I had the always wonderful opportunity to talk with Francesca Hong, co-owner and chef of Morris Ramen, about the future of the restaurant industry. With everything happening in the world between COVID and the Black Lives Matter Movement, I would be lying if I said I had anticipated this to be an overly optimistic conversation. It is no secret that COVID has ravaged the restaurant industry and Morris Ramen has been one of the most publicly supportive businesses in Madison for BLM. But after sitting down and having a call with Hong on a beautiful Wisconsin spring day, I can say with all honesty that I am excited to see how restaurants adapt to the changing world.
Change is Inevitable
“Restaurants are recognizing they’ve been inherently an inequitable business,” Francesca told me as we started our conversation, “Survival of the fittest doesn’t align with the shift that’s happening [now].”
We talked extensively about these shifts happening in the service industry. It would have been hard enough for most restaurants to survive bringing in a fraction of their typical incomes for two months, but as more is learned about COVID it’s become clear that the hospitality industry is facing challenges that will last for potentially years. While restaurants are legally able to open up for in-person service, the restrictions on capacity in Dane county are tight. Beyond the legality of opening back up, many restaurants are looking into the future and wondering when it will be truly safe for their customers and employees to reopen fully and when will guests be comfortable to sit inside a busy restaurant or bar? All these questions have restaurants reflecting on their business models and their roles in the community.
“Restaurants need to think of themselves as social enterprises and not just businesses,” Hong says.
For many years restaurants have been seen as a core part of the community; they are places where people from all backgrounds are able to come together in ways that don’t often happen elsewhere. This is their opportunity to step more profoundly into that role, to serve their community and in turn, have their community support them. Hong tells me that this is the time for businesses to get creative. With very little help from local or state governments, if restaurants don’t rethink their business model, there is very little hope of survival.
It’s Time to Get Creative
Hong isn’t just offering up suggestions; she is working on her own tangible solution through the new non-profit, Cook It Forward. Cook It Forward is the brainchild of Hong and Merchant managing partners, Joshua Berkson and Patrick Sweeney. The goal is to use restaurants under-utilized commercial kitchens and offer up free boxed meals to those in the community who are facing food insecurity.
As Hong puts it, “This is not a pat-on-the-back type of mission. We are purchasing meals from local restaurants and educating them on why these orgs they are supporting are important. [We are] collaboration and coordinating with people who are on the ground [doing this work].” This is an opportunity for restaurants to receive some stable income and support the community at the same time.
Cook It Forward is just one example of how restaurants are reimagining what ‘being a restaurant’ means in this new world. While it’s clear that we will never be able to go back to February 2020, it’s unclear what the industry will look like moving forward.
If it’s up to Francesca, it’s going to be a lot more creativity and a lot more collaboration.
“Right now is the time to take a lot of risks. There is no reason not to: we’re living in a pandemic and recession. Now is the time to try everything. […] Every day it gets harder and harder to justify fighting for what was before.”
It’s an overwhelming time in the world. COVID is highlighting all of the inequities that were already alive and well, and the protests are highlighting the need for deep, systemic change.
We are living through a moment of great disruption. This is an opportunity for restaurants to reflect and go back to the basics of what they’ve always been truly great at; being the great connectors.