What will the post-COVID 19 food scene look like?

When colleagues in the food and beverage industry started sending Stuart McCarroll lockdown pictures from China at the start of 2020, the Hinsdale resident knew something ominous was coming.

In early March, McCarroll, the CEO of global food producer Doehler Group, saw all of his company's service orders halted. Then in April, the consulting firm he founded, Menu Collective, completed work on its CoLaboratory Chicago project, a 20,000-square-foot commercial kitchen/cafe/bar space to help aspiring entrepreneurs develop their businesses. It just couldn't open.

"It was a bizarre time to (unveil) it," McCarroll said. "Unfortunately for us, it's very slow right now."

With the region slated to move into Phase 4 of Gov. JB Pritzker's Restore Illinois plan tomorrow, restaurants hope that the ability to reopen their indoor spaces - at up to 25 percent capacity - will speed up recovery.

McCarroll believes that diners will return - to a point.

"I think that people will come back to restaurants, but I think that there's going to probably be a general 10 to 15 percent reduction in business," he predicted.

The protracted COVID-19 restrictions have cultivated behavioral changes, McCarroll observed, as consumer spending has migrated from out-of-home entertainment and meals to at-home upgrades that make staying in more inviting.

"There's going to be a long-term shift from away from restaurants to dining at home," he said.

This is not necessarily a new trend, he noted, but one that has been accelerated by the pandemic. Convenience and cost are becoming increasingly pivotal, and McCarroll projected the large fast-food and coffee chains will thrive "because they do systems and process better than anybody else."

Smaller establishments need to give their patrons an emotional, high-quality impression that brings them back, he stressed.

"It will be more of bringing that experience that you couldn't have at home and a more user-friendly experience overall," McCarroll said.

He also forecasted that restaurants that have been outsourcing delivery will save money by bringing that service in-house. But will a delivered meal measure up?

"The challenges to (restaurants) in this time is how do you get the product to the consumer and still have that brand loyalty," he said. "It's got to be on time and it's got to be nicely packaged and have the quality."

Bars and taverns really face an uphill struggle, McCarroll said.

"It's so much more limiting than a restaurant experience because the social interaction is so close."

Ultimately, the ones left standing will have figured out the new formula.

"When it comes down to the fundamentals, you have to have an excellent product and the right experience that people will choose to have," he said. "If something isn't right, they can just choose not to go."

McCarroll stressed that he remains bullish on the future.

"People are extremely resilient and will modify their behavior," he said. "At the end of the day we are social creatures and very much want to be around each other and will work out other ways to do that."

- by Ken Knutson

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean