Independent restaurants have been hit the hardest of any segment during the coronavirus pandemic. The National Restaurant Association estimates that 110,000 restaurants — or 17% of the industry — have closed permanently or long-term since March, and evidence suggests indies are the majority. At one point, Restaurant Hospitality published a closure gallery every two weeks. The Paycheck Protection Program that began in the spring — which was considered a lifeline for operators — ended in August. In many jurisdictions, restaurant dining rooms were closed, reopened, and again shut down — leaving restaurant operators scrambling to find new ways to keep the doors open and people employed.
At the start of the pandemic, this meant selling groceries to customers from excess supply, such as inexpensive produce or toilet paper, or even selling restaurant inventory in the form of bottles of wine at cost. That turned out not to be sustainable as the pandemic went on (we’re now almost a year in) and restaurants had to further innovate.
Virtual restaurant brands — which were already on the rise — skyrocketed this year. They require no brick-and-mortar presence and fewer employees, relying on either ghost kitchen facilities or underutilized restaurant kitchens, often in partnership with third-party delivery providers.
This inspired several other innovations, such as virtual cocktail bars that took advantage of loosened alcohol restrictions allowing delivery of cocktails. Food halls also leaned in to digital advances, allowing guests to order from multiple concepts in one delivery order.
Others, such as 125-year-old New Orleans restaurant Commander’s Palace, have maintained the brick-and-mortar business and reached out to consumers across the country through Zoom calls and virtual events like wine tastings and musical experiences.
And some clubs, closed entirely due to coronavirus on-premise restrictions, turned to entertainment to-go in the form of “Meals on Heels,” a drag bar that has drag queens performing on the street in San Francisco.
See what other strategies restaurants employed to keep the doors open during and after the pandemic.