During this pandemic, restaurants have no longer been able to perform their role as social and cultural hubs. Even when they reopen, they may not function as they did in the past. CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta talks to industry experts about the future of dining.
You can listen on your favorite podcast app or read the transcript below.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Whether it’s a beloved local diner or a special destination booked months in advance, dining out has always had a special role in our culture, in every culture. We go to restaurants to celebrate, catch up, to explore, meet new people, be in a new environment. It’s often how we connect.
But, of all the places we like to gather now shut down by this pandemic, restaurants are also some of the hardest hit. So today we’re going to talk to people in the industry — the chefs, the restaurateurs — to find out what they’re trying to do to survive. For them, for us, for everyone.
I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent. And this is “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction.”
David Chang, founder and chef, Momofuku Group: Restaurants sort of bottle the zeitgeist. They’re community, and it’s where people celebrate. And it’s not just about eating.
Gupta: That’s David Chang. He’s a chef and the founder of the Momofuku Group, which has restaurants around the world. He’s also the host of the Netflix show “Ugly Delicious.”
Chang: If food establishments weren’t important, people wouldn’t want it so badly. There’s just something that is a connection to, I think, just being human. Besides tasting delicious foods.
Gupta: Chang calls restaurants “cultural banks” and worries about the erosion this pandemic has had on all aspects of the dining experience.
Chang: We literally take 90 percent of our cash flow and we give it back to everybody else, on top of trying to make, you know, delicious food and build organizations, however small they might be.
No one gets in this business, at least that I admire, so they can make a ton of money. They do it because of the life and the, the sort of the positive impact you can have both on yourself and others around you. You take that away … that’s gonna be pretty brutal.
Gupta: Closing his restaurants in March was extremely difficult. He had to furlough around 800 workers and, this week, decided to close two of his restaurants.
Reopening others may be even harder.
Chang: You have to reconfigure literally every decision of how you operate in a restaurant, which was hard enough to begin with. How do you taste food? How do you order food? How do you sanitize now? How do you do contactless delivery? Do you even allow transaction via credit cards anymore? So now you — there’s like all of these things now that are going to be expensive.
Gupta: Chang doesn’t have the answers yet, but he thinks he knows what it’s going to take to find them.
Chang: I just think that we’re gonna need some ingenuity and some creativity to sort of align some mutual problems that we have in this country, particularly in the food space, and sort of reconfigure how this all works.
Gupta: On his Twitter feed, Chang has also been asking people to send him photos of reopened restaurants in cities like Taipei and Hong Kong. It’s fascinating to look at them.
Some of the photos show pulley systems delivering coffee, temperature checks at the door and customers even receiving full-body disinfectant sprays. Don’t worry — with their clothes on.
To many, these measures may seem a little over the top.
Chang: The common thread is we have to actually make the impossible happen. And — and that gives me optimism. It really, genuinely does, because these kinds of impossible tasks that sort of hurt my brain are what I’m most attracted to.
And we can’t have anyone working off a different playbook. Everyone needs to be working off the same playbook, every restaurant, every business.
Gupta: In the absence of a so-called restaurant playbook, the National Restaurant Association, which is a lobbying group, is doing what it can to try and offer some guidelines for reopening.
Larry Lynch, senior vice president of science and industry, National Restaurant Association: Obviously frequent handwashing, some element of distancing, some element of face coverings, certainly reduced interaction between the host and the guests.
Gupta: That’s Larry Lynch, senior vice president of science and industry at the National Restaurant Association. Lynch said it’s already begun. Restaurants are already testing out new methods.
Lynch: Everyone’s looking at this in different ways. Just this weekend, we saw one of the towns here in Florida close down one of their streets so the restaurateurs could pull the chairs out into the street.
Gupta: If you’re used to going out as being a curated dining experience, Lynch describes the post-pandemic world as sort of a safety-focused obstacle course.
Lynch: I would say what you’re probably going to find is before you get there, you’re going to look online and look what the instructions are from that particular restaurant or what their expectations are. It may tell you to wait outside. It may ask you to place your order online. It may tell you that once you get outside, send them a text and let them know you’re outside and wait.
Once you’re inside, you may wait a bit before the waiter or waitress actually comes up and greets you. That greeting may be something as simple as confirming your order rather than taking your order.
Once you dine, you may find that your table isn’t cleared as fast as it was in the past. It’s going to be cleared all at once rather than sporadically during the dining experience. When you’re done, you probably won’t see the manager come over to ask how your meal was and whether or not you enjoyed yourself.
Gupta: Restaurants are going to have to tailor safety measures to suit their capabilities. And it’s possible not everyone can physically accommodate these recommendations.
For example, Irene Li doesn’t see her Boston restaurant Mei Mei hosting sit-in diners any time soon.
Irene Li, co-founder, proprietor and chef, Mei Mei: We’re a small restaurant, so we have about 36 seats, which means the possibility of socially distancing inside the building is basically none.
Gupta: But Li, who is a finalist for this year’s James Beard Rising Star Chef award, has still managed to find a silver lining.
Li: We are pretty much going to have to change our whole model, which sounds scary, but is also a really exciting opportunity. So how do we reimagine what a restaurant can be, what a restaurant can do? What restaurant staff are capable of?
Gupta: Li and her employees are already starting to answer those questions. For example, Mei Mei is open for delivery, and is also hosting virutal dumpling classes.
The restaurant is delivering groceries to health care workers and selling pantry staples to the community, like milk and eggs. The goal? To help her customers avoid the grocery store.
Li: Because I think supermarkets are going to feel unsafe for a lot of people for a long time. And I just think, like, we have the ability to get almost any of those products probably at a better price at Mei Mei.
And so it would be kind of unconscionable to not try to use that to help keep people safer and to make their lives more convenient.
Gupta: Li is taking this time to rethink how a restaurant should operate. And she’s hoping the industry as a whole does the same. Especially in the areas where it was struggling even before the pandemic.
Li: I think that this is a huge opportunity for us to keep talking about the biggest issue that our industry has, which is labor. The issue of jobs and low wages and, like, terrible workplace environments, that has always been the bane of this industry.
And I am hoping that the compensation model could be altered, and cross-training could become more prevalent.
Gupta: But that’s the long term. In the short term, Li is preoccupied with just keeping Mei Mei afloat. Even though she says the survival of the restaurant isn’t her biggest concern.
Li: If Mei Mei doesn’t exist in five or 10 years, that’s totally fine with me. I’m gonna be really pissed off if there are no cool, independently owned quirky restaurants to eat at. Like I cannot eat Chipotle every day. I refuse. And so I think that for me, the question about Mei Mei’s future is almost a little bit less important, but for a lot of people this industry is all we have.
Gupta: One thing I’ve learned is that the restaurant industry is full of dedicated, creative leaders. And as someone who enjoys dining out, I’m optimistic they’re going to find ways to meet the challenges ahead and keep this important part of our culture alive.
It’s definitely going to be an uphill battle. But I’m going to do what I can to support my favorite places with takeout orders and contributions to out-of-work employees. They could really use the help.
We’ll be back tomorrow. Thanks for listening.