In it Together: Reinventing the Industry With Andrew Zimmern and Rohini Dey

OpenTable’s webinar series, In it Together, tackles key topics facing the industry during the COVID-19 crisis. What does hospitality look like in a time of emergency? How can we support our communities today, both financially and emotionally? Hosted by our COO Andrea Johnston, the platform brings together restaurant leaders and experts to foster conversation and share advice during uncertain times. Register for free for upcoming webinars.

The only constant for restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic is change: closures, partial reopenings, new regulations and protocols, and (in some cases) re-closures. Operators have been forced to adapt at lightning speed, from food and beverage programs and business models to guest interactions.

That’s a tremendous burden on restaurants – but it may also present an opportunity. In this week’s In it Together discussion, OpenTable’s Andrea Johnston spoke with James Beard award-winning chef, TV host, and social justice advocate Andrew Zimmern and restaurateur, James Beard Foundation Trustee, and women’s advocate Rohini Dey, PhD. Together, they explored the future of the restaurant industry and shared ideas on how to take this moment to reflect and re-emerge stronger than before.  

“Food people are the best people in the world,” said Zimmern. “Even when our own house is burning down, we’re still trying to think of ways to help the people who are in the building with us. Every month I see new reasons to be hopeful.” 

Reinventing… the menu

Dey said she had always offered entrees grudgingly at her Chicago restaurant Vermilion, which melds Indian and Latin American cuisines, preferring formats that allow diners to taste a variety of flavors. After reopening this month following the COVID-19 closure, she’s finally offering a menu that suits her style: more small- and medium-sized plates, unbundled accompaniments, and less ceremony overall. 

“Now it’s all about what the guest wants,” she said. “Not the chef model.”

Additionally, her young, diverse team has been actively involved in recent protests for racial justice. Together, they introduced Beyond Borders, a series spotlighting phenomenal cuisines that have historically been marginalized in the U.S. 

Reinventing… the hospitality

Zimmern is involved in a number of restaurant businesses, and each has responded differently to the pandemic – one shutting down entirely and others focusing on contactless delivery, takeout, and patio dining. “We have to engage with the diner in a new way,” he said. 

His five-step plan for the future? “Save the cash, pivot, pivot, pivot, pivot.” Instead of fixating on when things go “back to normal,” he advised thinking of this time as an opportunity to be creative in terms of operations. 

As an example, Zimmern pointed to robotics. A couple of years ago, he was Twitter-shamed for profiling a restaurant that used robotics. Today, hundreds of robot-assisted restaurants are on the rise as a strategy to facilitate contactless food delivery. “Everything should be on the table to maximize dollars.” 

Reinventing… the business model

With restaurant revenues slashed, the question of how to maximize dollars is top of mind for chefs and operators. Many have already renegotiated leases, reduced the size of their team, and moved to leaner, more efficient menus. What now? 

Dey listed four ways restaurants can adapt their business models to thrive in the future: delivery and curbside service; off-site dining, including pop-ups and collaborations; retail products, such as grocery; and experiences, moving food service into unexpected spaces like art galleries.

Zimmern agreed that with more people cooking at home, grocery and retail present growth opportunities. “Everyone’s saying, ‘where do I get that rice, or that pot?’ The ready-to-eat space has a lot of promise.”

Reinventing… the supply chain

Not only chefs, but small farmers and purveyors are struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic. Zimmern noted that with the government banning some work visas, “there will be no one to pick tomatoes in Tennessee or crabs in Maryland or grapes in California.” He called for more protection for immigrant workers.

Additionally, many small farms raise specialty products (think Wagyu beef) that are not available in supermarkets but do go to restaurants. “We need to think about not only what we are raising but where we are serving it,” Zimmern said. 

Take seafood, for example. According to Zimmern, 75 to 85 percent of seafood that’s harvested is sold in restaurants, not markets. “The seafood industry has basically gone dark,” he said. Maintaining a healthy supply chain throughout and beyond the coronavirus pandemic will require awareness, action, and resolve from the food industry. 

Reinventing… the pay structure

Despite living in survival mode, social justice is still top of mind for restaurant owners and employees. Dey moved away from the tip credit model in her restaurant, aiming for more equity across the front and back of the house, and also plans to introduce a surcharge to invest in employee education. “We want to pay our employees better despite the higher cost,” she said. 

Zimmern is encouraged, too. He predicted that in a few years, the pay structure and financial equity structure in restaurants will be radically different from the current reality. 

The coffee trade makes a good case study. Zimmern explained that Starbucks was able to grow because of its fair trade policy, and customers got used to paying $4 for a cup instead of 50 cents. “We’re going to see the same thing in this country when it comes to food,” he said. “Gone are the days when we deflate the cost of a menu item. We’re going to have to pay farmers what it costs for a chicken and pass that onto the customer.” 

Both Zimmern and Dey indicated that now is a time to be innovative and bold, not fearful. “The whole creative destruction right now gives us a degree of freedom,” said Dey. “I’m taking my chances.”