My last week of dining out was a good one. It started on Sunday, in Toronto, with an inspired omakase at the bar at Skippa, where itamae Ian Robinson was pushing the envelope, and dabbling in some early tastes of spring. Thursday brought a solid ten-course tasting at Alo. Then on Saturday, in Jordan, I finished with a six-course lunch at Pearl Morissette that was so original, delicious, and satisfying in every conceivable way that only half-way home to Toronto I had already resolved to do it again the following Saturday—assuming that I could get my hands on a table.
Which is precisely when the unthinkable news came in over the car radio: restaurants, bars and cafés had been deemed non-essential to French life (who knew?). And, in a bid to slow COVID-19’s inexorable march across Western Europe, they would by French government decree, collectively be ordered closed by midnight, Paris time.
By the time I got home an hour later, Spain’s hospitality industry had followed suit. On Monday, closer to home, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut had terminated table service. By Tuesday, Ontario was in the same boat. And now we all are.
So began an era of unprecedented upheaval for everyone working in the hospitality industry. It is a very strange time to be starting this industry column that I was so looking forward to.
At my main job, as editor of Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants, we were months into work on our annual ranking of the country’s best, and poised to go to press, when the coronavirus suddenly made socializing illegal. Needless to say, our editorial lineup is getting a rethink.
Getting that right requires a good sense of what comes next for the industry. And unfortunately, the only thing that’s a certainty right now is that anyone who tells you that they can answer that question is lying. We’ve never been here before. There is very little historical data to lean on as you attempt to read the tea leaves.
Still, there are a few things we can count on. For one, there will be huge government bailouts to help many businesses stay afloat against otherwise insurmountably long odds. For another, when the hungry hordes are finally sprung from house arrest, and freed from the constraints of social distancing, they will be possessed of a rapacious hunger for professionally prepared food and drink. And they will waste little time in seeking out convivial social settings such as the bars and restaurants that we are all at present denied.
But where supply and demand reconvene will be a very changed landscape from that which we all just beat such a hasty retreat. A few endemic problems come immediately to mind.
More than likely the novel coronavirus will abate here long before it has run its lethal course in other parts of the world. And so, driven by business necessity, our hospitality industry will follow the lead of what started happening in early April in Wuhan, China–assuming that goes well. Which is to say that rather than wait for the advent of a novel coronavirus vaccine, we will opt for managed risk. And select hospitality businesses will slowly begin to reopen under new and restrictive conditions.
Obviously, many a hospitality customer’s first steps back into socializing will be tentative. Just as surely as we all resisted unnecessary air travel for some months after 9/11, it will take time for some to reacquire casual trust in the good health of other patrons in a busy bar or restaurant.
Still, most everyone will want to support the industry—just as they are doing now, by ordering takeout food and alcohol from those preferred former haunts that have managed that pivot in production. But it is larger, deeper-pocketed restaurants that have most easily managed this transition and kept some cash flowing. Smaller, fine-dining and chef-driven restaurants are unfortunately far less well-equipped to change gears like this.
I dearly hope that they all get the grants, subsidies, loans and rent forgiveness that they will require in order to survive. But no matter how generous and helpful government proves to be, there will be inevitable and considerable attrition. Especially among smaller, less profitable chef-driven restaurants. Owner-chefs of the latter sort of businesses, faced with these unexpected months off, will have time for once to properly review their books, And many may well conclude that if they return to the industry, they’ll do something a little easier than running their old ultra-demanding restaurants in the unruly new future of extra-space between tables and fewer paying seats.
It may be some time before I eat three meals of the quality I enjoyed so effortlessly at Skippa, Alo and Pearl Morissette over that week in early March. My wistful thoughts of another perfect five-hour lunch at l’Assiette Champenoise in Tinqueux are properly on hold. But right about now, a proper wood-oven fired Neapolitan pizza and a glass of Chianti Classico would make this restaurant addict just as happy. A