It would be a gross understatement to characterize this past year as anything but momentous and, overall, horrible. But despite all adversity, the restaurant industry remained resilient and demonstrated—like never before—its innovative spirit and quick agility.
Here, 15 chefs, restaurateurs, and other industry leaders (Mee McCormick pictured above) share their thoughts, words of wisdom, and hopes for 2021. The pandemic isn’t over yet, but they have the drive and optimism to persevere and make things even better than before.
Chef and owner / JuneBaby, Salare, and Lucinda
“This pandemic has definitely united a lot of communities and united us as a nation of restaurateurs and employees and chefs, etc. We’ve been able to connect with so many more people and check in on them on the regular. It sucks that this is the cause that allows us to be more connected and understand each other. But we all love becoming like an advisory board to each other. We’re dumping ideas on each other; we’re throwing them in the air and seeing what sticks and what makes the most sense.
“It’s also like being a counselor to each other because 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. So it’s changing all the time. It’s good to have our community—the restaurant community—there for each other and so committed to each other.”
Chef and restaurateur / Dinex Group
“I think a restaurant offers you something you cannot have at home. … It doesn’t matter if it’s a high-end restaurant or a casual bistro or a local pizzeria—it’s the privilege to have someone who plans something every day to perfection, makes something for you like that. It’s not even a privilege; it’s just the pleasure of having someone cooking for you, having someone serving you, and having someone connecting with you in a way that makes you want to come back and patronize a place.”
Host, “Bar Rescue” / Owner, Taffer’s Tavern
“Nobody’s talking about the excitement that’s ahead in a few months. It’s almost like a forest fire. It sucks when it’s burning. But once the forest fire is done, little green sprouts come up from the ground. There’s real joy in that, and I think we’re going to see those sprouts. It’s going to be a very exciting time for the restaurant industry, and this will be a distribution channel that will be important going forward.”
Chef and restaurateur / Maketto, Brothers and Sisters, Spoken English, Café Spoken
“The work itself is super-rewarding. The reason why we do it is just being able to help people and connect communities. … I think what we will actually see is a lot more chef-driven charity organizations that help create social safety nets within our own community to make sure that if there was ever a massive economic stoppage like this again, we’ll all be super-prepared for it.”
Chef and Owner / Cúrate, Button & Co. Bagels, La Bodega by Cúrate
“We have to find a way to be a voice for those people who haven’t traditionally had a voice. The way things work is that you have someone in the back, you pass them the microphone so that they can speak up. In this world, that is what we need to do; you have to actively seek out ways to give those who haven’t had the same opportunities offered to them the same access to the resources that will be required to bounce back from this.”
Chef and founder / Pinewood Kitchen & Mercantile
“Watching the greater Nashville, [Tennessee,] area rise up and support us has been incredible. I think that customer connection is more important than ever before. 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.”
CEO and founder / East Coast Wings + Grill
“Watching your employees, your exec team, your ops team, and even your franchisees has been not only a humbling experience, but it’s also been an uplifting one. You’re thinking, ‘Wow, we really did all that. We really built a COVID-19 operation model.’ The franchisees embraced it and are surviving. It’s kind of like—and excuse this—one of those holy s— moments where you go, man, where did that brain muscle come from?”
Co-owner / Bakan
“Guests have been following guidelines and helping us create a safe environment. As long as the possibility of being infected continues, there’s going to be a group that is scared to go out, particularly older patrons. But a lot of guests have learned how important restaurants are through this, and they realize that it’s about more than food—it’s about experience, too.”
Founder and CEO / The McHenry Group
“We have to realize that how we used to do business is forever changed,” McHenry says. “You’ve got to forget where you used to be, and you’ve got to go all in on where you are today and find out how you either adapt your current business or you evolve into a new business that can entertain in today’s market.”
Bar Manager / 16” On Center
“Everyone is so adaptive and has an ability to be resilient in times like this especially. They figure out ways and get to the essence of people and just connect with people. I think that’s something that’s given me a lot of courage during this time: talking with my friends and realizing what they’re still doing regardless of if they’re getting paid or not because it’s in their blood. It’s just what we do. Obviously it’s been a challenge but watching everyone connect on this peer-to-peer level has been really exciting to see unfold.”
Founder and CEO / Walk-On’s
“It’s just very important for us to stay positive. We keep telling our team that this is a moment in time; it’s not till the end of time. If you wake up every day feeling sorry for yourself and you say, “We’re never going to get through this,” then you won’t. We have to get through this and know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We knew we had a strong brand before. If you had a strong brand before and you were doing the right things. You’ll get it out of this, and you’ll be stronger on the back-end.”
Founder and CEO / Lazy Dog, Jolene’s
“What we’ve really seen in our guests is this need for positivity and something fun and interesting and a way to celebrate a little bit. People don’t want to constantly listen to the doom and gloom. Instead, they want to have that lightheartedness in their lives. We really see that in the banter back and forth with our guests.
You can tell that people are definitely taking it seriously but at the same time, looking for that little bright spot in life. That’s what we’re focused on: How do we create those bright spots for our guests and our teammates?”
Founder / Snooze A.M. Eatery, Attimo Winery
“My new favorite saying is, ‘If I pivot enough times, I’ll do the waltz.’
“Restaurants, in the end, are really just boxes. What Snooze does is create a culture and a vibe where we always use our guest as our north star. We always use the experience as the north star. We live and die by the motto that it only takes a moment to make a difference. Food and beverage is sort of the conduit to really serving the purpose. The purpose is, how do we make people feel great?”
Founder and CEO / Big Whiskey’s
“[Our new franchisees] are some of the most optimistic people; they’ve put their heads down and worked through this and rolled with the punches. Don’t get me wrong; it hasn’t been easy for any of us, any of our people. But this is just what we do in the restaurant business.
“I think most of the changes are in public perception. I can’t make somebody feel safe. But 60 percent of our guests feel safe in dining rooms already and then 40 percent will still be rocking carryout and delivery, and we love that. We’re a young brand and failure is just not an option for us.”
F&B director / Eau Palm Beach
“I really like the fact that it’s given us an opportunity to go even deeper into more personalized service. It was critically important that we went into this with the attitude of, ‘we’re going to reinvent what five-star looks like.’ And in order to do that, you have to step outside of the box. Let’s not create any limiting beliefs for why we can’t do something. Let’s find out how we can do it. If there is something we’re going to take away, I want to know what two things we’re going to give back. It’s looking at it from a different perspective.”