June 11, 2021 brought a joyful frenzy to Chicago’s streets, as citydwellers flocked to festivals, fairs, bars, and restaurants. The excitement of revelers coupled with visible relief as they shared smiles, hugs, handshakes, and laughter with friends after more than a year of quarantine.
Another sort of frenzy was going on behind the scenes, as restaurants and bars scrambled to fill orders with tiny staff, broken supply chains, and limited menus. For every cheerful OPEN sign, there are two ‘Help Wanted’ signs. For each new menu item, two other items are out of stock and prices are way up. The restaurant industry has never been calm, but the reopening carries unforeseen new challenges as the light at the end of the pandemic grows closer.
“There are some people that are much more cautious, and some people that are very bullish,” says Chef Matthias Merges, the owner and executive chef of Folkart Management, leading a portfolio of lauded restaurants, bars, and gastropubs in Chicago and Charlotte, NC. “We just want to get back out and start doing what we do best – hospitality.”
Overseeing a wide variety of venues, from a Wrigley Field brewery to an upscale Charlotte gastropub, Merges must comply with a very different set of ordinances depending on the locale. In southern states restrictions are lighter, with more on-premise autonomy and general rules across different venues. In the North, there were more mandates, and different rules for bars and restaurants.
“Each property is unique, so we take each one as an individual basis. We just have to keep our eyes on what’s happening right now,” say Merges. In Chicago, he’s waiting to open his full service restaurant, Mordecai, to avoid hiring a full staff only to furlough everyone again. Vis-à-vis, his Charlotte gastropub, Billy Sunday, has more business now than it did before COVID hit, Merges says. “It was important to get the bars back up and running. But there’s a big difference in the amount of manpower it takes to run a restaurant and a bar.”
Staffing concerns abound, regardless of venue or locale. Chef Dan Smith, owner of The Hearty Boys Catering, first worried about having enough work to keep his staff employed. After working with a skeleton crew on home-delivered meals, holiday dinners, and micro-weddings, he is just as worried about keeping his staff safe. “Many, many people who are planning parties aren’t really taking the welfare of the staff into account, just taking the welfare of their guests into account,” says Smith. “On the other end, you’ve got staff members saying, ‘I don’t want to work that event, because all of those people at that wedding are going to take their masks off as soon as they hit the door.’ It’s a double edged sword.”
Chicago’s Chef Joe Frillman watched an exodus of restaurant workers depart from the industry, leaving businesses who’ve hung on through most of the pandemic at a vast staffing deficit. At Daisies, Frillman’s much-loved vegetable and pasta restaurant, the team has changed dramatically. “80 percent of the staff we have wasn’t here before COVID,” says Frillman. “It’s a brand new restaurant.”
With smaller staffs and operating models turned on a dime, both Chef Merges and Chef Frillman dialed down their menus to approachable, comforting dishes that appeal to a broader customer base. As people start to gather again and celebrate each other’s presence, they’re not looking for anxiety-inducing menus with high entry points, say Merges. “Let’s just enjoy the space, let’s enjoy the service, let’s enjoy the company at the table. We will make sure our menus don’t impede on that.”
Along with a simpler menus, Chef Smith expects to see more small and mid-sized events, at least for the short term. Here to stay in the catering world are individualized meals and eco-friendly containers; passed hors d’oeuvres might be a thing of the past. “The thought of grabbing a sandwich off a tray someone else has just grabbed from seems completely foreign,’’ Smith says. The folks who used to post-up next to dip have dipped their last double dip — probably for a good while.
As the light at the end of the tunnel draws slowly nearer, room for elected innovation and positive, permanent change grows more plausible. “At the beginning of the pandemic, it was just ‘Solve the problem now,’” says Merges. “But it’s almost transitioned into ‘How can we do this creatively? How can we preserve this experience?’”
As restaurants continue to reopen for more patrons and dining options, each of the chefs noted the continued need for mutual respect between patrons and staff. “It’s important for us to make sure that COVID and COVID safety and protocol is very well articulated, something people notice,” Merges says. “Not only for the customers’ safety, but for our staff safety as well.”
Along with table spacing, time limits, and reservation caps, it will also take a while for normalcy to return to back-of-house proceedings, says Frillman; “Patience and understanding will be needed in the coming year from both sides.”
With raw food prices up as much as 25 percent, consumers and restaurants alike are feeling the pressure of higher ingredient bills. The supply chain is still suffering, and sourcing ingredients, especially imported items, can be incredibly difficult. Increased delivery surcharges and better wages for staff push menu prices even higher, and could keep consumers cooking at home far past the pandemic.
At the start of COVID, Chef Frillman created a small retail spot to the back of Daisies, and Daisies Market will continue to sell fresh produce and hard-to-find gourmet food and wine after restrictions lift. He’s also changed the way his staff is paid, so that every hourly employee is supplemented with tips, raising the kitchen’s hourly rates and helping to close the pay gap between kitchen and service staff. Most of all though, Frillman’s looking forward to really thinking about food again. “The thought of surviving everyday as opposed to making the most compelling creative product becomes all you think about,” he says. “It will be nice to go back to focusing on the food and not just survival.”
While it seems almost callous to look for any positive impacts from the pandemic, it is undoubtedly a time to reflect on deeper learning, to keep history from repeating itself. Chef Merges points to his time at Charlie Trotter’s to process COVID’s impact on the restaurant industry. “I was taught really early on as a chef that if something’s working really well, sometimes you need to break it,” says Merges. “To see possibilities, to challenge the staff in different ways, to find deeper understanding, to make really informed decisions, and to find sparks of creativity — COVID gave us the opportunity to do that.”
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