Quick-service restaurants (QSRs), fast casual eateries and fast-food drive-thrus keep dominating headlines throughout the pandemic as a nation is understandably obsessed with staying fed on lockdown and after, when breathing the open air still feels oddly risky.
Forget dining out with strangers — even fancy strangers — no matter what’s on the menu.
Perhaps that’s why less is being heard about the fine dining full-service restaurant (FSR) sector, which, reliant as it is on full dining rooms and expensive dishes, has bigger fish to filet now.
And they are. As American gastronomy has expanded and evolved over the past 30 years, the era of the celebrity chef was ushered in. Their mesmerizing creativity carries entire television franchises (witness Top Chef, Iron Chef, The Great British Baking Show), and the chef’s prized penchant for creativity in food (and business) are merging to rescue fine dining experiences.
A Tasting Menu Of Creative Approaches
Always at the head of the pack is Chef Thomas Keller, whose award-winning French Laundry in Yountville, California is a mecca of foodies worldwide. This week Keller unveiled his post-pandemic plan. As reported by Eater San Francisco, “the restaurant announced Wednesday (Sept. 3) that for only $850 per person, parties of up to eight people can book a solitary table inside one of the French Laundry’s three dining rooms.”
Eater also noted that “Only three tables are available at any given time for the experience,” and that it’s pay-in-advance to secure Keller’s post-pandemic epicurean splurge.
After cherished Boston dining spot, Stella, closed its doors due to pandemic losses, chef and owner Evan Deluty couldn’t let the dream die — or his heavenly preparations disappear — and has reinvented Stella as a gourmet food truck.
Deluty told Boston.com, “I’m not into opening a brick and mortar right now. I think most people are trying to lay low and [are in] survival mode.” It’s also a shrewd, low-overhead way to keep the brand active and foodies engaged until the COVID nightmare blows over.
Others are taking it outdoors, where people tend to feel safer than in enclosed spaces these days. Bon Appetit reported on a variety of restaurant responses to COVID, including that of Portland, Oregon’s popular upscale Russian dining establishment, Kachka.
Chef and owner Bonnie Morales told Bon Appetit, “I knew reopening a pandemic-friendly version of Kachka was not going to be feasible. We want to take you to a Russian dinner party in my grandma’s living room, where it’s going to be boisterous and energetic. There’s no way to translate that feeling to an open-air parking lot. So on June 26, we opened Kachka Alfresca, an outdoor '90s-inspired cabana-themed outdoor party.”
Chefs all over the nation have been serving up solutions to COVID-era fine dining as limited on-premise service is slowly phased in. It started outdoors on June 22 in Boston, for example, with parts of the city and surrounding suburbs commandeering sidewalks for café seating.
But, as reported in Edible Boston, folks like Peter Davis of Henrietta's Table in the Charles Hotel, Harvard Square, is awaiting final-final CDC guidance before making moves in a volatile environment. He’s used their kitchens to kept first-responders fed, but as for the big comeback of indoor fine dining, Davis said, “We all need to do our part. This is not easy for anyone worldwide. Suck it up and figure out what role you can play to get back to some normalcy.”
In New York City, still considered the epicenter of COVID infection in the U.S. and on high alert that’s keeping dine-in off the menu for now, mobile order-ahead (MOA) is coming the aid of a number of gourmet restaurants via the new mobile app Seated, which delivers bookings for Manhattan’s upscale eateries, maintaining a vital flow of dine-in customers.
PYMNTS spoke to Seated Founder Brice Gumpel, who said, “The idea [for Seated] was definitely born out of helping restaurants and being a demand-generation and profit-maximization partner. We very much view ourselves as a restaurant-first business, but in order to help restaurants, we need consumers. That's why we talk about ourselves as a consumer platform.”
Other celebrity chefs are doing their part to simply do what they do best and feed people until their meticulously crafted dining experiences can be enjoyed once again.
New Seating Arrangements And Moveable Feasts
A great many fine dining establishments are looking to the CDC for a green-light to reopen their dining rooms and get back to work. But the mishmash of federal, state and local ordinances governing the food service industry is making things harder for beset chef-owners.
In its July 17 update, CDC’s updated guidance for restaurants stated that any plans to accommodate dining indoors or out, “should be guided by what is feasible, practical, acceptable, and tailored to the needs of each community. These considerations are meant to supplement — not replace — any state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations with which businesses must comply.”
There’s no mistaking the hit that haute cuisine is taking due to COVID. As celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck told CNBC on July 10, upscale restaurants are “… going to stay closed, because they ran out of money and the landlords are evicting them and so forth. So it’s really a tough time.” Pucks believes one-quarter of small U.S. restaurants will never reopen.
As PYMNTS recently reported, “Projections based on PYMNTS research estimate that 53.6 million of the 156.6 million Americans who are dining at eateries less frequently plan to make restaurant orders from their residences more often. But another 24.7 million are simply done with dining in restaurants altogether even after the pandemic passes.”