To survive winter restaurants need to reinvent

Change is on the horizon as the ‘gilded age’ of the local dining scene comes to a close and slow season approaches.
chef in a mask standing in a kitchen
Illustration by Ka Lee

Make it through winter.

That’s a tough goal for a local restaurateur to consider when the earnings at the end of every day have not been enough since March 2020.

Takeout orders, patio seating, limited capacities in dining rooms and, in some cases, GoFundMe efforts have kept some businesses alive, but the math still doesn’t add up.

“If you consider 25% of [your income comes from] your dining room and maybe 25% of your income is carryout and delivery — people have to understand that that’s still only 50% of what we should be doing and what we’ve built our businesses around,” says Tory Miller, chef and co-owner of three Madison restaurants, L’Etoile, Graze and Estrellón.

Small, independent restaurants had found a special place in dining culture pre-COVID-19, acting as champions of local food, experts in ambiance and masters of customer service. They were places to break bread together, to celebrate and to gather. And L’Etoile was Madison’s fine dining apex.

“It would be very hard to substitute that experience at L’Etoile,” says Frank R. Pérez, who worked as a server at L’Etoile for 25 years before being laid off due to the pandemic. “People come in with great expectations and [see] us delivering on them, if not overdelivering on them.”

It felt like somewhat of a gilded age for restaurants, as Miller describes it. But the bubble had to pop eventually, and the reality of across-the-board small profit margins has gone public in the form of closed-for-good announcements.

“It wasn’t going to last for so many people to be pushing the limits of profitability just so that you can spend more on environment, or spend more on presentations, or spend more on super expensive ingredients,” Miller says. “That’s where the bloat of our industry got to be too much. For me personally, everything I did and everything I do, it’s like I have to be selling something to keep pushing forward, to keep maintaining this image in this industry that everything is excessive and everything is great.”

Now it’s just about survival. “All the chefs and all the cooks in all the restaurants are in the same boat — we’re just trying to chase it and see who can sell the most food in a box,” he says.

There is good news, though. Just as the 1918 pandemic ended, so will this one. Yet it remains to be seen what will be left of the local restaurant scene once that happens.

Rebecca Spang, author of the history book “The Invention of the Restaurant,” notes in a recent article for Literary Hub that large chain restaurants that can renegotiate rents will likely survive. So will the restaurants that have nationally famous chef names attached to them. “But we may have lost many, if not all, locally owned and individual establishments,” Spang writes.

America’s restaurant culture has faced major change before — more than 100 years ago following the 1918 plague as well as Prohibition, and now following the 2020 pandemic. If local restaurants want to survive past winter and beyond, there’s only one option: Reinvent.

What reinvention looks like
We’re already seeing some of these changes to Madison’s dining culture as the industry finds a way forward.

Highbrow has gone handheld.

diner at home eating and enjoying takeout

Illustration by Ka Lee

The takeover of takeout food has forced many upscale chefs to figure out how to keep their boxed-up food on brand. Which means things like sandwiches, burgers, wraps that are the easiest to eat and transfer from containers have gotten a fun facelift.

Get ready for a personal chef craze.

personal chef in a mask coming to a door and ringing the doorbell

Illustration by Ka Lee

This may open the door to a demand for in-home professional chefs. Since we can’t go to the restaurants, you might as well bring the chef to you for a catered dinner party. Three local personal chefs — Sujhey Beisser of Five Senses Palate, J Sinatra of No Leftovers Catering and Sami Fgaier of Le Personal Chef — are ready to take over your kitchen.

Restaurant owners will move to the suburbs.
We might see a return to Wisconsin’s heyday of destination supper clubs and restaurants. Downtown rent might not be attainable anymore for independent restaurant owners, especially within downtown high rises that want to “add vibrancy” to their buildings. Smaller spaces, smaller overheads and a smaller staff will allow local restaurants to rebuild sustainable business models.

Restaurants will go the retail route.

person shopping with a cart

Illustration by Ka Lee

That’s how some restaurants have kept a revenue stream outside of carryout since the shutdown, and some have gotten really good at it. Heritage Tavern was uniquely positioned to offer grill boxes filled with meat from Fox Heritage Farms, the restaurant’s sister operation. We might see an explosion of restaurant-branded artisan products.

When we can gather, it might be for pop-ups and special dinners.
Startup chefs have already taken advantage of the low overhead cost of the pop-up model, and that might be the only option if local restaurants lose brick-and-mortar spaces. And since we likely won’t be ready to pack a restaurant until a vaccine comes out, ticketed events to private or limited-capacity dinners might become dining du jour.

Get used to QR codes and other technology.

QR code on a phone

Illustration by Ka Lee

You might already be familiar with the QR code menu replacement, and we don’t see this trend ending anytime soon. A menu that restaurants can update in real time without a reprint? And a tool for diners staring at their phones anyway? It just makes sense. Technology will continue to change the way we order and pay for food, and restaurants will become savvy enough that third-party ordering sites that take a cut of sales (and sometimes irk restaurant owners) might not be necessary anymore.

Chefs aren’t going to disappear.

chef in a mask standing in a kitchen

Illustration by Ka Lee

People like Tory Miller are going to retain their intellectual property and talent and figure out how to make a living from it. If we’ve learned anything about chefs who work impossible hours for not a lot of money, it’s that they don’t do it for the money. They do it because they love cooking. “If you’re a smart operator, you’re going to do everything you can to survive. But while you’re doing that you’re kind of going to be planning for the restaurant that you want to be, not the restaurant that you need to be,” Miller says.

Don’t count out a return to what was.
The mindset that we have to get “back to normal” shouldn’t be the goal — just ask Francesca Hong, co-owner of Morris Ramen and Wisconsin State Legislature 76th Assembly District representative-elect, who described just how unsustainable “normal” was in a column published by Bon Appétit. We do think full dine-in service may return if and when restaurants’ post-COVID-19 business models allow. It’ll just take a while. The food world is always going to want and need experts like Michael Kwas, L’Etoile’s wine director, for example. “I’ve always thought that good service is an art,” Kwas says. “It’d be nice if people could make careers out of it where they can make enough to put a little bit away for kids’ college and take some decent vacations from time to time.”

Click here for more on what’s next for Madison’s culinary scene.

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