The food industry was significantly affected by the pandemic, as restaurants had to get creative in order to operate while complying with COVID-19 health and safety measures. The upcoming restaurant reopening plan is supposed to mark the return to the way dining used to be during the Stone Age of pre-pandemic times. But some pandemic relics won’t end — partly for the better, partly out of necessity due to the labor shortage.
Here are eight pandemic legacies our food writer predicts will stick around even after Gov. Jay Inslee lifts the final remaining dining restrictions by June 30.
Many neighborhoods will continue to see sidewalk cafes and patios dot their Main Streets and commercial drags year-round. For instance, owners along the barhopping stretch of Ballard Avenue Northwest have redefined the dining experience there with waterproof coverings and heaters in dining areas along the sidewalks and parking lanes to weather the cold fall and winter. This has the backing of the Seattle City Council, which in May unanimously voted to extend the free sidewalk cafe permits through Memorial Day 2022.
Restaurants also have an ally in Councilmember Dan Strauss, chairperson of the city’s Land Use & Neighborhoods Committee, who wants to create a Euro sidewalk cafe culture in the Emerald City.
Sidewalk cafes have been gaining support from other city halls around the Sound, too. In Bellevue, city officials cut the red tape for patio permits during the pandemic and have hinted they want to keep these sidewalk cafes and outdoor dining rooms going in the foreseeable future.
In Kenmore, the city allowed Stoup Brewing to plop down a dining area in the town square last year. Although Stoup might have to move out of that plaza later this summer, city officials are willing to shut down nearby parking lanes so the restaurant can relocate.
Quick Response or “QR” codes
In one of his first safety mandates, Inslee banned menus at dining tables unless they could be disposed of after each use. Restaurateurs complied with paper menus, but most nudged diners to use their iPhones to scan prominently displayed QR codes to find the soup du jour. QR codes save time and trees. This route may be the new norm because it cuts down the need for servers at a time when the industry faces a labor shortage. At Chengdu Taste in the Chinatown International District, for instance, you can scan to order and also pay your bill instead of flagging down a server. Chefs can also update the menu faster since they don’t have to print out menus every time a new entree or wine is added.
In March 2020, Inslee temporarily shut down restaurants but allowed them to offer food as takeout. Not booze, though. The bar industry cried foul because they weren’t in the food business, at least not as a primary source of income. The state offered an olive branch by allowing bars along with restaurants to sell cocktails and cocktail kits. In a state with some of the nation’s strictest liquor laws, the announcement recently that cocktails to go will now be allowed through July 1, 2023, was a shocker. The big winners are the taquerias and Tex-Mex spots. When I order Mexican takeout every week, I always see rows of Mason jars of margaritas or bottles of tequila (as part of the cocktail kits) with food sitting in the takeout pickup area.
Instagram bake sales
Many inspiring and laid-off pastry cooks cribbed from the playbooks of their counterparts in L.A. and New York and hawked their cupcakes or announced bake sales through Instagram, a medium that’s picture-perfect to show off their five-layer wedding cakes and flower frosting decorating skills.
Not many restaurants will keep a pastry chef on the payroll, so expect the Instagram bake sales to remain. Coping Cookies, My Friend’s Cookies and grayseas pies are just some of the Seattle-area baking businesses launched during the pandemic that will continue to run bake sales through Instagram. Self-taught baker Gracie Santos of grayseas pies saw her baking business boom last Thanksgiving and now bakes Girl Scout Cookie-inspired pies from her Central District kitchen full time. “If Instagram didn’t exist, then grayseas pies wouldn’t have existed,” she said.
The new chicken sandwich, the smash burger is arguably the most popular comfort food restaurants pivoted to when we needed something affordable and familiar during COVID-19 times. These rough-formed patties get smashed on a sizzling griddle to form an armored char with crispy edges and then topped with melted American cheese along with the usual fixings. These diner-style burgers will remain, especially on happy hour and late-night bar menus. Three smash burger spots to look for: chef Josh Henderson, who started two Burbs Burgers locations in Montlake and Pioneer Square during the pandemic, will open two more branches this summer in Burien and in Mountlake Terrace. Rough Draft, which held several pop-ups around Seattle, will open its smash burger concept in Uptown as early as July.
Zoom cooking demos and classes
Many chefs and cookbook authors who held virtual cooking classes to pimp their meal kits or their brands during the pandemic will likely keep this shtick going. For instance, Shota Nakajima of “Top Chef” fame will continue to record his cooking demos out of his house while he runs his new Taku chicken restaurant.
PCC Community Markets, which run its popular chef cooking series at eight stores around King County, pivoted to virtual classes during the pandemic and found they drew a bigger audience partly due to the convenience of people being able to follow along and cook from their own kitchens. “We do surveys, and we heard from many of the attendees that they want to continue with the online classes,” said PCC spokesperson Kristen Woody. In Fremont, Book Larder plans to keep virtual cookbook author talks around in some capacity since many publishing houses won’t have the budget to send their writers on book tours, management said.
The bane and savior for many restaurants during the pandemic, takeout orders made up half, if not all, sales revenue for many restaurants due to dining room seating restrictions. Many didn’t even turn on the lights in their dining rooms, opting to run takeout counters instead. Chefs hate takeout due to the drop in quality as entrees get steamed in plastic containers. But many restaurants have learned to live with that. With the labor shortage, restaurants such as Bar del Corso on Beacon Hill can’t staff up quickly enough to reopen at 100% capacity, so that Italian cafe will continue to rely on takeout until it can hire enough cooks and servers to handle a full house.
Plus, many customers have gotten used to the convenience of takeout. In the Central District, Wood Shop BBQ owner Matthew Davis won’t take down his online takeout ordering system when his dining room reopens. “It’s a necessary evil,” Davis said. “It has become such a big part of our business”
Pop-ups and ghost kitchens
The two concepts sometimes overlap, but the idea has the same goal: selling food without shelling out big bucks for real estate or labor. Pop-ups made a big comeback during the pandemic partly because many line cooks took advantage of all the empty restaurants that were closed or ran limited hours due to COVID-19.
Other cooks and entrepreneurs also used ghost kitchens by contracting out the cooking to other restaurants or temp cooks to hawk their line of food. You can get “Donkey Sauce” and burgers from Food Network star Guy Fieri in Seattle if you order online. (The food gets made in the kitchen of the Buca di Beppo restaurant in South Lake Union.) Comedian George Lopez just launched a ghost kitchen in Seattle to hawk his line of tacos. Expect more celebrities and famous restaurants to lend their names by using the ghost kitchen concept. Many ghost kitchens and pop-ups are not ending with the pandemic.
In downtown Seattle, Thibault Beaugendre, who works at Amazon in customer service, has rented a downtown restaurant kitchen for four days a week to bake croissants, Kouign-amann and baguettes that he personally delivers to customers. His virtual bakery is called The French Guys. In West Seattle, Tan Nilnavarat runs two virtual restaurants out of a commissary kitchen: Thai Chicken Rice, where he makes Hainanese chicken, and Moo Street Taco, where he sells Thai tacos.