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Will eating out survive the coronavirus?

It’s the question at the heart of every conversation with a chef or restaurant owner.

Right now, the global pandemic is killing our industry – lockdowns and restrictions on trade and movement across the globe, social distancing, and just plain fear. Business has ground to a halt.

Some are exiting the industry, with no plans to re-open even once they’re allowed to. Others are looking to take-out deliveries and collections as a first phase of easing back into business once restrictions are lifted, or perhaps a more permanent solution to keeping their businesses alive.

Radical shifts and re-thinking of business models are being considered, as in so many other industries.

But what makes restaurants different from other industries, is that they revolve around people. They are places where people gather, where people are needed to create the food, serve customers, make wine recommendations – restaurants are about experiences more than just food. It’s not online or remote or contactless.

Our regular patrons are no doubt sick and tired of their own cooking, and their own four walls. But will they have the cash – and the peace-of-mind – to eat out?

The world economy is taking a massive knock, business failures and unemployment figures are heading into territory unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Eating out for most is going to remain a luxury.

Even as economies start up again, it’s going to be a slow process.

We have no idea how long this virus is going to be with us. Even once the toughest lockdown restrictions are lifted, physical distancing is likely to be the watchword, even a requirement, for at least another few months.

That could benefit the fine dining restaurant over the fast food joint, since fine dining venues already have larger tables keeping people further apart, and more space between tables.

But practically speaking, how do you eat your dinner or drink your wine if wearing a mask in public is compulsory? Who wants to be served by a waiter in a hazmat suit?

Fast food outlets are likely to focus on take-outs and drive-throughs rather than dining-in, but that’s not a feasible model for fine dining – it would take all the finesse out of it.

So, are people all going to rush out at once when released from lockdown, from their own stoves and dining tables? Do we expect a crazy-busy few weeks and then a slow-down once everybody’s had their fix of cuisine and financial reality kicks back in?

Or do we expect a slow start as people gradually start venturing out into the big world again?

There’s tourism to consider too. Establishments in tourism and business destinations, especially those with acclaim beyond their own cities, rely on visitors not just locals.

When, and how often, and in what numbers, will travel start up again? Business travel has probably been changed forever by the discovery of just how much can be accomplished with remote working and online meetings.

Leisure travel will be greatly influenced by availability of disposable income (likely to be very tight for most) as well as how well controlled the spread of the virus has been in destinations. Health considerations will be paramount.

At the very least, restaurants will have to look at re-arranging interiors to allow for physical distancing, and to gear up for delivery and pick-up.

That raises another question for upper-end restaurants, of how to package and present take-out meals – fine-dining style food doesn’t necessarily lend itself to being boxed up and carted across town, arriving in a less than perfect state, and your conventional carry-out box is hardly going to do your brand image justice.

Some will not survive. Does this mean a leaner industry? More competitive perhaps, as fewer establishments compete for the same customers, and the customers become more careful in their spending.

One thing is for certain, whether due to their own perilous business situation or customers voting for quality or over quantity, the mediocre simply won’t survive.

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