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Nancy Kruse and Bret Thorn praise the accomplishments of 2020 and hope for a kinder, gentler industry in the future.

The year that was and the year to come: Nancy Kruse and Bret Thorn reflect on the state of the restaurant landscape

The experts praise the accomplishments of 2020 and hope for a kinder, gentler industry in the future

Nancy Kruse

I truly look forward to all of our exchanges, Bret, but I especially enjoy our annual look at the most interesting foods, flavors and culinary happenings of the past year. Last December, 12 months that now seem like 12 years ago, we chewed over burgeoning vegan options and CBD infusions in utter ignorance of the looming disaster that would soon shut down the country and devastate our industry. Its unprecedented, seemingly unrelenting impact on restaurateurs has been very well documented in the pages of Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality, as has the speed and grace, the agility and invention with which they have responded. These have been a true source of hope and pride that will endure long after this pandemic scourge finally ends. 

On the subject of agility and invention from the menu perspective, 2020 will be remembered as the year that restaurants delivered the goods, literally, with takeout friendly favorites pizza and wings. Both have enjoyed extraordinary sales growth, and while much of their raging popularity owes to their travel-proof nature and their broad demographic appeal, I think there is a more fundamental attraction. They are typically shared and eaten by hand, and the act of “breaking bread,” of partaking together in the most basic, hands-on way, provides a primal, powerful source of comfort and reassurance to consumers.

Operators really revved up the innovation quotient, even as traffic tanked and sales sank.

Unsurprisingly, much culinary creativity focused on fun, and foods designed to evoke a smile came thick and fast. The unflagging popularity of s’mores, the beloved campfire treat, inspired ice cream, pie and doughnut versions, along with Starbucks’ S’mores Frappuccino and Sonic Drive Ins’ Toasted S’mores Shake. For consumers who missed the midway and the sticky allure of state-fair foods, Steak ‘n Shake stepped up with its Cotton Candy Milkshake and Dairy Queen offered Cotton Candy Dipped Cone.

More sophisticated pleasure came in the form of contemporary surf-and-turf combinations. Upscale casual Ocean Prime, the seafood-and-steaks chain, featured affordable luxe in the form of the Surf N Turf appetizer made with scallops, braised short ribs and gremolata. Chicago’s Funkenhausen dished up new-age versions of German classics along with abundant umlauts in specials like the Sürfentürfen, a playful Teutonic take on the standard that included scallops, pork belly, sauerkraut purée and spicy mustard. For budget conscious and/or convenience seeking diners, there was Del Taco’s limited-time-only Epic Surf & Turf Burrito that combined shrimp and carne asada steak with crunchy cabbage and creamy ancho sauce.

For diners driven to drink, and I suspect there were many, chains provided some surprising opportunities, as with White Castle’s Cocktails and Craves promotion that created make-at-home cocktail recipes to accompany specific menu items, like the Midnight Merlot Punch and Jalapeño Cheese Slider combo. Going a step further, Canadian units of Taco Bell launched an on-premise proprietary wine dubbed Jalapeño Noir to go with Toasted Cheddar Chalupas, a QSR rendition of classic wine-and-cheese pairings. Back home in the U.S., late summer saw Carl’s Jr. partner with Nocking Point Wines to release a curated Steakhouse Burger Box comprising red wines available exclusively through the vintners’ website; the Steakhouse Angus Thickburger was, of course, available exclusively at Carl’s units.

Speaking of adult beverages, we have to give an A for effort and also for Ale to Goose Island Brewing Co., an institution in its home market of Chicago, where it unleashed a black van to roam the city streets playing the familiar, irresistible jingle-jangle of ice-cream-truck bells. This wasn’t kid stuff, however. On the sides of the van was the musical question “Want Beer Right Now?” along with a phone number for suds-seeking imbibers, who could get their brew of choice delivered directly to their front door.

And then there was the sheer zaniness of edibles like Smokey Bones’ Meat Doughnut, which put its hand-carved, smoked bacon right in the dough to celebrate National Doughnut Day; wearables like Pizza Hut’s weighted Gravity blanket, which weighs 15 pounds and looks just like a 72-inch pizza; and watchables like KFC’s commercial/mini-movie, “A Recipe for Seduction,” that played on soap-opera tropes and featured a buff and goateed Mario Lopez as a sexy Colonel Sanders. Put them altogether, add a glass of Jalapeño Noir, and you have the makings of the perfect stay-at-home pandemic evening.

There were menu losers as well, of course, the most prominent of which were chickens. I pity the poor hens who barely lifted the wattled little heads before giving up their breasts to sandwiches and their wings to snacks. By the way, I got a huge kick out of your recent roundup on The Year in Fried Chicken Sandwiches, which was published just prior to the introduction of Jack in the Box’s twin entries, the Clucker and Clucker Deluxe.

It was also a dismal year for marginal menu performers, those bill-of-fare hangers on that contributed little except, perhaps, a vaguely comforting sense of keeping up with the competition. Many chain CEOs took the scalpel to these losers and pinky promised that they would never, ever let their menus get so bloated again. In our discussion of the topic, you and I figuratively pinky promised to believe this when we see it once operations and traffic return to some semblance of normalcy.

Speaking of normalcy, perhaps you read the very hopeful forecast that UCLA Anderson published in early December, which suggested that post-vaccine and by next summer, we’ll see the onset of a whole new Roaring ’20s, a recovery buoyed by massive pent-up demand. The economists noted restaurants among major beneficiaries of the boom.

So I hand this off to you, Bret, with the hopes that they are prescient and that our upcoming conversations will occur in the context of health, healing and happiness for all of our readers, colleagues and the irreplaceable chefs and restaurateurs who provide our inspiration.

Bret Thorn responds

Nancy, thank you not only for being my conversation partner over the years, but also for summing up 2020 so nicely that I don’t have anything more to add.

For people who need some food & beverage trend predictions to chew on for 2021, here are some, in brief:

There will be more fried chicken sandwiches and lots of doughnuts and pizza.

West African food will spread, because it’s delicious and because Black chefs are exploring their roots and the newly reignited social justice movement means a wider audience is willing to give them their due (I fear that window will close faster than I’d like, but for now it’s open).

Cannabis — CBD and the more fun THC — will become more widely available as more jurisdictions legalize them, although there are still legal hurdles before it can get to restaurants outside of West Hollywood, Calif.

Relaxation of takeout alcohol regulations will make that service viable in more jurisdictions.

Steak: It’s the comfort food of fine dining and we’re going to devour the hell out of it.

Plant-based protein, obviously.

Immunity boosters, because pandemic.

But what I’d really like to talk about, Nancy, is the opportunity that this awful pandemic has provided for restaurateurs, and I sure hope they don’t miss it.

In mid-March, as we all know, restaurants across the country were brought to their knees as their businesses were shut down. You mentioned the breathtaking speed and brilliance with which many of them adapted, but they also took the time to pause and ask themselves what the hell they had been doing for all these years.

Early this summer I spoke with Adam Hegsted, the chef and owner of Eat Good Group, which has 11 restaurants in eastern Washington and northern Idaho, and he was troubled by how close the entire group came to falling apart economically once business stopped.

The pretty regular business model of 30% labor cost, 30% food cost and 30% overhead meant that the rather ridiculous amount of work required to run restaurants gets you a 10% profit, if you’re lucky, he said. And, Nancy, you and I both know that independent restaurants with profits as high as 10% are rare.

That traditional restaurant model has been broken for a while now, anyway. All of those costs are rising, meaning that 10% theoretical profit often shrinks to negative 2%. Meanwhile, the disparity in income between tipped workers and kitchen staff makes it hard to keep a cohesive work culture.

As you know, Danny Meyer tried to fix that by doing away with tipping, starting in 2015, but the pressures of the pandemic pushed him to give up on that in July of this year.

Fixes for that are being attempted, including adjustments to federal regulations that allow tips to be pooled with back-of-the-house workers as long as servers’ base pay is the full minimum wage.

Chef and restaurateur Charlie Palmer has tried to address the tipping issue at his Ava Social restaurant, where cooks prepare most of the food in a horseshoe shaped bar area in the front of the house, where they also serve drinks and — the key point — receive tips. 

So maybe the income disparity, at least, can be resolved, but there are deeper issues that operators normally unaccustomed to having any downtime, had time to think about this spring as business dried up.

“This is giving us a forced break, and an opportunity to change the way things are going and give ourselves a reset,” Hegsted told me.

That’s what Matt Welsch is trying to do, too. He’s the chef of Vagabond Kitchen in Wheeling, W.Va., who I also spoke to this summer.

Two years ago he went from being open six days a week to seven days a week to make sure he could stay top-of-mind with his customers.

But that’s a lot of work, and Welsch said the pandemic has given him the time to think about what he’s doing. He changed his hours to Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

“Maybe now is the time to have fewer people come in the door but let the ones who do come in really, really be into it,” he said.

“We’re in a renaissance in the culinary world in this country,” he added, “and I think part of that moving forward is learning how to make this passion and love of what we do sustainable.”

Currently, it’s not, he said.

“I don’t think it’s mentally healthy, this game that we’re in, and we need to find a way to make it better for all of us,” he said, pointing out that alcohol and drug abuse and even suicide are rampant in professional kitchens.

“Nobody should be living like this,” he said. “I think this pandemic is the opportunity for a crash course in self-care across the whole world. … Let’s really take a step back and look at what we’re doing. Maybe we could do it different. Maybe we can do it better. Maybe it doesn’t have to be this hard.”

Part of the problem is that chefs are kind of expected to torture themselves.

“All of us signed up for this, because it’s all we’ve known,” Adam Rosenblum, the chef of Causwells in San Francisco, told me. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, what the hell am I doing? Why am I doing it this way? And if the answer is because that’s the way it’s always been done, then that is not an okay answer.”

He said the pandemic has allowed him and other chefs to assess their lives and those of their staff, and realize that the long hours and generally low pay and few benefits isn’t how people are supposed to live.

“It’s allowed us to really reassess our professional lives and say, what does my business stand for? What am I doing with my time? What kind of impact am I making?” he said.

Before the pandemic, Rosenblum said if he told another restaurateur that he was working seven days a week because he couldn’t find a line cook, “the response wasn’t, ‘Oh man, that’s not really good for you.’ The answer was, ‘Well yeah, everyone’s in that boat.’ We have these expectations of ourselves that are not healthy, not realistic. The idea was, you’re a chef so of course you’re working six or seven days, 10-16 hours a day. It’s not healthy and we’ve known that for so long, but we’ve always just followed the paradigm.”

Rosenblum has figured out how to provide healthcare for all of his staff, which is a start, but I hope the process is underway for the entire restaurant community to rethink what they’re doing, and how, and why, they’re doing it.

“We have this opportunity to change the restaurant industry,” Rosenblum told me, “and even if it’s just a little bit, it will at least be a step in the right direction.”

And on that hopeful note, I wish you, Nancy, and all of our readers better things in 2021.

Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News.
Contact her at [email protected]

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] 

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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