It’s not news that adversity breeds innovation. But it’s been a long time since the restaurant business has had to rethink its plans quite the way that it has since the COVID-19 pandemic hit our area in March. And no one is in a better position to see how restaurants are adapting than Kathy Hollinger. She’s the president and CEO of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, or RAMW. RAMW is the trade organization for restaurateurs and food service workers in our region. It is celebrating its centennial this year.
“Restaurant operators are typically in-the-moment thinkers because they are having to juggle so much already outside the pandemic. They are wearing many hats and playing so many roles as operators,” Hollinger says. But the new situation is causing restaurateurs to pause and think about the future.
Many restaurants reopened with primarily or exclusively outdoor seating, as scientists agree that the risk of eating outdoors is far less severe than dining inside a restaurant that may or may not have proper ventilation. What will restaurants do to survive when there’s snow on the ground?
“It’s a concern, but there’s also a willingness of elected officials to help,” says Hollinger. “Outdoor space can be extended because it has to be extended.” How do they do it? Expect more canopies and heaters to help make outdoor dining plausible even during puffy coat season. Other restaurants may spend their money on getting a ventilation system that guarantees an experience inside almost as safe as dining outdoors.
But Hollinger says that the greatest change businesses are making is a focus on takeout of different kinds. Family meals have gained popularity—Hollinger says she’s especially impressed with the model at Liberty Tavern in Arlington, where daily specials range from lasagna to steak frites. Cocktails to go, either with the ingredients to combine together at home or the whole thing already mixed in a pouch, have been a boon to many businesses, too.
Others, like Founding Farmers in Reston and Caboose Commons in Fairfax, began selling groceries at the start of the pandemic, before restaurants were able to reopen. Should food businesses have to close again, Hollinger suggests that this is a wonderful model to keep businesses afloat. Because eateries are working directly with their suppliers, they are able to source fun produce, meat and other ingredients customers can’t just find at the supermarket. There are also restaurants that have boosted business by selling their own homemade products, like the Taco Bamba chain’s line of sauces.
But ultimately, this won’t save everybody. “We’re seeing a 65% increase in metropolitan area closings compared to last year,” Hollinger states. “It’s almost beyond unfair.” She adds that whether it’s temporary or permanent, some experts believe that 25% of restaurants will close due to the pandemic.
Still, restaurants are continuing to open. Many of them were slated to debut in the spring and had to postpone their openings. Hollinger expects that a lot of restaurants that will open in the coming months will be fast-casual with a robust plan for takeout business or ghost kitchens—facilities like Great American Restaurants’ Taqueria Loca, which has locations that are focused exclusively on takeout and delivery.
In a way, the pandemic may create one of the most exciting times to dine we’ve ever experienced. Fresh ideas are plentiful. But restaurants need customers. “We are really now in a position to challenge ourselves as a region knowing we are a highly supported foodie destination where diners want to find ways of supporting small-business operators,” Hollinger says. Why not order in (or dine out) tonight?