Luciana Giangrandi and Alex Meyer
Boia De

In Miami, chefs and business partners Luciana Giangrandi and Alex Meyer's restaurant, Boia De, only seats 27.

The Independent Restaurant Industry Will Never Look the Same

Small, locally owned restaurants may be down, but don’t count them out; these small operators are already redefining what it means to be full service.

If variety is the spice of life, then the restaurant industry packs an especially wide assortment, from full to limited service, from American staples to global cuisine, from large chains to small independent establishments. Of them all, the last group is arguably the most diverse. While multiunit brands often follow a model of replication and structure, independents are more likely to challenge the status quo by cultivating menus, dining rooms, and experiences that are singular to their operation alone.

In many ways, this latitude has been an asset during the dine-in bans; restaurant owners can make decisions on the fly and have a smaller system and staff to maneuver. At the same time, these operators lack the deep pockets and extensive resources of the larger players. And for this reason, concerns have surfaced as to whether independents will remain an integral part of the restaurant landscape once the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

Think fast

In the last three months alone, many restaurants—independent and chain, full and quick service—have already closed their businesses permanently. The one-of-a-kind mentality that so embodies the smaller, independent operators has also directed them through the coronavirus crisis. No two restaurants are taking the exact same approach, and it’s especially apparent in this sector. Nevertheless, they all seem to share an urgent drive to adapt.

“The way we know restaurants of the past is going to change immensely. Our service-oriented restaurants are not going to be so service-oriented, [from] the distance that we’re going to have to be from each other [to] how we serve food to how we deliver food,” says chef and restaurateur Edouardo Jordan. “I imagine we’re going to still have our same standards and practices—hopefully even better practices now. Full-service restaurants aren’t going to be the way they used to be, and time will tell what that really looks like.”

READ MORE: How many independent could close? It could be upward of 60,000 one report says

Based in Seattle, Jordan owns three restaurants, each of which has its own distinct cuisine and atmosphere. His most upscale concept, Salare, blends fare from the U.S. and Caribbean to Europe and Africa. The more casual JuneBaby celebrates the traditional cuisine of African Americans in the Southeast. And Lucinda Grain Bar is half craft bar and half light-bite restaurant.

As one of the first domestic cities to be struck by the coronavirus, Seattle went into lockdown in March. JuneBaby quickly transitioned to an off-premises operation since patrons were eager to bring the restaurant’s soulful, comforting fare into their homes, Jordan says. For the other two, the solution wasn’t so clear-cut.

Fine-dining Salare didn’t quite translate to carryout, and Lucinda’s was a bit too rooted in the bar to take the experience off-site. Instead, Jordan transformed Salare into a community kitchen in March as part of the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, which provides free meals to laid-off or furloughed foodservice employees.

At press time, several Washington counties (among them King county, which includes Seattle) were in a shaky limbo between phases 1 and 2 of reopening with public officials wavering on a specific date. The latter would permit restaurants, like Jordan’s trio, to seat guests at 50 percent capacity. For a smaller, independent operation, cutting foot traffic so drastically could give many owners little incentive to resume dine-in business.

“I didn’t open a business to go into debt, so I need to make sure that whatever we decide to do makes financial sense to survive,” Jordan says, adding that operating at half capacity simply wouldn’t be feasible. If and when regulations ratchet it up to 75 percent, then he’d explore the potential of reopening. Even before the coronavirus, Jordan had been considering making changes to Salare; though the restaurant would stick to its high standards and sourcing practices, it could relax the more formal, fine-dining atmosphere.

In Miami, chefs and business partners Luciana Giangrandi and Alex Meyer have faced a similar predicament with their restaurant, Boia De, which only seats 27. Any kind of capacity restriction makes the idea of reopening the dining room pointless, especially when the restaurant has adroitly parlayed its business to takeout.

Pinewood Kitchen + Mercantile

It’s important that we know each other and that our level of hospitality be personal. When times get hard, these are the relationships that weather the storms.” —Mee McCormick, Pinewood Kitchen

“I don’t think we’re basing our decision to open the dining room on the government mandate. Obviously that’s the greenlight to do it, but we’re not going to just hit the gas pedal right away. We’re going to try to take a look at the broader picture of things. Being in [Florida], there’s a big push to reopen the economy, but maybe that’s not the smartest thing to safeguard our employees and their health,” Meyer says. “And it’s a business decision. We can’t turn a profit with seven seats.”

Size may be to Boia De’s detriment for dine-in service, but it has been an asset in terms of maneuverability. The restaurant, which just marked its first anniversary in June, metamorphosed over the course of two days into an exclusively off-premises operation—no analytics reports to run, no hoops to jump through, Meyer says.

Boia De’s medley of high-end Italian dishes was distilled and tweaked to not only simplify back-of-house prep, but to also offer options that would travel well. So while items like the beef tartare (hanger steak, tonnato, shallot-garlic crumble) were ferried over to the takeout menu, others like the tortellini in brodo with duck consomme and foie were omitted.

Meyer and Giangrandi also added new items, plus one throwback hit, namely La Pollita Fried Chicken. Prior to opening Boia De, the duo had already made a splash in the Miami dining scene slinging chef-prepared tacos and fried chicken from their food truck, La Pollita. They also had experience with all-day menus through a consulting project for a hotel.

“I think that background was really helpful. … We had some recipes and some ideas already that we knew were successful,” Giangrandi says.

Ingredient prices have also played a part in carryout menus. In San Francisco, the longstanding Pier 23 Cafe Restaurant & Bar typically serves a wide array of seafood, from raw oysters and ceviche to clam chowder and grilled octopus, in a scenic spot overlooking the bay. The restaurant employed dedicated takeout windows to adapt to dine-in bans and streamlined its menu not just to fit carryout, but to also make the business more cost-effective.

“We’ve been forced to limit our menu, and due to erratic price changes in produce, meat, and fish it’s hard to determine what will make sense for our future menu. Of course, we’ve maintained our faves like Fish & Chips, fish tacos, Crab & Shrimp Louie Salad, and they’ve done well as takeout items,” says marketing manager Lei Levi. “Overall, what this crisis has taught all small businesses is you have to be nimble, informed, … and open to change if you want to survive.”

Restaurant plus

While the pandemic forced all restaurants—independent and chain—to adopt many facets of the quick-service model (streamlined menus, portable dishes, quicker throughput, etc.), some changes went beyond the boundaries of foodservice altogether. For instance, many operators have expanded their offerings to include fresh produce, nonperishable goods, and other sundries that were historically in the grocery realm. Restaurants that already did retail, or at least had the foundation for it, found it to be a lifeline when their dining rooms closed and menus tightened.

In Nunnelley, Tennessee, Pinewood Kitchen & Mercantile adapted to the dine-in bans by leaning into its roots. The property, which dates back to the 1920s, was originally a general store. When Mee McCormick and her husband Lee took over in 2015, they transformed it to include a restaurant and biodynamic farm, but the couple never abandoned the mercantile side.

Shannon Renfroe

Full-service restaurants aren’t going to be the way they used to be, and time will tell what that really looks like.” —Edouardo Jordan, Salare/JuneBaby/Lucinda

“When COVID-19 first hit, we thought, ‘Oh man, we are going to close.’ Our destination restaurant is located an hour away from Nashville. I was terrified; my entire community is dependent on us as we are the farm, the mercantile, and the restaurant,” McCormick says. “We immediately shifted into pickup and delivery—something fairly new to us. We put together farm boxes, which include all of our fresh produce and meat from the farm, farm-fresh eggs, as well as cooked meals, cakes, our canned jams, sauces, microbiome soups, homemade breads, and biscuits.”

Back in Seattle, Jordan has also taken a similar approach. Although JuneBaby is the only restaurant serving to-go dishes, it has also become a hub of sorts for the sister concepts, selling specialty goods like Lucinda’s Granola and a Salare Charcuterie Basket.

While the coronavirus has led many restaurateurs to improvise a retail arm, it also validated operators who had already done so. Larder, a delicatessen, bakery, and gourmet market in Cleveland, Ohio, may have racked up a collection of James Beard Award nominations (for Best New Restaurant in 2019 and Best Chef: Great Lakes this year), but it is a far cry from the traditional semifinalists. For one, it’s not even a full-service restaurant. The three chefs/co-owners, Jeremy Umansky, Allie La Valle-Umansky, and Kenny Scott, cut their teeth in fine-dining restaurants across the U.S. and in Europe. But when the trio decided to open their own establishment in Umansky’s hometown, they gravitated to something quite different.

“Aside from the personal drive and the romance of what we feel our concept is, part of the reason we decided to go this route was that we thought … that for independent operators, this was going to be a model of service that could be intensively profitable compared to existing models,” Umansky says.

Ironically enough, Larder still grapples with an issue shared by other independents: adapting the menu to go. Even without the full-service format, Larder’s seasonally driven sandwiches, salads, and boards were meant to be enjoyed on-site.

“One of the things we’ve had to rework recently—which we weren’t really even thinking about initially—was that now that everything is to go, not all food travels well,” Umansky says. “If we wanted to maintain a specific quality standard and level of enjoyment that people get out of eating our food and the level of deliciousness that our food has, we had to tweak a few things for a 20-minute car ride.”

Quality control and logistics are tangible factors that can, to a degree, be optimized and controlled. But one pervasive and very powerful force beyond any restaurateur’s control is the culture shift. Americans have been migrating toward convenience and efficiency for years, especially compared to some countries where eating out is enshrined for its social value, not its ease. In addition to a larger off-premises market, the U.S. also has a sizable share of chains whereas independents remain the lifeblood of many international markets.

Spanish concept Teleferic Barcelona has an intimate understanding of the widening gap between the restaurant scenes of the U.S. and Europe. The restaurant, which specializes in tapas and pintxos (snacks popular in Northern Spain) first opened in Sant Cugat, just outside Barcelona, in 1993 and later expanded to a second location in the city center.

Now with a pair of outposts in the Bay Area, Teleferic Barcelona could soon outgrow its indie identity and graduate into an emerging chain. But for now the family-owned business has a unique vantage point, observing the impact of the coronavirus on its locations in two different countries.

“In Spain, the restaurant culture is based more on socializing. People there may order a pizza once a week for a break from cooking, but takeout is not as popular because Spaniards cook at home a lot and enjoy it. Also, the amount of family-owned restaurants and bars in Spain is much larger than in the United States, and they typically have fewer resources and no experience with to-go,” says executive chef Oscar Cabezas.

Since shared plates don’t translate well to off-premises, the two California stores have doubled down on their paella, taking pains to ensure the quality isn’t diminished by the journey from restaurant to home. The pandemic spurred Teleferic Barcelona to grow its to-go arm in record time, and, Cabezas says, could lead to a permanent change in operations, if not its service-oriented spirit.

Boia De

Chefs/owners: Luciana Giangrandi and Alex Meyer

Location: Miami

Opened: 2019

Cuisine: Italian

COVID Strategy: "Ventanita" menu for pickup and delivery

  • Neet to Know
  • James Beard Award semifinalist, Best Chef, South 2020
  • Eater Miami's Restaurant of the Year 2019


Chef/owner: Edouardo Jordan

Location: Seattle

Opened: 2017

Cuisine: Southern

COVID Strategy: Takeout and online pantry of specialty restaurant goods

  • Need to Know
  • James Beard Award winner, Best New Restaurant 2018
  • James Beard Award winner, Best Chef, Northwest 2018
  • Sister concept to Salare and Lucinda Grain Bar


Chefs/owners: Jeremy Umansky, Allie La Valle-Umansky, and Kenny Scott

Location: Cleveland, Ohio

Opened: 2018

Cuisine: Crafted delicatessen

COVID Strategy: To-go menu and pared-down selection of grocery goods made in-house

  • Need to Know
  • James Beard Award semifinalist, Best Chef, Great Lakes 2020
  • James Beard Award semifinalist, Best New Restaurant 2019

Pier 23 Cafe Restaurant & Bar

Owners: Flicka McGurrin

Location: San Francisco

Opened: 1985

Cuisine: Seafood, New American

COVID Strategy: Takeout and delivery, plus special pickup window

  • Need to Know
  • San Francisco Legacy Business
  • Establishment dating back nearly a century

Pinewood Kitchen & Mercantile

Chef/owners: Mee and Lee McCormick

Location: Nunnelley, Tennessee

Opened: 2015

Cuisine: Farm-to-table, American

COVID Strategy: Pickup, delivery, and new farm boxes

  • Need to Know
  • The cookbook, My Pinewood Kitchen, a Southern Culinary Cure, debuted in April
  • Recently expanded to national distribution of soups, jams, and sauces

Teleferic Barcelona

Owners: Xavi Padrosa, Maria Padrosa, and family

Locations: Bay Area and Barcelona, Spain

Opened (U.S.): 2016

Cuisine: Spanish

COVID Strategy: Takeout and delivery, plus Spanish specialty goods

  • Need to Know
  • First established in Sant Cugat, Spain, 17 years ago

The new normal?

Across the globe, people are caught in between adapting to the new normal and trying to return to life pre-COVID-19. It’s the same for organized groups, governments, and companies of all sizes and stripes. Within foodservice, many operators are focusing on specific, incremental changes.

Boia De’s Giangrandi and Meyer are eager to get back to business as usual as much as the post-pandemic world will allow. Nevertheless, they recognize that consumers may be reluctant to forfeit some of the changes brought about by the dine-in bans. For one, the restaurant hadn’t previously offered off-premises options. During the dine-in bans, they were able to capture new business from locals who’d wanted to visit the restaurant but couldn’t score a reservation. While the owners are all too happy to welcome new guests, they admit that carryout was never part of the plan for Boia De.

“There’s the romantic idea of opening and running a restaurant, being chefs and whatnot. There’s also the business side, and those two need to coexist. … We were in a fortunate position where we were able to fill our restaurant and be financially successful, while still maintaining our integrity or our ideals of what the experience should be. Now we’re just trying to get through it,” Meyer says. “It’s going to be a really different world at the end of this all, but hopefully we can get back to that place.”

Lunch may be the right compromise; it would appease patrons seeking takeout options without overwhelming Boia De’s small kitchen during a bustling dinner daypart. Rather than the time-intensive dishes of the standard menu, lunch would be a handful of salads and sandwiches, including the muffuletta, which has proved a carryout favorite. The lower price point would also be a strong selling point for cash-strapped consumers.

In terms of adding a new dimension to the business, Pinewood Kitchen & Mercantile is already well on its way. Even though Tennessee’s loosening restrictions allowed the restaurant to open up outdoor picnic seating in May, the team has remained invested in growing its consumer-packaged goods business. Not only has the success of its fledgling off-premises program allowed McCormick to add more employee shifts, it’s also leading Pinewood Kitchen to reach customers beyond Nunnelley and even Nashville.

“We plan on continuing our farm box delivery and expanding our canning business to a national level in the coming weeks with distribution of our gut-healthy soups, jams, and sauces,” she says. But while Pinewood Kitchen’s reach may grow, McCormick knows, like all independent restaurateurs, that the core of the business remains much closer to home. “It’s important that we know each other and that our level of hospitality be personal. When times get hard, these are the relationships that weather the storms,” she adds.

For other indies, the lessons of the pandemic have not spawned a new business element but rather precipitated deep reflection on not just their own business but the industry writ large.

Amid dine-in bans, Larder shrunk from eight employees down to the three cofounders. In May the restaurant was able to bring back its two full-time employees, but it’s unlikely to grow beyond that in the immediate future. Umansky hopes the business will one day get back to where it was, but as he points out, there are far too many what-ifs to even make a guess of when that may transpire. Instead he wagers that market contraction could ultimately be to the detriment of larger brands, not the independents. Ultra-fine dining will survive since, as he puts it, “capitalism rules the world,” but when it comes down to a $20 dinner at a chain or an independent, he thinks consumers will gravitate toward the latter.

“There’s so much gray with all this,” Umansky says. “I don’t necessarily know if this conversation boils down to what’s right and what’s wrong. I think it’s going to be a matter of what works and what’s sustainable and what’s best for individual communities.”

Communities—often those found in larger, more diverse cities—might be more likely to hold tight to their locally owned, one-of-a-kind restaurants. Although Jordan predicts the restaurant industry will lose a lot of independents as a result of the coronavirus, he also champions Seattle as a more evolved, inclusive city, one that is attuned to and supportive of its neighbors, including small business owners. Similarly the crisis has brought restaurant owners together in an unprecedented way, even though the circumstances differ.

For indies, the pandemic has further compelled them to reach out to and stay in touch with one another. It’s a small silver lining, but one that restaurateurs are eagerly holding onto as they face an uncertain future—together.

“This pandemic has united a lot of communities and definitely united us as a nation of restaurant owners and employees and chefs, etc. … It sucks that this is the cause that allows us to be more connected and understand each other, but we all have become like an advisory board to each other,” Jordan says. “One day we’re happy and one day we’re going crazy and the next day we can’t figure anything out and the next day we have this vision. It’s changing all the time so it’s good to have our community, the restaurant community, there for each other and so committed to each other right now.”