COVID-19 isn't the Titanic. It's the Hindenburg.
Local dining conversations surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have been marked by optimism.
We might scrap about whether the owner of Lost & Found [4.6] is a jackass for throwing a huge party in the early days of the pandemic, and we can't quite decide how much social shaming is appropriate for those who continue to visit parks. But for the most part, there is a tenor of hope and survival in how Charlotte has responded to the crisis.
Influential locals have launched platforms like Support Local Or Else and Tip CLT to help restaurant owners and service industry workers weather the storm. Food writer Kathleen Purvis praised the ingenuity of restaurant owners and looked toward the opportunities on the other side of the crisis.
I don't disagree with any of the actions or opinions above. Hope is, in times like these, sweet and addictive like refined sugar.
Let's indulge for a moment in the best case scenario.
Imagine our city takes the stay-at-home order seriously. COVID-19's ability to spread is severely hampered. Banks and property owners work in good faith with business owners and private citizens to help keep everyone afloat. After the state lifts its stay-at-home order on April 30th, restaurants are allowed to re-open their dining rooms. New spots like Leah and Louise are finally able to flex their muscle and show off their spaces. The laid off employees of bars like Zeppelin are re-hired. Low interest rates cause a rash of property sales that leads to a slew of new restaurants.
Our dining scene mostly returns to normal, except we're healthier, smarter, and hold a new appreciation for our restaurant owners and their employees.
This is what I call the Titanic Scenario, in which COVID-19 is a one-time disaster that makes us better in the long run.
Over 2,000 people died in the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic, not even counting Leonardo DiCaprio who was a stowaway.
Like COVID-19, the sinking of a major passenger liner was more of a "when" than an "if." In the case of the Titanic, it was a lack of regulation and insufficient safety nets. If the Titanic hadn't ended in disaster, another ship would have.
Following the sinking of the ship, immediate changes were made in rules regarding lifeboats, radio communication, sea safety, and ship design that made cross-ocean travel safer for decades afterward.
That's the future we're all hoping for with COVID-19, that with a few tweaks here and there, we'll all be better off on the other side of things.
But what if there is no other side?
Let's swallow the hard medicine of the worst case scenario. And from day one, that is what this pandemic has given us: at every turn, the outcomes have been worse than anticipated.
Charlotte doesn't take social distancing seriously. We continue to pack parks and patios. The virus continues to spread. More die, until everyone knows someone whose lost someone. The stay-at-home order is extended, and enforced more harshly. Restaurants aren't able to re-open their dining rooms until summer, perhaps June or July. Most local restaurants don't have the liquid assets to survive, and they close permanently. Charlotte enters an economic depression due to joblessness. Opening a new restaurant here becomes an unexciting prospect.
And then next year, another virus. And the next year. And the year after that.
Our food scene is decimated, along with hundreds of others around the country.
This is what I call the Hindenburg Scenario, in which COVID-19 is the result of fundamental flaws, and much of what we recognize about dining in Charlotte (and dining in general) is going to disappear.
Unlike the Titanic, the Hindenburg disaster didn't lead to improvements in the airship industry. It killed it outright.
Despite its comparatively low death toll (35), media coverage of the 1937 explosion convinced consumers that there existed an inherent danger to airship travel. The entire industry dried up overnight.
What if COVID-19 is more like the Hindenburg than the Titanic? What if frequent international air travel, growing low-quality meat consumption by an overpopulated society, the secrecy of world leaders, and the politicized nature of early response are as prone to ignite as the Hindenburg's hydrogen gasses? What if an extended battle with COVID-19 and then other pandemics in the next ten years radically alter how people interact and how public spaces are managed?
I'm not an infectious disease specialist, but if that's the case (and I suspect it is), we need to begin to accept that this isn't a storm we're weathering, but the settling of a new atmosphere.
There is no coming back from COVID-19. There's only learning how to live under its shadow.
And what would living under that shadow look like?
Smaller dining rooms.
Every square foot a restaurant leases costs them extra money. The restaurants that are positioned to not only survive the pandemic, but to continue to make good money during it, could realize that a large dining room isn't a pre-requisite for success. If you can make just as much money while reducing expenses, why would you want to go back to the way things were?
Some restaurants have essentially converted to counter service. It's a faster and cheaper way to sell food. I spoke to one owner who told me they're doing about the same as they did before the pandemic struck, and saving a ton on overhead and staffing.
I'm curious how many managers might toy with the idea of making this change permanent, especially if we enter some kind of golden era for pandemics.
Thinning personnel in restaurants could make owners realize just how lean they can run. Those outside of the restaurant industry might not know that prior to the pandemic, staffing was a huge problem in Charlotte. Owners struggled to find and retain loyal, talented workers in both the front and back of house, while gifted managers felt free to ghost and job hop in the booming market.
Owners may discover it's easier than they thought to run a profitable restaurant with a shoestring team. Retaining that staff will become less difficult since the job market will be more competitive.
Less restaurants, but smarter ones.
One sad reality of this pandemic which I've already touched on is that I believe many, many restaurants will not re-open.
If we assume the worst case scenario, this pandemic will not end in April. When it finally does end, consumer habits will change, especially if it's not the last global pandemic we face in the next 5-10 years. In those two elements, we will see the loss of many quality restaurants. The dining industry is not one built to store large sums of liquid assets. Owned assets, like furniture, equipment, and intellectual property, can't be sold without crippling the restaurant.
If cooking at home and social distancing become the norm, we can expect a much smaller dining scene.
I believe the cream rises to the top, but that cream often has little to do with the quality of the food, and more to do with the financial and logistical management of a restaurant. What we could see is the sharpest owners and managers surviving, those who can be nimble and keep overhead low while keeping margins thick.
Heavier focus on community.
I'm hearing this over and over again from restaurant owners and managers: "It's our regulars who are keeping us in the game."
Billy Jack's Shack and Pizzeria Sapienza will go out of business over my dead body. As long as I have income, those two restaurants will have at least one customer. We all have restaurants like that, spots where we've made connections to the owners, managers, bartenders, and other regulars.
Restaurants who've turned their spaces into communities will continue to thrive in a Hindenburg Scenario. As they evolve, their regulars will follow. A restaurant has to fight for its own survival, but a community will fight together.
I often wonder what will become a restaurants that don't lend themselves to that community feeling, the ones who artificially pump up their popularity with paid media. In difficult times, does anyone feel a compulsion to go out of their way to support something like Hot Taco? Is that why they had to close while restaurants with a fraction of their volume have been able to survive?
These topics are hard to read and write about because they don't have happy endings.
But I'll give it a shot.
Will Charlotte's dining scene recover from this pandemic? That depends on what recovery looks like to you. If it means we go back to normal, I think the answer is no.
If recovery means we become an agile, tech-first, co-op/commune version of our dining scene, then that's debatable. Most of the owners who have adapted to COVID-19 see it as a one time bump in the road. It's possible the restaurant owners who survive will be those who already had community, excellent management/financial practices, and lean staffs. It's the difference between steering into the skid and already having tread on the tires.
We won't recover, not in the way our most optimistic selves use that word. But we will evolve.
It's going to look weird and different, better in some ways, and undoubtedly worse in others. Evolution can't happen without mutation, and most mutations are fatal.
And that's what this virus is: a mutation, both literally and figuratively.
Over the next few months we will see both sinking ships and flaming zeppelins. What's left afterward is anyone's guess.