Small independent restaurants run on slim margins, and keeping the lights on can require a balancing act. For Poi Dog in Center City, Philadelphia, the evaporation of frequent corporate catering gigs at the onset of the pandemic disrupted that balance, according to chef and co-owner Kiki Aranita.
“We catered dozens of meetings and events every week, and that’s where we really made money,” she says. The restaurant, which specialized in the food of her home state, Hawaii, did a brisk weekday lunch business, but even pre-pandemic it only broke even. Aranita shuttered Poi Dog permanently in July 2020.
In cities big and small, there has always been a glamour about downtown dining. Situated in city centers, these restaurants thrived on power lunches, corporate catering, and an adequate supply of skilled labor for positions ranging from dishwashers to sommeliers. But office workers who were their regulars decamped to their home offices, and almost two-thirds of office-dwellers still work remotely 20 months after the start of the pandemic — in more residential places. The labor force has also disappeared — many restaurateurs expected restaurant workers to return to their old jobs when unemployment benefits expired in September, but that has not been the case.
It’s all combined to put downtown restaurants in the position of scrambling to adapt to changing circumstances — putting the longtime history of that glamorous downtown dining in flux. Here’s how experts think downtown dining will evolve going forward.
1. Fewer mom-and-pop shops
Many of the 90,000 restaurants that have closed because of the pandemic are small businesses like Poi Dog. These are the kind of personal, chef-driven restaurants that give downtown neighborhoods their sense of place. Without them, larger restaurant chains, which benefited more from the federal relief money, have come to dominate the downtown dining landscape in some places.
For diners who prefer independent restaurants to chains, something precious to the urban environment could be lost. A neighborhood’s character is in large part defined by its one-of-a-kind eating establishments. Even if you never visit them, independent restaurants bring energy and identity to communities just by being there.
2. Disappearing power lunch
Pre-pandemic, Drake restaurant in downtown Bend, Oregon, was known as a power lunch spot. But lunch service has been halted since early 2020. “The decision was made for us,” says Drake owner Ted Swigert. “There’s no market for it, and we couldn’t put together a team to maintain those hours.”
His second restaurant, Washington, is located in a more residential area that now does a bustling lunch business. “It’s the co-working spaces nearby, they’ve filled up,” he notes. Similarly, happy hour isn’t what it used to be and the crowds that came for cultural events, like plays and concerts, have not returned.
This business has been replaced for the Drake with a newly lavish dinner menu, complete with upmarket ingredients such as foie gras, chanterelle mushrooms, and truffles.
“During the shutdown, when so many places were scaling back, we dialed it up and made the menu more high-end. Our check averages went from $80 to $155, and it’s been a big success,” Swigert says. He attributes the success to an influx of newly remote workers from cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland. “That’s a lot of people who like to go out.”
3. More traveling and guest chefs
Aranita didn’t lose her passion for cooking when Poi Dog closed. Without a restaurant, she took her show on the road. “There were so many offers in the beginning, I couldn’t keep up with the requests,” she says.
Certainly, she wasn’t the only chef fueling the rise of pandemic pop-ups. The trend has been reported on in the Washington Business Journal and elsewhere. Currently, Aranita is the chef-in-residence at Jose Garces’s Volver restaurant.
These events have been a win-win-win for visiting chefs, hosting restaurants, and diners. They’ve brought a sense of fun, novelty, and energy to the dining scene. Given the success and popularity of guest chefs and pop-up events, they’re unlikely to slow down anytime soon.
4. A vanishing middle
Ryan Gromfin, industry veteran, restaurant coach, and owner of The Restaurant Boss, describes what he’s seeing in downtown dining as a bowtie effect. “On one end, we’re seeing more utilitarian restaurants that offer good food at a good price. That part of the industry is growing,” he says. “On the other end, we’ve got excellent fine-dining restaurants that are offering a memorable experience doing well, too. It’s the middle that’s disappearing. I’m nervous for the family-run Italian bistro.”
He’s currently encouraging clients who want to open new restaurants or new locations to stick with the fat ends of the bowtie. “Do something counter-style but with everything made from scratch,” he says. And as for the upscale places that have defined downtown dining for generations? “Fine dining isn’t going anywhere. Fine-dining restaurants will survive — as long as it’s the best,” he adds.
5. Mixed-use spaces
Looking into the future, Aranita imagines downtown restaurants will need to be more than one thing. She predicts chefs and restaurateurs will look for ways right out of the gate to diversify their revenue streams, such as with retail or events. Since closing Poi Dog, she’s broken into retail with a line of bottled sauces, but she says she wishes she would have taken that step sooner.
“The pandemic forced my hand, but I would have gotten there eventually,” she says. She points to new concepts that not only have retail arms but also onsite shops, such as bookstores, and restaurants that function as much as community centers as places to eat.
These are some of the changes happening right now, but the transformation of downtown dining will likely be ongoing for years. “I don’t think the majority of restaurant owners understand the magnitude of the change we’re going through,” Gromfin says. “The way restaurants have been successful for the last 50 years isn’t going to be a model for success going forward.” Downtown dining isn’t going to disappear, but it must evolve.