The “hearts and souls” of cities are being dismantled as social distancing regulations take effect.
New York, the city that never sleeps—and one of the culinary epicenters of the world—is currently downright drowsy as new measures take effect, mandating the closure of all bars and restaurants to in-person diners. The city, along with a host of other urban hubs, is eerily quiet as the communal ritual of eating out grinds to a halt.
On March 15, 2020, New York City and Los Angeles—the two largest cities in America—ruled that all bars and restaurants must close temporarily to eat-in patrons (although takeout and delivery are still permitted) in an effort to stanch the spread of COVID-19. The cities join a growing roster of states that have issued similar decrees, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington, at the time of writing.
As people around the world take precautions to protect themselves and those around them from the threat of the virus, it is drastically altering the way we engage with our community. Meeting over a meal or a drink is no longer an option—which can feel particularly crippling in places where food defines the local culture. “These places are part of the heart and soul of our city,” New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said of the city’s restaurants and bars when announcing the mandated closures on March 15. “They are part of what it means to be a New Yorker.”
In the face of these restrictions, the food and drink industry is pivoting, implementing alternatives to traditional service and additional support for the bars and restaurants that serve as pillars of the community.
New York City’s strict restrictions on alcohol sales are being temporarily loosened. The New York State Liquor Authority announced on March 16, 2020 that it will change its regulations to allow takeout alcohol sales in an effort to mitigate the toll of closure for bars and restaurants. Delivery services are also stepping in to support local culinary institutions. Uber Eats is waiving the delivery fee for all orders from local restaurants and Grubhub and Seamless will waive commission fees for independent restaurants whose livelihood is threatened by the decree. “Independent restaurants are the lifeblood of our cities and feed our communities. They have been amazing long-term partners for us, and we wanted to help them in their time of need,” says Grubhub CEO Matt Maloney.
Popular food delivery apps and services are introducing new options for contactless delivery, so that customers can request that their food be left at the door. Over the past week, Seamless, Grubhub, Postmates, Deliveroo and Instacart have all announced no-contact delivery options, while DoorDash and Uber Eats are encouraging customers to leave specific instructions for delivery.
The rise in contactless digital ordering could extend beyond the blockade. Among the potential long-term effects of the coronavirus outbreak “is the uptick in people who aren’t normally online shoppers shifting into online shopping,” George Wallace, chief executive of MHE Retail, tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. “You will see a rise, faster than you would have otherwise, in the penetration of online shopping—particularly in food.”
The delivery business is expanding beyond these apps. Many restaurants that can’t serve diners in-house are pivoting to delivery-centric business models, expanding their takeout offerings and introducing limited or bespoke to-go menus.
Other restaurants are taking a more creative approach, exploring new retail models and revenue streams. Chicago brewpub Bungalow by Middle Brow announced on March 15, 2020 that it plans to introduce make-it-yourself pizza kits and a subscription service for beer, bread and pizza. Elsewhere in Chicago, All Together Now is adding a wine and cheese hotline, where callers can get personalized recommendations and place orders for delivery, and restaurants including Pacific Standard Time and Flat & Point are offering $40-$50 fully cooked pick-up meals.
In New York, Little Collins launched “Little Collins Pantry” on March 17, 2020 with products for elevated at-home dining like homemade pasta sauces, soups, grilled chicken and marinated portobello mushroom steak. In Los Angeles, Guerrilla Tacos created an “emergency taco kit” on March 16 that includes all the components for a four-person taco dinner—plus four rolls of toilet paper. Esteemed cocktail bar Employees Only started selling a do-it-yourself cocktail kit delivered from their West Hollywood location on March 13. Canlis, one of Seattle’s top fine dining institutions, has adapted by closing its dining room on March 16 and instead running three replacement businesses: a bagel shop, a drive-through burger window and a family meal delivery service.
Food has long been a source of comfort and community. But, in the shifting reality dictated by the preventative and mitigation measures around COVID-19, the restaurants and bars integral to local communities are being forced to pivot. As social gatherings are increasingly restricted, businesses that rely on visitors—such as restaurants and bars—are adapting, exploring alternative avenues for income and diversifying their services.
“[There are] two things that haven’t changed: People need to eat and people need to work,” Mark Canlis, co-owner at Canlis, told Fast Company. “There are a lot of great people out there who can come up with great solutions. We just have to have permission to think creatively [and] optimistically, permission to say, ‘I think we can do it.'”
Main image courtesy of Deliveroo.