Catch the Experts: Can the Restaurant Industry Survive COVID-19?


Catch the Experts: Can the Restaurant Industry Survive COVID-19?


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In the latest “Catch The Experts” webinar, restaurateurs and chefs grappled with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forever altered our view of dining and devastated the industry at large.

CatchOn’s Director of Special Projects, Paul Calder discussed the impact of the pandemic with industry experts, including Peter Kreiner, CEO and partner in The Noma Group; Mark Canlis, owner of Canlis; Loh Lik Peng, founder of Unlisted Collection; Syed Asim Hussain , co-founder of Black Sheep Restaurants; Garima Arora, executive chef and founder of Gaa; and Alan Lo, co-founder of Duddell’s.

Can the restaurant industry survive COVID-19? Yes, it can but here’s what it’ll take:

A Collaborative Effort
The global F&B industry needs to band together to aggressively lobby governments, commercial partners and landlords for subsidies, tenancy protection, and rent assistance. Loh says, “There is a lot of pain in the whole economy and it’s important to give a flavour of the kind of suffering that the industry is in so that policymakers know what kind of tools will help the industry.”

With dine-in service put on hold, many restaurants pivoted to a delivery model. However, the panel called out delivery aggregators who charge hefty commissions, effectively obliterating restaurants’ already razor-thin margins, a move akin to “profiteering,” says Hussain.

Adaptability and Agility
The nimbler a restaurant is in adapting to the ever-changing conditions, the more likely they are to come out the other side of the crisis. “It’s less about forecasting the landscape of dining,” explains Canlis. “The question right now is what can we be doing today? In which ways can we be ready to move and be active and even pounce on an economy that is ready to come to dinner again?”

An Employees-First Approach
Looking inwards, our experts agree that staff welfare needs to be a priority. “The health of the staff is No. 1 right now. All of hospitality is about relationships and all of relationships is about trust,” Canlis explains. “If the staff can’t trust us, if the restaurant or company itself is not safe, then the foundation is wiped away.”

Maintaining staff morale is also crucial. “We went into family mode,” says Kreiner. “We want to keep their spirits high and keep them updated by communicating with them regularly.”

Loh adds, “Transparency and shared sacrifice is paramount, because at no time in this journey is it going to be easy and every day is going to be a harder slog until you get through to the other side. If you survive, hopefully you’ll be in a better position to look after them.”

Rethinking Business Models
In cities where restaurant clientele largely consists of overseas diners, restaurateurs have begun to question the sustainability of a tourist-dependent model. As Arora commented, “We’re looking at better ways to make sure that we have a stronger local base that supports us in times like these. That means rethinking not only what you’re serving but what you’re cooking as well.”

Diversifying revenue streams might mean that delivery and fine dining will eventually co-exist. “I do think that (delivery) is here to stay because fundamentally, the model where we expect people to come to restaurants in large groups and sit close together may change permanently,” notes Loh.

Using Downtime Wisely
In a time-starved industry, Canlis believes this downtime is actually an amazing opportunity to explore new ways of doing business. “I don’t know a restaurant that can’t use a week or two of respite and planning… to look inwards at its people and take care of relationships there within,” he says, “There will be new rules, but in spite of these constraints, sometimes boundaries bring out the best of our creativity.”

Reflecting on how the once-competitive restaurant industry has banded together, Lo added: “This support system, (with) everyone coming together will be the beginning of something quite exciting, where restaurant and bar owners can help each other not just through the crisis, but down the road to make the scene even more exciting.”

Planning for a New Normal
“The way I’m looking at it, the longer lockdowns remain and the longer economic activity is on a shut down, the more different it will be from the pre-Covid-19 normal,” says Arora.

Adds Canlis: “You’re going to have guests that are relationally hungry. There was, certainly in restaurants, a negative trend where the relationship aspect of it sort of fell to pieces and it was almost performance art. But at its core, fine dining is the most considered way to care for somebody. Food, wine, and the feel of the restaurant are pieces of that, but an integral, foundational piece of that is what’s happening between the people in the space… I think there is going to be a hunger for that kind of community again.”

Kreiner adds, “People would be a little reluctant to just do what they used to do, but that said, I do believe it is up to us to create environments and set-ups where people feel safe and actually want to go.”

The experts unanimously agree that, despite a new world order, restaurants will never go out of fashion. “Restaurants will be even more important when all is said and done, they are the last non-digital frontier,” says Hussain.

Arora agrees: “Restaurants are here to stay, we’re not going anywhere. When it comes to the joy and romance of going out for a meal, a home-delivered box just doesn’t cut it.”

The restaurant industry will make its comeback. “If there is one thing we know about restaurants,” concludes Canlis, “it’s that the people who run them are pioneering. they’re scrappy, inventive, creative, resilient. You can’t knock them down and expect them to stay there.”

Here are some resources that can help:
Black Sheep Restaurants’ COVID-19 Handbook
Delivering when it matters: Quick-service restaurants in coronavirus times
The Health of the Restaurant Industry During the Covid-19 Pandemic
How Coronavirus Infected Some, but Not All, in a Restaurant
10 predictions about the future of food from a dining disruptor

Paul Calder

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