Over the last few months, I've been ordering takeout on a weekly basis because I'm tired of cooking the same meals for myself. Prior to COVID-19, I used to eat at restaurants at least once a week whether it was for an article or to catch up with friends. Restaurants have the power to bring people together with food and that's what makes them so special. 

Due to the recent events with COVID-19, the restaurant industry has been impacted as indoor dining has been prohibited in many areas. Only recently did outdoor dining begin to pop up in places like New York City, but nothing compares to eating inside of a restaurant. 

I had the chance to speak with Danny Lledó (Executive Chef and Owner of Xiquet DL in Washington D.C.), Andy Clark (Executive Chef at Napoli Pasta Bar in Washington D.C) and Téa Ivanovic (Director of Communications and Outreach at Immigrant Food) to talk about their predictions of the industry following COVID-19 and how you can support restaurants during this time. 

1. How have your restaurant models changed since COVID-19? What are you doing to ensure safety and quality? 

Courtesy of Xiquet DL

Lledó: Like a lot of folks in our industry, COVID-19 challenged us right away to pivot to takeout and delivery during the stay-at-home orders in D.C. We hadn't previously offered a takeout menu, so we had to scramble to develop one, and acquire all the necessary packaging to deliver it. Now that the city has allowed us to reopen with limited capacity, we've totally redesigned our dining room: all of our tables are more than six feet apart, and we're down to just 16 seats, which I actually like and think we might keep beyond the pandemic: it allows for a more intimate and personalized experience. And of course, we've developed enhanced health and safety protocols, and trained our staff: masks on one hundred percent of the time (even in the kitchen), we're offering gloves and hand sanitizer to all our guests, and we're conducting routine sanitizing of common surfaces at regular intervals.

Clark: We have had to move towards becoming a patio restaurant. Most people want to sit outside, but in the past couple of weeks, we found that if we are fully booked outside people are willing to sit inside. We have switched to having way more to-go orders, even more than when we were strictly to-go which is great because it brings more revenue into the restaurant. From all the feedback we have received the food carries well which is a plus. That is a part of menu writing itself. You have to now write a menu for both the restaurant and for to go meals. Having the menu reflect that allows us to keep the integrity of the food.

Ivanovic: No one knows what the 'new normal' will look like, but we know one thing: we will have to be creative and adaptive with our own business model. For example, our focus will remain to diversify between dine-in, delivery, and takeout, with semi-virtual events here to stay for a while. Our "Engagement Menu" (where people can engage directly with immigration-related causes) has moved to a weekly Saturday newsletter. The "Engagement Menu", which used to be right next to our food menu on TV screens inside the restaurant, will remain virtual for a long time to come. This is a difficult time for the service industry, especially for small restaurant businesses, and we are learning and adapting every day. 

2. How do you think the restaurant industry is going to change as a result of COVID-19?

Courtesy of Immigrant Food

Lledó: There's no question that this year has changed our industry more than any other in recent memory, and not necessarily for the better. While it's led to some new innovation, I also know that a lot of restaurants aren't going to survive this downturn. And I'm not happy about that -- it might mean less competition for those of us that do survive, but I believe that restaurants are an essential part of the character of our communities. There's a reason that we gather over a meal -- it's a common element of the human experience, to talk, laugh, and share a good meal. At the same time, I do think that there has been more creativity in the dining scene than there's been in a long time -- everybody is working twice as hard as we did before the pandemic, and in the long run, that does lead to new ideas about how to do what we do. For instance, our takeout menu is completely different from what we offer in the dining room, because it's focused on meals that will travel well. Everything at Xiquet is cooked over a wood fire, which is something not many folks have access to at home.

Clark: There will be a lot fewer restaurants in six months. Restaurants are suffering. We have seen so many successful restaurants close. In New York City some of the best Michelin rated restaurants are closing and when Michelin rated restaurants close you know there is a problem. With us, we are trying to be as accommodating as possible. It takes a lot more patience because of the attention to detail. Attention to the food of course and then the attention to customers coming in. Do they have masks on, are they six feet apart, are they following our guidelines? Right now if you don't have a mask on you are not coming into the restaurant. That has been important for us from the start. We have realized we have to stand our ground because it's for everyone's safety and it adds another element to an already weird profession.

Ivanovic: That's the million-dollar question! Every restauranteur's eyes and ears are wide open for any cues about where the healthcare situation is headed and what governments' response are. In the meantime, we [at Immigrant Food] are taking the highest safety precautions currently laid out by Mayor Bowser, which include tables at 6ft apart, our staff wearing masks and gloves, and yes, our staff is also being tested regularly. 

3. What do you think people should consider when it comes to visiting their favorite restaurants when places start to re-open?

Courtesy of Napoli Pasta Bar

Lledó: I think everyone should realize how thrilled we all are to be able to welcome you back into our restaurants. I can't speak for every single owner, but I think most of us have thought very carefully about our enhanced protocols to protect the health and safety of our staff and guests. We're very lucky to be able to do what we do, and we're so glad to be able to do it again.

Clark: People need to take into account that the staff is under a lot of pressure and these are not normal times. People are stressed out and working at half capacity, and I think people need to understand we aren't used to this either. As soon as you walk into a door you need to realize that this situation isn't normal and we are humans too. People should also consider tipping way more than you normally would because of what these people are going through. These people are working and putting their lives on the line. Even though they are wearing masks they are still putting themselves in danger. Most of all just be kind, be nice. We are still doing everything we can to make everyone happy.

Ivanovic: Support small businesses and restaurants! We all need it. The reason why many of us have entered this industry is because we love hosting people in our "homes", the restaurants we own. 

Why is it important to support local restaurants during this time? 

Courtesy of Napoli Pasta Bar

Lledó: Restaurants are key to the fabric of our communities. I truly believe this. I think if we go ahead and let them fail, we're losing so much of what makes our cities such a vibrant place to live. To me, one of the special things about living in a place like Washington, D.C. is that at any given moment, you're just 10 or 15 minutes away from eating just about any kind of cuisine you can imagine from anywhere in the world. And we've got to push through this pandemic without losing an essential part of our character.

Clark: It is important to support local restaurants during this time because if you don't there won't be any local restaurants left. If you have a favorite restaurant or takeout place, please support them. I'm not saying every night, maybe even just once a week. Try not to go to the bigger chain restaurants and instead go to your local bistro, pasta place, or deli. Just do what you can to pump money back into the economy or there won't be any economy at the end of this because everything will be closed.

Ivanovic: Supporting your neighborhood local restaurant is the right thing to do but not just because of the location. I fear that there will be a massive consolidation in the restaurant business, favoring the large chains and corporate restaurants. Smaller, more original restaurants are having a harder time staying in business. But food innovation, menu modernization, novel experiences, and new gastronomy begins with small businesses, not corporate restaurants.