Slightly-informed political and economical observer who loves food, movies, sports and video games.
Rough Road Ahead
Let me preface this by saying that I’ve studied economics, but I’m not an economist (much like I’ve studied engineering, but I’m not an engineer, and I’ve studied theater, but I’m not a member of the LGBTQ community). But even with my partial-at-best knowledge of global economics, I can tell you that restaurants are in for a rough road ahead, probably even rougher than they’ve already seen. Covid may have been the first rock down the mountain, but there is an avalanche hitting restaurants now, and there's a chance that most are going to be crushed.
Covid, Part One
Let’s start with a little recap, for those of you who have been vacationing on the rings of Saturn or in a coma for the last 2 years. First there was Covid, and everyone decided to stay home and play Xbox and call it “Working from home”. We all ordered from Grubhub and UberEats and restaurants laid off their waitstaff, but those eateries who could figure out how to put food in boxes and bags did just fine with just a chef and someone to answer the telephones.
Then Covid took a break and restaurant owners gleefully announced to their waitstaff that they could come back and be on their feet for 9 hours a day making minimum wage and taking abuse from hungry customers who had spent the last 9 months forgetting how to interact with live human beings. Most of that waitstaff gleefully told restaurant owners where they could shove their jobs. This led to another round of restaurant closures and forced remaining restaurant owners and managers to actually interact with their customers—a situation that made them rethink their life choices.
Covid, Part Two
Covid came back for the sequel, Omicron, but this time there were not so many closed dining rooms. Instead, there were fights over mask rules and vaccination requirements and spacing and air flow. Customers stormed out in anger. Staff walked out in protest. Basically now people were choosing restaurants based not so much on the food or service, but rather their politics. Inevitably, some restaurants never quite found their political match in the customer base and were forced to close.
Also, it's worthy of note that there wasn't much government support out there for the second wave of Covid. Restaurant owners were not invited to get free loans or grants to bolster their businesses during Omicron--they were forced to make it work. Or not.
Covid began to fade again, just in time for record inflation, supply chain problems and a war in Europe. This led to the phase we’re in now; the phase I like to call “Holy shit pickles, I just paid $120 to take my family to Denny’s.” Needless to say, this economic phase is not sustainable. Restaurants cannot lower their prices because food and labor are so expensive. People cannot pay these prices because wages are not keeping pace with inflation and gas prices are making it too expense to drive to restaurants, work, or to the end of the driveway to get the mail. Something has to give. Especially since one of the next phases in this progression is "I found this in the street--I'm pretty sure it's edible."
What will give is the restaurants. They will give coupons, discounts, frequent diner cards, Groupons and whatever else they can to keep people coming. Some will give too much and bankrupt themselves through an upside down cash flow. Others will not give enough and never lure the customers back. The national chains with the deepest pockets will weather the storm. Fast food will probably be fine (as long as they keep their “Dollar menus”). Fine dining, family restaurants and legitimate ethnic restaurants are going to close by the thousands. The once rich landscape of food choices in America is going to look a lot more barren and homogenized.
So thank you Covid, and Putin, and whoever that loud guy is who is always shouting about stocks on TV. You've taken the joyful experience of going to that special restaurant to get that special food you're craving and replaced it with "Would you like fries with that?" The movie “Demolition Man” predicted a world in which every restaurant was Taco Bell…By about 2025, we may be there