How are restaurants and nightlife adapting to the pandemic?

Joining CUI host Mary W. Rowe for our ongoing series of candid conversations – How are restaurants and nightlife adapting to the pandemic? – are Alicia Scholer, Vice President of the Responsible Hospitality Institute; Matt Webber, owner of Berkeley North; Patrick Watt, Senior Partner, Foodservice and Strategy Expert at J.C. Williams Group; Chef Vikram Vij, owner at Vij’s Restaurants group; and Wendy Nicolay, co-owner of Cascade Restaurant Group. 

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. Food as community

Food brings people together, and restaurants have long been spaces to gather, facilitate relationships, and build community. The impact of COVID in the restaurant industry has therefore not only been financial, but also social. Restaurants contribute to the vibrancy of our streets, to creating sociable cities. They are opened to be full and bustling, not largely empty. Institutions in hospitality have been shuttering their doors, which is a hit to our communities. Going forward, making customers feel safe and secure will be a key part of creating a positive customer experience.

2. The essential role of takeout

Takeout has been an essential part of the restaurant industry’s ability to survive during the pandemic, but has come with its own set of challenges. While some restaurants are well equipped and experienced with preparing food to go, others have had to shift on a dime. Menus have had to be adapted. Demand for takeout follows different timing patterns than on site dining generally does, not necessarily congregating around lunch and dinner time. Joining delivery apps has significant financial implications. And there is a significant long-term environmental impact of waste creation at this scale.

3. The adaptation of public space and importance of accessibility

The extension of patios in public space is key to allowing restaurants to operate at capacity, and different climates will face different challenges moving forward as the weather changes. While building a patio is a relatively affordable adaptation, providing heating is not. Changes to allow us to go out safely are happening fast, but they must prioritize accessibility. Visually impaired individuals may depend on memorized street layouts to navigate; changes to public space can be jarring. Adaptations must ensure access for wheelchairs and strollers and not exacerbate accessibility challenges. Closing roads entirely impacts who can access spaces.

4. The unique challenges of nightlife

Nightlife has been completely decimated by Covid; going forward will require a broadening of the idea of nightlife. Cities with nighttime organizations or night mayors have been the most successful at creating relief initiatives. Extensions into public space and loosened alcohol restrictions have been key, but aren’t an option for venues that don’t have food service, such as live music venues and dance clubs. The creativity of the nighttime economy has been and will be essential for its recovery. In some areas, bars have been reopened only to be forced to close again – this start and stop approach has been challenging.

5. The importance of collaboration for new policy solutions

Governmental support has been essential for restaurants and their staff during this time, and will continue to be as they rebuild. There is a need for landlords, business owners, and governments to come to the table and work together to ensure that businesses are able to survive. The push to remove red tape and make things happen has brought about some changes that have been pushed for years. Cities purchasing music venues, offering tax relief, capping takeout delivery fees, and changing alcohol regulations are examples of solutions coming out of this time. Collaboration must continue to occur.