clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How the Restaurant Industry Rebuilds Itself in 2021

More worker-owned restaurant cooperatives, an expansion of counter-service and takeout operations, and a continued examination of the dining industry at large

A picture of Mirisata’s Simar Tate, Rochelle Cunningham, and Alex Felsinger
The team behind Mirisata

Per tradition, Eater Portland ends the year by reflecting on the last twelve months of dining in a series we call Year in Eater. We reach out to Portland food writers and influencers for their perspectives on major trends, impressive newcomers, and standout meals, and share their responses in a single package. Of course, 2020 was a historic and catastrophic year for the restaurant industry, so our questions this year hinge on that reality. Still, many wanted to celebrate the restaurants, chefs, and trends that really stepped up this year, and lament the restaurants lost to 2020. Look back on past years here.

When coronavirus crawls out of our minute-to-minute consciousness, when dinners in cozy corner booths and late nights at bars return, when work lunches no longer involve a 10-second commute to the kitchen, when anyone can walk into a diner and sit down at the counter for a cup of coffee and a pile of eggs, there will be a moment when this industry will have to look inward and figure out what’s next. How does one keep going, wiser and more prepared for whatever fresh hell strikes us when we’re not ready? How will restaurant owners — the ones able to reopen their businesses, anyway — hire back their full staff and fill their dining rooms to full capacity once again? What will the new restaurants of 2021 and 2022 look like? What will happen to communal dining, dive bars, Korean barbecues? There are countless answers to these questions, countless theories and suggestions and strategies. Who knows what’s coming next, what will work and what won’t. But we asked some of the city’s food writers, personalities, chefs, restaurant owners, and more where they think the restaurant industry should go next as it rebuilds.

“Many restaurants accelerated their digitalization efforts this year in order remain accessible. The pandemic highlighted the importance of having a certain infrastructure in place (ie: online ordering). As the industry rebuilds, the key will be how restaurants strike a balance between the necessary-but-impersonal use of technology, with the humanistic warmth of the service industry we’ve all come to love and miss dearly.” -Vicki and Vanessa Ng, Instagram influencers

“I believe there is a lot of opportunity in using the online community as an extension for your brand. I’m talking about that extra step above Instagram stories which involves some serious creative direction and merchandise, but ultimately I feel like it’s an evolution of interaction and communication that people are already familiar with. This pandemic has given restaurants the opportunity to innovate and provide a unique, individual experience for culinary connoisseurs to create a restaurant ambience in their own homes. What does hospitality look like without a physical space? That’s what I’m interested in addressing.” -Diane Lam, Sunshine Noodles

It will take a long time for this industry to recover. When everything opens up, these businesses will have limited resources and will have to operate on skeletal budgets. Counter service, shorter menus, and streamlined ordering and pick up will be good ways to save resources while still feeding a hungry public.” -Rachel Pinsky, Eater Portland and Columbian contributor

Wherever possible, a fast and easy pick-up. I know drive-thru is impossible at most places, but the model pioneered by some places (where you drive up, park outside and call or text, and the food is brought to your car) I have really liked.” -Bill Oakley, television writer and Instagram influencer

“I think focusing on reaching people outside of the restaurant setting will continue to pay off. It was a trend that cropped up even before the pandemic. People love to have things at home/brought to them and they absolutely adore convenience.” -Daniel Barnett, Eater Portland contributor

“It’s time to embrace more flexible food concepts, where takeout-friendly menus, online pre-ordering, and collaborative kitchens for pop-ups are the norm. The traditional dine-in restaurant model feels out of date, although it will always have its place. The industry also needs to work toward more sustainable solutions for takeout.” -Waz Wu, Eater Portland contributor

I think the industry needs to go in the same direction that we needed to go in before the pandemic. We need to create an industry of diversity in service models, cuisines, and culture. We need chefs and owners of different races, genders and backgrounds. We need to provide livable wages, health insurance and safe work spaces for all staff. It has been a terrible year for everyone in the industry, and my heart breaks for anyone that has lost a job or a business. But a COVID vaccine doesn’t solve our underlying problems. As we rebuild, our focus shouldn’t be getting back to where we were before but making our community something more.” -Jasper Shen, XLB owner

I hope there’ll be more BIPOC-owned restaurants opening next year, especially worker-owned cooperatives like vegan Sri Lankan restaurant Mirisata. Many restaurants in the industry exploit people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and women. Having a workplace where everyone’s say matters equally is a firm rejection of that culture.” -Katherine Chew Hamilton, Portland Monthly food editor

I think what’s most important in rebuilding is a focus on creating a healthy workplace. Toxic kitchens, racism, sexual harassment, all of that needs to get left behind. It’s going to take a lot of active work, something that we journalists need to be a participant in, too.” -Alex Frane, Eater Portland contributor

The industry needs more diversity. We need more women, people of color, queer and trans people to have more roles of leadership. We need to invest in diversity and community.” -Shardell Dues, Red Sauce Pizza owner

“The system is broken and has been (for) a very long time. Margins are so tight that any issues become magnified. Food in the US is expensive. Maybe too much so, and even more expensive to get to a plate. So, restaurant have been trying to find ways to make them work, which often leads to ugly practices. Ideally, move towards a fairer model, financially and socially. Businesses have to become a more attractive place to work. The move away from owner or chef ego and back to the fundamental purpose of a restaurant: to feed people and show them a good time and to hopefully, provide themselves and their staff an opportunity to make a living in the process. Really, back to basics.” -Aaron Barnett, St. Jack owner

I don’t know how well the industry can figure out a new direction while businesses are just trying to stay open until normal dining can return. But I think that shutdowns have helped people think about restaurants as community institutions and think about why they’re important. They probably need to keep reminding customers why we value them while restaurants recover next year.” -Christopher Bjorke, Portland Business Journal associate editor

When people talk about the restaurant industry, I think it’s important to clarify that we’re talking about independent restaurants. The big chains don’t need our help. They’ll be just fine. If we, as a society and community, see value in creativity, originality, history, and shared experiences, we must find ways to support and preserve these independent restaurants. I don’t need to tell you that a restaurant is so much more than a place to get food. If you’re reading this, you know this already. Some will take the hard lessons of 2020 and rebuild with survival in mind — concepts with low overhead, ease of execution, and flexibility in mind. But just acknowledging that feels like defeat. There are no easy answers, but we can begin by fighting for legislation and financial support to help them rebuild stronger with a greater safety net of protections. Only then, can restaurants begin to thrive again. If independent restaurants win, we all win.” -Judiaann Woo, restaurant publicist

Our industry will go wherever the dining public decides, because our future is 100 percent dependent on the general public’s willingness to come back out in numbers. We are businesses that thrive on human density: close seating, packed bars, etc. For Portland restaurants to look anything like they did people will need to show a willingness to come back out en force like before. If not, except for fast casual and dive bars, we’ll have to rethink everything. We are small spaces that simply cannot survive long-term with six-foot spacing.” -Kurt Huffman, Chefstable owner

“Eater’s national site basically built an entire story package around this question, and I am able to acknowledge that I don’t have a firm answer myself. Off the top of my head, I think building restaurants around an equitable pay structure, with financial support from diners and the government, is a crucial foundation for anything stable moving forward. Workers need to have a functioning safety net. We need a better (read: single-payer, government-sponsored) healthcare system that ensures every worker has access to the care they need while also lifting the financial burden from restaurant owners. We need a higher minimum wage, and a continuation of recovery grant programs for independent restaurant owners. We need to feel comfortable spending more money at restaurants when we know it goes to keeping workers at a liveable wage and sourcing food from farms paying their workers a liveable wage; we need people who are in a financially comfortable place to sponsor more pay-it-forward meal programs at restaurants, as well as food access programs. We also need to see restaurant owners pursuing business models that address the inherent inequities within the restaurant industry, ones that give their workers a voice, make space for restorative justice, and deconstructs the toxic workplace culture that has harmed so many workers over the years. That’s a lot, but I do think this city, in particular, is uniquely primed to start chipping away at this challenge.” -Brooke Jackson-Glidden, Eater Portland editor

More Year in Eater [EPDX]