our hearts when we decided to close temporarily. But we're talking about how we can do this in a way that makes sense. We talked about the idea of private dining in the space. Special bookings that we could manage rather than keeping a [reservation] schedule out on a consistent basis and have those fluctuations.

What this means, potentially, is a restaurant scene that skews predominantly in two directions: fast casual and high-end. While there will be exceptions, the restaurants that could be most effected are those that fall in the middle. The places most folks go just to grab a quick bite.

"That's precisely the way it's going to effect our [restaurant] group," said McGill. "With your little 50-seat neighborhood restaurant that built its model on being busy all the time and kind of has to be full of people to offer what they offer, if you're only half as full you can't have a team of professionals who have great experiences working at top restaurants across the country, working hard to gather the little special foods of the Northwest, and make something memorable. It's not going to be competitive price wise with - you're going to have to pay for the premium."

"Right now bar seating will probably not be allowed," said Sundstrum. "So, I can think of several regulars, that's their thing. They would come in on Friday night and just sit at the bar, whether it's a couple or a single, and have that interaction with their favorite bartender. They might order a couple glasses of wine, some oysters and some pasta. It's casual, but it's a great experience. Those kind fo people, I think it will be hard for them to find the experience they so looked forward to. Other folks will be okay."

With the loss of the dining out option, many people are getting reacquainted (happily or not) with their own kitchens.

"I also think people have enjoyed getting back in the kitchen, from the ones I've talked to," said Douglas. "Yeah, they're excited to get back in a restaurant, but how much more often? Everyone wants to go out but do they need to go out six nights a week? I've talked to people who have literally re-trained themselves how to cook and are loving it."

Chapter 5: Takeout is Here to Stay

Historically, restaurants have operated with slim margins. Even the most successful ones often don't make enough to save money for tough times. Now, with capacity restrictions, and no bar seating for the foreseeable future, restaurants may have to offer more than just dine-in service in order to survive.

Rene Redzepi is almost universally considered one of the world's great chefs. His restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen has reached number one in the world rankings four times. During a recent interview on the podcast Take Away Only, Redzepi made it clear restaurants need to find alternate revenue stream in order to ensure financial stability.

"His comment was really smart," said Erickson. "He was asked if he needed to open Noma Ferment or Noma Pizza, and he was like 'I should've opened it five years ago'. I think that's a really true statement. We've all seen how fragile restaurants are and we have not had an infrastructure that allowed us to save money for s***** times. We need that."

When Noma did re-open recently, it did so, at least temporarily, as an outdoor burger joint and wine bar. Closer to home in Seattle, Canlis' Drive-Thru turned out some thousand burgers a day before the restaurant transitioned to its ultra-popular family meal delivery. Even when Canlis can welcome diners inside again, their delivery service will likely continue.

"I think that there are some lessons learned from this time and I think there’s some elements of what we’re doing that we’ll continue to do," said Canlis chef Brady Williams. "People want an enriched home experience and they feel safe in their homes so I can see takeout and delivery continuing to be a portion of what we do, especially as you’re not allowed to gather in larger groups anymore so a whole portion of our restaurant, private dining, is going to be affected by that."

"Private parties of 70 just ain’t going to be the thing when we turn the economy back on so we’re going to have to think creatively," said Canlis. "I think that’s what’s cool about this season, actually. Everything is up for renegotiation."

A number of chefs I talked to admitted they fought against offering takeout in the past. Why? Making food that actually tastes good after sitting in a cardboard box is a real challenge.

"The best that food is going to get is immediately when you turn the heat off on that sauce pan," said Clevenger. "That's as good as it's going to get. Every minute after that, it's what we say dying. It's getting worse and worse."

Clevenger is the chef and owner of General Harvest Restaurants. He believes the new reality for his restaurant group will focus heavily on takeout.

"I'll admit it, I've never been great about to-go stuff. I've always fought it. I didn't think it traveled well. I hated the idea of it in a microwave, eating leftovers. Blah, blah, blah," he said. "Ultimately, if that's what the guest wants, to eat something at home, who am I to tell them no? That's really unfair. So what do I need to do? I need to come up to that challenge and say, 'they want food to-go, I'm going to give them the best freaking experience they've had'. If you take that approach you'll be fine. It's not about reinventing who you are. It's about understanding what the guest wants and that changes."

While takeout is one option to generate additional revenue, it's certainly not the only one. Tarsan I Jane went from offering 20-plus course tasting menus to experiential dining at home.

"We decided to do these takeaway experiences. We're calling it the Foolproof Paella Meal Kit," said Alia. "We foresee doing this for some time because we think there is always going to be that need for something cool at home."

At least in the immediate future, 'going out' won't be the normal - it will be seen as a special night out, a much bigger deal than it used to.

"I do think longterm, as people tend to work more permanently from home, that experiential dining will be the normal," said Douglas. "We already saw it at Hot Stove Society where we couldn't keep up with the demand of people wanting to get together and gather as a group and share an experience that was work-related, yet still a ball and team building."

At Ballard's addo, chef and owner Eric Rivera is known for his dining experiences, elaborate multi-course menus, often with fun, crowd-pleasing themes. Now, he provides guests with...whatever they need.

"You have to create channels within your business in order for [guests] to buy from you multiple times," he said. "You essentially have to be something from the bottom end, a convenience store, a grocery store, a restaurant and then the delivery aspect and plus, plus, plus. We have some guests who like a little bit of luxury. We have a lot more that are in the middle range, but we also have people who are very conscious or are on a fixed income now with unemployment or whatever else. So I'm very conscious of that too. I can't sell them a $65 thing, I have to sell them a $9-$10 thing and be very competitive in what they're willing to spend for lunch or dinner. I don't necessarily want to do all the things we're doing right now because it's very expansive, but if we're getting the sales it's our job to execute and give that to the guest because that's what they want. So, it's a very different mentality of hospitality."

Chapter 6: Innovation and Re-Invention

Restaurants move at a breakneck pace, but suddenly, a couple months ago, everything got turned upside down. Now the industry is forced to grapple with a new reality. Amidst the pain and hardship, comes an opportunity to re-invent.

"I mean we didn't want to do this. This is not enjoyable, but there are a lot of good things that will come out of it," said Erickson. "I hope it will change the reputation of the industry, how the service team is rewarded. I don't know that. It's so much about what my new favorite dish is going to be, but how we build a better system for restaurants to work within and how we keep providing for our community, but under rules we get to define or at least slowly change."

For some that means breaking old habits and trying new things, because now there's no pressure to do anything permanent.

"I think that now we've broken it all the way down and what comes back out of those ashes will be leaner and stronger," said McGill. "In some ways it's taking us back to our roots, pop-ups and experimental things. 'I'm just going to make some bagels and go driving around with them'. That used to be so juvenile. It was what you did before you were a 'real' restaurant chef. Now, that's what we all have to do to keep our restaurants open."

For others, innovation is born out of the fight for survival.

"It's both sides of the pendulum. I think it's very exciting to reinvent, to invent, to innovate," said Jordan. "To change the things that didn't work in our industry. To bolster some of the things that did work and try to implement all the good in our industry so we can figure it out. But, the added weight is the fact we're trying to survive right now, which is the heavier weight. So, I'm excited about the things that need to come into play like innovating our infrastructure for website, getting our product in other hands, catering special events and things of that nature. Things that we’ve already been thinking about but we know we need to implement now, I’m excited about that, but getting to there is a little hard and a little heavy. But there is some good in the sense that we are being creative minds again, innovative and scrappy as hell."

What will our restaurant scene look like a year from now? We know it'll be different, but beyond that the future is unknown. Chefs and restauranteurs, big and small, now have a chance to pave a new way forward, because Seattle is a city that loves to eat, that wants to dine, and this is an industry built on something simple, a love of feeding people. It's also an industry that is up to the challenge.

"I think those of us who are in business or those of us who have the opportunity to start rebuilding small pieces of this town, that’s what we’re looking at," said Canlis. "It's okay – going back to normal is not the plan. Let’s build the city we love to be in. Let’s build a restaurant we’re super proud of. So yeah, I’m hopeful for the future. I absolutely am. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, but no one in the restaurant business signed up for easy, I can promise you that. I think we’ve got this."

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