10 Trends That Shaped Food And Restaurants In 2020 – Forbes
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Ordinarily, my annual look back at food and restaurant trends is a pretty lighthearted affair, but 2020 has been no ordinary year. Few Americans, it’s safe to say, can remember another year that packed such a wallop.
The food and restaurant industry was among the hardest hit. So this year, instead of focusing on the usual ingredients and societal trends that shaped the industry, it’s all about the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For starters, to date an estimated 100,000 American restaurants have been forced out of business. That’s sobering enough, but who would have thought a year ago that restaurant staff would be considered frontline workers, that it would be strange to see Americans not wearing masks in public, or that over 10 percent of Americans might not know where their next meal is coming from? And seriously, how many of us even knew what Zoom was? You can read more about the difficulties faced by the industry here.
Each year, I reach out to restaurants all over the U.S. for trends they’re seeing (32 ideas, down from the usual 50-plus) and run those trends by a panel of experienced culinary commentators. This year there are 7 experts:
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Simon Majumdar is a global traveler, journalist, author and broadcaster. A Food Network personality appearing on shows such as Iron Chef America and Guy’s Grocery Games, he’s also the restaurant critic for Time Out Los Angeles and has written three books on his food travels, most recently Fed, White and Blue, about his move to American citizenship. He also writes and hosts the food history podcast, Eat My Globe.
Richie Nakano is the chef/co-owner of IDK Concepts, a pop-up restaurant in San Francisco. His brick-and-mortar ramen noodle shop earned him a 2013 StarChefs Rising Star Community Chef Award. He also manages hospitality industry talent and relations for the food media company ChefsFeed.
Chef David Rose is executive chef and spokesperson for Omaha Steaks, was a finalist on Food Network Star (Season 13) and is currently a regular Food Network personality. Based in Atlanta and a summa cum laude graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Culinary College there, he identifies as a southern chef who incorporates French culinary training with his family’s Jamaican recipes.
Robin Selden is a past president of the International Caterers Association and was just named to the BizBash 500, celebrating the top 500 event professionals in 2020 in the United States. She is Managing Partner and Executive Chef of Connecticut- and New York City-based Marcia Selden Catering and Naked Fig Catering (a plant-based joint venture with celebrity chef Matthew Kenney). Full disclosure: Robin and I are cousins.
Chef Isaac Toups is Chef/Owner of Toups Meatery in New Orleans, three-time finalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South; fan favorite on Bravo TV’s Top Chef season 13, and author of the acclaimed cookbook Chasing the Gator – Isaac Toups & the New Cajun Cooking. Born and raised in Cajun country, he combines his roots with skills acquired in top New Orleans restaurants, including a decade in Emeril Lagasse’s kitchens.
Bret Thorn is Senior Food & Beverage Editor of Nation’s Restaurant News with responsibility for spotting and reporting on food and beverage trends across the country. He has also studied traditional French cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Izabela Wojcik is Director of House Programming for the James Beard Foundation, organizing over 200 culinary events yearly at the James Beard House in New York City. She often moderates and guest judges culinary events and serves on the Kitchen Cabinet, the advisory board to the American Food History Project at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
And here are the trends, and see this companion piece where the experts weigh in on the crisis in the restaurant industry in 2020.
1 – Restaurants Discover the Great Outdoors
As scientists traced the transmission of the coronavirus to enclosed spaces that made social distancing impossible, outdoor meals took over in 2020. David Rose calls outdoor dining “monumental during this stressful year,” and Izabela Wojcik calls it “our salvation.”
As restaurants have been forced to operate with little to none of their traditional indoor seating, any restaurant that has any space is using it, from patios to parking lots. Spurred by the pandemic, many municipalities have allowed restaurants to place seats where they never were before: on sidewalks and in street parking spaces, and even traffic lanes and entire blocks closed to vehicular traffic.
Case in point: “We are lucky to have a large patio and have even extended it down the side of the building,” says Isaac Toups. “Our guests sit out there no matter the weather these days, and I don’t blame them one bit.”
Robin Selden says that as social distancing guidelines forced catered events to scale down (many jurisdictions capped the numbers of guests at any function due to the pandemic), outdoors events became the norm. Still, her company still had to double the the size of tents that would have been used in the past, even for much larger groups. Outdoor space heaters have also been helpful, she says, but “they were sold out for months!”
Richie Nakano observes that “It’s been fun to see all of the different types of outdoor seating: Covid cabins, Covid tents, Covid bubbles.”
But that’s also part of the problem: If you put a tent around a space, is it really outdoors? As Simon Majumdar bemoans, “Unfortunately, as here in California, state governments are too blitheringly incompetent to decide if it’s permissible or not.”
“This wouldn’t have happened without the pandemic,” says Bret Thorn, “but I think it’s here to stay” even after the COVID era, at least where the weather permits.
2 – Cleanliness is Key
Of course, proper handling and serving of food were essential to the food service industry well before COVID. “We live this and have since we started,” says Robin Selden. Health departments routinely conducted rigorous inspections, and a poor rating could do real damage to a restaurant’s reputation.
Still, says Izabela Wojcik, “In the past, I’m not sure diners gave much thought to this, unless they encountered something egregious.”
But in a year when the mantra from health experts was “wear a mask, socially distance and wash your hands often,” Americans focused on cleanliness as never before, especially when it came to food.
So to both follow the experts’ recommendations and reassure customers about their wellbeing, “We have doubled down on sanitary precautions,” says Isaac Toups.
He’s hardly alone. In much of America in 2020, it’s been rare to enter a restaurant (indoor or even outdoor space) without a rapid temperature check and a spritz of hand sanitizer. Staff have worn masks and clear face coverings over them and have been extra vigilant about hand-washing and cleaning surfaces.
“It has slowed the way the hospitality industry operates,” says David Rose, “but it’s all meant to keep the patrons and employees safe and healthy.”
“I think one upside of COVID (if one can really suggest that it has an upside),” says Simon Majumdar, “is that the cleanliness of restaurants will become, at least for a while, much improved.”
Isaac Toups expects the sanitary standards will last a lot longer than just a while. “Dining will be changed forever,” he says.
3 – Booze Everywhere
From restaurants offering cocktails-to-go to the growth of home mixology and people just, well, drinking more, alcohol sales have gone through the roof.
“Spirits, wine and beer spending has gone up exponentially this year,” says David Rose, “because of more time at home and a large portion of bars, restaurants and clubs not just being open.”
As pandemic-induced restrictions shut down bars and indoor dining, and many restaurants were forced to close down everything but takeout and delivery, one of the big shifts of 2020 was the loosening of liquor laws. All of a sudden, people were drinking at outdoor seating where there was none, and restaurants and delivery services became specialists in takeout of cocktails, wine and more.
“I’ve been absolutely charmed by all the juice bottles and booze pouches that have proliferated as restaurants have figured out how to offer cocktails to go,” says Izabela Wojcik.
“These days you can apparently lay by your mail slot and have booze piped into your mouth on request,” says Simon Majumdar.
“I live in New Orleans, home of the drive-through daiquiri shop. Glad the rest of the country is catching up!” quips Isaac Toups.
Another reason for this explosion: with the stress of the pandemic, people are just drinking more.
“Guilty as charged!” says Isaac Toups, echoing the sentiments of many Americans when he says “I know it’s not the healthiest way of dealing with this pandemic, but here we are.”
“You’d think the world was coming to an end by the way we are selling alcohol,” says Robin Selden. “Clients are ordering cases of wine and liquor to have on hand.”
That said, as Richie Nakano points out, “Stress-drinking isn’t new if you have worked in the hospitality industry. We just call it ‘drinking.’”
Bret Thorn notes that alcohol remains an affordable luxury for many. With dining out, travel and other leisure activities curtailed, he says, people are saving money. “We won’t be taking that vacation to Italy anytime soon, but we can pick up a nice bottle of Barolo.”
On the other hand, he says, “Part of the romance of cocktails is drinking them in a bar or restaurant. Pouring them in a tumbler while you’re wearing your pajamas isn’t as sexy, and I don’t see customers doing it for very long.”
4 – Home Baking
From accomplished chefs to entire families, Americans took up baking big time in 2020. Izabela Wojcik credits the home-baking trend to “Time on our hands, boredom, stress eating and a desire to be comforted. Carbs! Sweet! And we’re home!”
David Rose agrees: “People have taken it upon themselves to truly hone their baking chops.”
Robin Selden calls it “Baking like there is no tomorrow, and then eating like you’re going to the electric chair,” adding, “Hence the weight gain than many have seen over the past 9 months!”
And it’s not just home chefs: food industry pros too. Izabela Wojcik says “I’ve personally never baked more cakes, tarts, pies in my entire life that during COVID.”
Isaac Toups learned how to bake focaccia, and Simon Majumdar jokes that “‘What’s the name of your sourdough starter?’ is now the new ‘where did you go to college?’” (Note from the author: My starter’s name is Beverly.)
Still, Richie Nakano notes, “It is possible to bake a loaf of bread at home and not Instagram it.”
True, but why?
5 – Virtual Cooking Classes Go Mainstream
In 2020, “The whole world went virtual,” says Izabela Wojcik, and outfits from her own James Beard Foundation to Michelin-starred restaurants offered cooking experiences via Zoom and other online meeting platforms.
“The love of food and connecting with food is a universal language,” says David Rose. “Being able to stay connected digitally through that shared love of food is priceless!”
“It’s not as good as doing it in real life, not even close,” says Bret Thorn, “but it does allow restaurants with national reputations to reach a national audience regularly.” Plus, he says, “they’re highly profitable and fun for everyone.”
Robin Selden agrees. “While peeps may have Zoom meeting fatigue, the minute you throw an apron, recipe and the mise en place at them, they are game to play.”
6 – DIY Meals Go Gourmet
In 2020, says Richie Nakano, “We finally got the answer to ‘What if a bunch of Michelin-rated chefs worked at Blue Apron?’”
Restaurants nationwide have been preparing meal kits “partially cooked and prepared but requiring some heating, finishing and plating,” says Izabela Wojcik. The results, she says, “allow diners to access a ‘restaurant’ quality meal in the safety and comfort of home and allow chefs to offer their food without sacrificing their reputation and quality. Everybody wins.”
Isaac Toups adds “It’s a great way to pivot and be creative,” and it’s helped enable some restaurants to stay in (albeit scaled-down) business.
More than making money, Simon Majumdar notes, “It’s a way of keeping conversations going between restaurants and their audiences, so they remember them when things return to normal.”
Bret Thorn is a little more skeptical: “I give this about a year. It’s a cool temporary fix, but if people want to cook, they’ll cook.”
7 – Death of the Buffet
“Yup, done,” says Izabela Wojcik. “It will be years before we welcome this.”
Even before Covid, he says, they “have always been looked at with a side eye of suspicion as a retirement home for bacteria,” says Simon Majumdar.”
You can imagine why (hint: see “cleanliness” above). Diners move along a service line, using the same utensils to serve themselves. Hopefully there are sneeze guards. Richie Nakano calls the concept “extremely gross when you think about it.”
“I for one am not sorry to see them go,” Simon Majumdar adds adds.
Nakano makes a distinction between high-end “Bellagio buffets” where servers in chef’s coats and toques prepare food before your eyes, and other buffets. “The excitement of making your personalized plate, the omelet station and going back for seconds or maybe even thirds was always a treat,” says David Rose.
Contrast that with “the crappy buffets at conferences and conventions,” Nakano says. “Catering trays full of overcooked eggs that have been out for hours? I won’t miss that.”
David Rose sees a third way. “I think the buffet may still survive but may no longer be self-serve.”
And, perhaps, this reality check from Bret Thorn: “People have already forgotten how to social-distance. They’ll be slobbering over buffets by 2022.”
8 – Chefs Step Out of the Kitchen
“To compensate for the dip in sales,” says David Rose, “some chefs have been forced to lay off or furlough loyal, hard-working employees. To fill in that void, chefs now have to fill in those missing staff gaps.”
As a result, says Bret Thorn, the chef’s role suddenly combines “cooking and front of house and Zoom personality and Instagrammer and delivery person and figuring out how to turn their food into consumer-packaged goods, and maybe also designing hats and t-shirts.”
“The more tricks of the trade you know,” adds Isaac Toups, “the better off your restaurant will be.”
Richie Nakano is skeptical: “I cannot stress enough how poorly equipped most chefs are when it comes to customer service, operating a POS and dealing with delivery.”
To sum, “A friend called this ‘your tomorrow team,’” says Robin Selden, “the team (not only chefs) that throws their job descriptions out the window during this mess to do whatever it takes to keep our heads above water. Trend or not, it’s the only way to survive this now. Knock the chip off everyone’s shoulders, and get it done!”
9 – Takeout Takes Off
Takeout and delivery, says Bret Thorn, “was a massive trend before the pandemic hit. COVID-19 just accelerated it.”
“Many restaurants that would never dream of takeout and delivery have been forced to pivot this year,” says David Rose. “You can now enjoy these 5-star meals from the comfort of your own kitchen table.”
“It gave upscale, refined restaurants an opportunity to reimagine their menus and give diners access for the first time,” says Izabela Wojcik.
From the restaurateur’s perspective, though, not all delivery services are equal. “We have had good experiences and really bad and frankly predatory companies come around,” says Isaac Toups, charging delivery fees that all but eliminate any profit to the restaurants.
A sub-category of this trend is large-scale family meals.
“I think this is a great idea,” says Isaac Toups. In this age of virtual schooling, with parents having to take on the burdens from teacher to playground supervisor in addition to work and regular family life, “it takes one thing off your plate.”
Izabela Wojcik agrees. “Family-size meals, or multiple meal-to-go plans, lessen some of that burden of planning,” she says, Yet they “allow for that sense of family dining, passing platters and something for everyone, with guaranteed leftovers.”
As a caterer, Robin Selden’s company began offering a “Fresh to Freezer” line of meals large enough to feed 8 people. “Our thought was they could enjoy them fresh when they arrive and freeze the rest to enjoy at a later date.”
Bret Thorn call is this “An extension of the large bucket of chicken. Large-format meals fill a real need and are here to stay.”
10 – Hunger Takes Center Stage
“I hope you are as outraged as I am,” says Isaac Toups. “Food insecurity is a national crisis, and frankly it’s embarrassing that America has this problem, with 10.5% of Americans being food insecure.”
Simon Majumdar calls it “Not wondering ‘what’ but ‘if’ they are going to eat today.”
As America’s TV screens filled daily with images of cars lined up at food banks during the COVID pandemic, “We’ve come to see how many people are living on the edge of hunger,” says Bret Thorn. “That’s not a new phenomenon, but I hope public awareness of it sinks in and lasts.”
Not least, the problem has hit the hospitality industry itself, and chefs who were able set about helping those in need. Chef Toups’ team “immediately sprang into action when COVID hit, to feed our fellow service industry people and then eventually anyone who needed a hot meal. We continue our family meal program every single day to this very day.”
Robin Selden’s catering business turned its attention to feeding frontline workers, and in house, “We create basic food boxes for our team so that we know that they will have food, as well as healthy family meals to take home,” down to Thanksgiving turkeys for each family.
Chef David Rose urges everyone to support charities that focus on food security. After all, he says, “You never know when you may need help from one of these organizations yourself.”
Published at Mon, 21 Dec 2020 16:07:34 +0000