The Future of Dining Out

Aaron Deal is the founder of Deal & Associates Restaurant Consulting (DARC) in Roanoke, Virginia and a certified executive chef with more than 20 years’ experience in restaurant operations. A year after the COVID-19 pandemic first swept the world and decimated the U.S. restaurant industry, Deal shares his thoughts on the future of restaurants and how these changes will affect diners’ experience.

By Aaron Deal, as told to Layla Khoury-Hanold

Outdoor Dining is Here to Stay

The definition of a restaurant as a four-wall entity will expand to include outdoor dining for many more restaurants. And unlike takeout, I see this as a pandemic pivot that will stick around. Even in larger cities where there isn’t an abundance of space, restaurant operators have found really creative ways to transform parking spaces and sidewalks with aesthetic and functional touches to create an extension of the restaurant’s look and feel. Going forward, the outdoor service training will be a larger part of the conversation for operators, so that the experience isn’t just built on survival. This translates to a much more elevated experience for the diner in the future, too, no matter where they’re sitting.

Service and Hospitality Will Be Back

Service will be back in all its glory. I have no doubt. One of the things I’m seeing, despite the reality of our new normal, is that people are still trying to grasp onto that pre-pandemic notion of dining out and they still have that same expectation. It’s going to take some time for the public to relearn what the new restaurant landscape looks like regarding style of service, steps of service, and attention to detail. But there’s going to be businesses, like Gramercy Tavern in New York City for example, that built themselves on that high level of service and will come back to doing it.

Your Future Restaurant Meal Will Cost More

Restaurants are going to be more expensive. Prices for commodities have increased across the board for the last 10 to 15 years. Despite that, you don’t see much of an increase in a restaurant entrée. Chefs are paying more for things like beef and fresh seafood, costs that aren’t easily passed on to the guest because people are willing to sacrifice quality for price. Especially now with folks being out of work, people are being conscious about where they’re spending their dollar.

I think people will be unhappy that things are costing more. But if we want to see any real change regarding paying staff a fair and consistent wage, ensuring that we have a quality product that’s prepared skillfully and safely, and that dining areas are being sanitized properly, that’s the reality. There are so many things now to think about that are going to require so much more effort. That translates into dollars, which translates into expenses from the guest perspective. People are going to have to understand that.

Your Favorite Restaurant Still Needs Your Support

Most places aren’t going to be walking back into the same business that they were doing in 2019. People are still going to be operating at 35% to 40% less than normal because of distancing requirements and because people are hesitant to dine out.

Throughout the pandemic, I saw two different consumer perspectives. There were folks who supported their favorite restaurants by buying to-go meals and merchandise because they understood that their dollar is what’s going to keep the places they love afloat. But we also saw people step away because they said, “Look, I’m not willing to pay $40 for an entrée that’s coming in a to-go box. You let me know when it’s back on the plate.” Well, guess what, it may not ever be back on the plate if you’re not willing to spend a little extra money to help keep that business operating.

Final Word: The Future is a New Golden Age of Restaurants

I think we will experience a new golden age of restaurants, but probably not until 2022. That’s why it’s so important that consumers continue to support local restaurants now, so that we have a foundation to build back better for both hospitality industry workers and diners.

Layla Khoury-Hanold is a freelance journalist covering food, travel, and lifestyle stories. Her work has appeared online with Food Network, Refinery29, the Chicago Tribune, and the James Beard Foundation, and in print with Drinks International, Our State, The Roanoker, and INDY Week. Follow her writing and food adventures on Instagram @words_with_layla.