Once the foodservice industry re-emerges from the coronavirus shutdowns, it will be changed forever. How does the industry make sure the change is for the better?
Chefs and food media tackled that question in a July 22 session at the Produce Marketing Association’s Foodservice: Delivered virtual conference.
“What this pandemic has done, is it’s taken 10 years worth of technology, and we’ve had to adapt to it in five to six weeks. It’s brought the restaurant to you, in your home. And that’s here to stay,” said panelist Alpana Singh, master sommelier and restaurateur of Terra and Vine, Evanston, Ill., and host of Check, Please! on WTTW Channel 11 in Chicago.
In the same way that the welfare of farmworkers is gaining more attention during the pandemic, the treatment of restaurant staff is also finding a spotlight, said panelist Khushbu Shah, restaurant editor at Food & Wine Magazine.
Media is moving away from lionizing chefs, she said.
“It’s not just, are you sourcing your food well, but are treating your staff well? Are you giving back to your community?” Shah said.
Food magazines are also looking internally at the cuisine they feature and the makeup of their staff, said Shah, who is the only person of color at most of the Food & Wine Magazine staff meetings.
Don’t forget the purveyors, however.
Normally, World Central Kitchen is working in its own makeshift kitchen with local purveyors, said Chef Tim Kilcoyne, director of chef operations at the nonprofit organization which provides meals following natural disasters.
But with the coronavirus crisis, it’s a nationwide effort to assist 2,800 restaurants, providing more than 20 million meals so far.
“Everybody talks about restaurants, but everything starts with the purveyors. It’s important to keep them going — farmers and everybody,” Kilcoyne said. Restaurants, from Michelin-starred institutions to small mom-and-pops are “all on the same playing field with this crisis.”
Brian Canlis, owner of fine-dining restaurant Canlis in Seattle, turned his dining room staff of 40 into drivers.
The delivery-dinner waiting list grew so long, he transformed the whole operation into a “considered in-home dining” business.
He hides gifts in customers’ boxes, and created a live-stream musical show platform, with bingo on Fridays.
“It’s more of thinking, how can I deliver the same joy and surprise that I used to in my restaurant, in their home? It’s been really fun to be in people’s homes,” Canlis said.
Paola Velez, executive pastry chef of Maydan & Compass Rose in Washington, D.C., helped raised $1.8 million for Black Lives Matter and other organizations through a group she co-founded, Bakers Against Racism, and she advocates for diversity in workplaces.
“COVID-19 has restructured how everyone sees the whole operation behind the scenes. I don’t think that’s going to go away. We are going to restructure the restaurant industry from a place that’s barren,” Velez said.
Almost 90% of the food at Maydan & Compass Rose is sourced from mid-Atlantic farmers, most not more than 20 miles away — which is an especially difficult task now, she said.
“It’s important to me to sustain the communities around us,” Velez said.
Most of the panelists agreed that the foodservice industry comprises a huge portion of the U.S. gross domestic product, hovering around 4%, and it deserves a bailout just as much as other industries.
“I don’t think people’s lives should be endangered because they need a paycheck to survive,” Shah said. “The government needs to step up for people who feel they need to stay home to be safe.”
Canlis urged consumers and the government to support family- and minority-managed restaurants.
“People are scrapping right now. There’s a sad wave coming of so many small restaurants not coming back. Without government assistance, that’s going to get even worse,” Canlis said.
Velez emphasized how easy it can be for the foodservice industry to give back to a community, even while suffering financially.
“When we think about what it means to be in hospitality, it means to serve. This is a call to action. Think of ways to serve,” Velez said.
Shah also encouraged consumers to tip heavily whether they’re eating out or having it delivered to the home.
“People are literally putting their lives on the line for you to eat,” she said.