Here’s what I want for 2021.
I want a hot, freshly prepared meal served inside a comfortable restaurant at an intimate table with friends. I want to linger on a bar stool with a glass of wine and an appetizer, chatting with a friendly bartender. I want to eat something entirely new, served with care and style on a plate, not out of a compostable cardboard box.
I want to take my grandchildren to their favorite hamburger joint where they can talk too loudly, eat greasy French fries dipped in puddles of ketchup and watch random sports on TV.
I want someone else to do the grocery shopping, the meal-planning, the cooking and the dishes.
Is that so much to ask?
Well, maybe. At least for a while.
“Anybody who is trying to predict the next six months in the restaurant industry is wasting his breath,” said John Imbergamo, a long-time consultant to Denver restaurants such as Rioja, Stoic & Genuine and the dearly departed Racines. “I’m not Nostradamus.”
Business plans and budgets are generally based on historic trends, he explained, “and there’s no previous history for what’s happening right now.”
What’s happening is a catastrophe.
Restaurants have closed permanently or have been reduced to outdoor dining, shorter hours or takeout only. Leagues of waiters, chefs, dishwashers and hosts have lost their jobs.
Suppliers have been ravaged. Everyone from the workers at linen services to the lobstermen who provide the food for those anniversary dinners have been affected. Landlords aren’t collecting rent from vacant restaurant spaces. Cleaning services have gone belly-up.
“Even my dry cleaner said he had a brief increase in business when the restaurants reopened” temporarily in May, Imbergamo said.
After all, you don’t need a freshly pressed shirt to eat pizza at home in front of the TV.
January likely will be the darkest month in the coming year for restaurateurs.
It’s generally a dog in the restaurant biz, Imbergamo said. After people splurge over the holidays and the icy weather makes people reluctant to venture out, traffic to restaurants slides. Several of the survivors are closing during January to mitigate losses as they brace themselves for more months of coronavirus limitations and what most likely will be a slow post-vaccination recovery phase.
Many can’t hang on much longer.
The financial reserves they may have had a year ago are long gone, Imbergamo said. Federal support from the Paycheck Protection Program of the spring has been exhausted, and new support is less generous and slow in coming. Desperation is mounting.
The toll is breathtaking.
Laura Shunk of the Colorado Restaurant Association said 73% of restaurateurs say they will have to shut their businesses if indoor dining is limited to 25% of capacity for six more months. And this is after the loss of Acorn, 12 at Madison, Ambli Mexico, Brasserie 10, Euclid Hall, Gozo, The Med, Pete’s Greek Town Café, Vesta and on and on.
Compared to a year ago, Colorado has 63,450 fewer jobs in the restaurant industry, a business in which roughly one-third of Americans get their first jobs.
When restaurants eventually do make a comeback, a lot of things will be different. A lot of hard lessons have been learned.
Staffing levels have plummeted during the pandemic with surviving restaurants making do with fewer workers at every level.
“I think that will outlast the virus,” Imbergamo said. “They learned you can do a lot with fewer people. You don’t do that until you have to and you prove you can.”
Chefs turned their creativity to meeting the challenges before them and created some excellent dishes that hold up well for takeout and delivery.
“Those might survive the pandemic if office workers ever return,” Imbergamo said. “They’ll make terrific takeout lunch dishes.”
The hugely popular expanded sidewalk and patio dining likely will continue, giving restaurants more seating, at least during decent weather.
And, he said, a lot of vacant restaurant spaces will be available – likely at much lower rents than before the pandemic – for creative young chefs to take a chance to innovate and breathe new energy into a restaurant scene on life support.
For those of us who remember that night we decided to get married over a bowl of mushroom risotto, the old friend we often see at the neighborhood sushi place, taco Tuesdays, po’boy sandwiches, oysters on the half shell, Vietnamese noodle bowls, chicken shawarma, huevos rancheros and, OMG, the eggplant buns at Uncle, there will be pent-up demand when the pandemic tide turns and we can go out to eat again.
Until then, I’ll keep cooking, sharing beers and tamales around the fire pit, and over-tipping on those occasions when I get takeout.
Sometime this year we’ll go back inside the restaurants with friends – and confidence in our personal safety.
It’s getting close, so close I can almost taste it.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.