COVID has transformed restaurants forever. Here are 8 changes that are here to stay

Esther Davidowitz

A cataclysmic event like the pandemic that has forced people to stay in to work, study, socialize and shop can't help but transform a business that is all about getting people to dine out. 

But how will restaurants look, feel and be when the pandemic — fingers crossed — is finally in our rearview mirror? 

"It's never going to be the same," said Bob Wagner, who owns Ott's Restaurant in Medford, Berlin and Sewell and Braddock's Tavern in Medford. "We are never going back to normal. We are never going back to 2019."

March 16 marks the first anniversary of the closing of New Jersey restaurants due to the pandemic. And while their doors have opened somewhat over the year — currently indoor dining is capped at 35%; on March 19 it will increase to 50% — the damage the pandemic has inflicted on restaurants can't be overstated.

In good times restaurants function on small profit margins — from 3% to 6%. In bad times? The New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association reports that currently 35% of New Jersey restaurants have closed their doors either permanently or temporarily. Those that haven't, especially table-service restaurants, have seen their business drop by 40% to 80%, reported Marilou Halvorsen, outgoing president of the NJRHA. 

Nationally, 8 million employees working in food and drink businesses lost their jobs or were furloughed.

But instead of looking back, let's look ahead at the places that, a mere year ago, many of us would blithely frequent for food, fun and fellowship. 

Braddocks Tavern in Medford offers indoor and outdoor dining and has a bar.

We asked chefs, restaurateurs and industry experts to look into their crystal balls and tell us what we restaurant goers can expect when more of us are vaccinated, COVID-19 recedes, life returns to some semblance of normal and restaurant doors fully open.

We've had to adjust customs, technology and even our own attitudes since the virus arrived, and some of those adjustments are here to stay.

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We'll be using our smartphones to read menus

Six years ago, Chris Cannon, owner of Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown, wanted to use QR code menus, digital versions of physical menus. But the pushback, he said, was too great: "People freaked out." 

What a difference a pandemic makes. 

According to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), during the pandemic, 50% of full-service restaurants turned to digital menus. Most did it in deference to the health safety of diners and employees (does the word "contactless" still resonate?).

Nearly all, if not all, will join the QR bandwagon in deference to the environment (fewer trees chopped; less noxious gas released) and their bottom lines (paper and printers cost money). Cannon estimates that paper menus cost him $40,000 to $50,000 a year. Not just in paper cost but labor cost: Someone has to print out all those menus and stuff them into menu covers. 

"QR codes are great," said Marilyn Schlossbach, chair of the NJRHA and executive chef and owner of The Marilyn Schlossbach Group (Langosta Lounge, Pop's Garage and Asbury Park Yacht Club in Asbury Park). "They're much more sustainable."

And practical. Not only do restaurants not have to use a boatload of paper, but a digital menu can be changed easily. Got a typo? Fix it with a couple of clicks. Run out of a dish? Delete it.   

"We change our menu every six weeks," said Ashley Coyte, co-owner of The Grand Tavern in Neptune. "Instead of reprinting every six weeks, we can change it as we go or as certain foods, seasonal things, become available."

Anthony Bucco, chef and partner of Felina, an award-winning contemporary Italian restaurant in Ridgewood, predicts that nearly every full-service restaurant will have digital menus, but not digital wine lists. "A wine list is a document that doesn’t need as frequent printing," he explained. "It still has merit and value."

Cannon plans to have a few paper menus, though, "for older customers." 

We'll be dining in the streets  

Outdoor dining is a given in Europe. It's going to be a given on this side of the pond, too.

"In Europe and the Middle East, it can be 100 degrees and everyone is outside eating," said Renee Faris, chef/owner of Erie Coffeeshop and Bakery, an upscale bakery offering artisan sweet and savory pastries in Rutherford. "It's finally becoming a thing here. The energy on the street is so different. I love it."

Like many cafe and restaurant owners, Faris used whatever space her town allowed to set up alfreso eating; for her cafe, it's the street in front. Expanding into the street was so prevalent that the term streeteries was coined. Other restaurateurs used sidewalks, backyards and parking lots.

According to the NRA, since the beginning of the pandemic, 62% of fine-dining and 56% of casual-dining operators developed and expanded outdoor areas, many way past their patios.

“I never considered doing outdoor dining because we’re in a strip mall," said David Viana, partner and executive chef at Heirloom Kitchen, an upscale rustic-chic prix-fixe-only restaurant in Old Bridge. "We did a great job making a cozy outdoor space." As a result, he said, "we found a new area to seat people, and more seats mean more money for the restaurant. Places that never had outdoor seating will have it, and that’s a good thing.”

Saddle River Inn added outdoor seating during the pandemic --and plans to offer some alfresco dining in the future

Jamie Knott, chef/owner of fine-dine restaurant Saddle River Inn, introduced outdoor seating last summer. He's not planning to withdraw it. "I see how much people enjoy it," he said.

At his more casual spot, the Saddle River Cafe, a permanent outdoor dining structure is currently going up — something that he hadn't planned on pre-COVID. "It was not in the works before," he said. "Outdoor dining has to become part of everybody's game plan."

Joachim “Kim” Costagliola, owner of Esty Street, a high-end New American restaurant in Park Ridge, spent "a fortune" installing a "private dining meadow" in the back of his restaurant. It's money, he said, well spent. "It was a huge success last summer. As long as I'm a part of Esty Street, outdoor dining is going to be a part of Esty Street."

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We'll be dining out of paper bags and boxes 

You don't need stats to tell you that takeout and delivery took off during the pandemic; odds are good you've added apps for DoorDash, Grubhub or UberEats on your smartphone since the pandemic struck. But just in case stats are needed: According to the NRA, 68% of consumers reported that they're more likely to get restaurant takeout food than they were before the pandemic; 53% say takeout or delivery is now an essential part of their lives.  

"Takeout and delivery are here to stay," said Munish Narula, owner of Tiffin Indian Cuisine in Cherry Hill. "People have gotten used to the comfort of their homes and having meals delivered. And restaurant owners are seeing this as a benefit to their business finances, especially for restaurants with smaller spaces."

Craig Kunisch, owner of Allendale Bar & Grill and Mahwah Bar & Grill, agrees. "Takeout might not stay at the level it is currently, but it's never going away," he said. "Curbside pickup is going to be with us forever. Not because of health reasons, but it's so convenient — especially for people who've got kids in the car."  

And convenient, too, for people who just don't want to, you know, interact. "People really like it," said Leia Gaccione, chef/owner of contemporary American restaurants South + Pine in Morristown and Central + Main in Madison, "especially millennials. You don’t have to talk to anyone." 

Dottie's Crispy Chicken is a ghost chicken that offers three varieties of fried chicken sandwich

Which may also explain the proliferation of "ghost kitchens," or delivery-only restaurants; they have no seating space. Ghost kitchens, aka virtual kitchens and dark kitchens, work in two ways: Existing restaurants use their kitchen and staff to produce a limited number of dishes and have a third-party delivery service, say GrubHub or DoorDash, do the rest. Those without professional kitchen spaces rent another restaurant's kitchen or, more often, rent space in a commercial kitchen and have their eats delivered by a third party. And while they hardly began during the pandemic, their growth has mushroomed during it. Euromonitor, a U.K.-based market research firm, estimates that they could be a $1 trillion business by 2030. 

"I’ve been approached by two different companies to do ghost kitchens," Narula said, "and the amount of money they've raised is insane.”

Thomas Maroulakos, co-owner of Skopos Hospitality Group (The Barrow House in Clifton, Cowan’s Public in Nutley, The Vanguard in Harrison and Franklin Social in Jersey City), recently launched Dottie's Crispy Chicken, a ghost kitchen, out of The Vanguard. It required, Maroulakos said, "no additional staff, no additional equipment, no additional hours, no additional space." A ghost kitchen, he said, "is a way to keep ourselves going and our staff employed." And, of course, make more money.

Oggi Echavarria, chef and owner of Cork & Crust Italian Mediterranean Kitchen in Harrington Park, has launched two ghost kitchens: Hoboken Meat Co. and Garlic Knot King. "I have a friend down in Monmouth County with five kitchen concepts out of one place," he said. "If ghost kitchens are the future of restaurants, as everyone says, then I'm good: I'll have two." 

We'll have more room to stretch

Social distancing may be a health necessity now, but post-COVID, restaurant owners plan to continue to give us more space, albeit not 6 feet between tables.

"The old days of 14 inches between tables are gone," said Wagner, of Ott's. "You won't be able to cramp people in like that anymore." He predicts many owners will opt to spread tables 3 feet apart.

Gaccione, of South + Pine and Central + Main, said the pandemic taught her that it's not necessary to cram people into a restaurant to have a successful business. "We have learned how to run our business with limitations," she said. "Maybe I'll run South + Pine at 75%. It's hard for me to go back to normal."

Having fewer tables means needing fewer employees. "It's easier having less staff," Gaccione said. "It's easier to manage." Not to mention it's good for the bottom line: Labor is the biggest cost restaurants incur, from 30% to 50% of their revenue.

Kunisch also plans to give his customers more room in his dining rooms at Mahwah Bar & Grill and Allendale Bar & Grill. "I don’t think we will have the same number of seats in the dining room when we're fully opened, if ever." He knows he will not put as many tables upstairs at his Allendale location. "Upstairs, people were shoulder to shoulder, back to back. It's been a long time coming, but we're definitely going to implement greater table spacing."

The reason? "Everything we do is a reaction to the public," he said.

Apparently the public has gotten used to having more space.

We'll have fewer choices

Hudson Riehle, senior vice president for research for the NRA, reports that a majority of table-service restaurants have streamlined their menus during the pandemic, offering fewer items. It's a result, he said, of online ordering. Menus online tend to be abbreviated; specials certainly are never included.

Shorter menus make more financial sense. Shorter menus mean fewer ingredients, less food waste and more efficient kitchen operations. "It's good for productivity and efficiency," Riehle said

Bucco, of Felina, agrees. "Reduction of menu size is growing, and that is not going to stop," he said. "It’s easier to manage consistence and quality." 

He already has shrunk Felina's menu. "Our protein category isn't as vast," he said. "Instead of offering multiple cuts of beef, we offer one."

But it's not just food menus that will be leaner. Wine lists will be, too.

Tony Gullace, owner of Max of Eastman Place, a fine-dining restaurant across from Kodak Hall in downtown Rochester, New York, revamped his 19-year-old restaurant from fine-dine to a more casual bistro in November. He's made many changes. One of them was paring down the extensive wine list to two pages: one page by the glass and another page by the bottle.

“It’s much easier to maintain, especially as far as cost of goods and inventory," Gullace explained. "I’m not tying up tens of thousands of dollars in inventory.”

We'll be getting married in restaurants 

With venues closed and large group gatherings prohibited, many brides and grooms opted to postpone their weddings or throw small, masked soirees during the pandemic. The small soiree is not going away.

"Micro weddings," small, formal weddings of no more than 50 guests, have been growing in popularity over the last few years — and COVID-19 accelerated its growth. In 2009, the average wedding size was 149; in 2019, 131. In the future? 

Think smaller.

"We’re seeing an incredible increase of micro weddings," said Bucco, of Felina — a term he admitted he had "never heard before April." Although Felina has an attached 225-guest wedding venue — the restaurant is housed in an old bank, and "half of it is the venue," Bucco said — he reports that bookings in May for intimate events of 10, 12 and 14 people at Felina are up significantly.  

Chef/owner Knott, of the Saddle River Inn, reports that he's booked eight weddings in September and seven in October. "We used to do eight to 10 weddings a year," Knott said. "People are booking through 2022. They're looking for alternative venues. A lot are going smaller."

And the trend, wedding planners say, will continue. Not just because of cost — the average wedding tab is nearly $40,000, according to The Knot, an online wedding site — but to help reduce stress and increase one-on-one time with guests.

“In the future, when COVID-19 has passed, I do anticipate that a lot of people will come to realize that a smaller wedding was always the best fit for their needs, and they no longer will feel the need to have the big party just for the sake of doing what was more popular,” New York City-based wedding planner Tracy Taylor Ward told Hello Giggles, an online community for female-identifying readers.

We'll be taking our cocktails home

Cocktails to go at Cellars 335 in Jersey City

According to the NRA, since the pandemic erupted, roughly 7 in 10 full-service restaurants and more than half of quick-service and fast-casual restaurants started selling liquor with takeout or delivery orders — a trend that Riehle, of the NRA, says is "here to stay." It is, he points out, a real plus with millennials: More than half say they would choose a restaurant for food delivery if they can get alcohol, too. 

A number of restaurants in New Jersey seized the opportunity to sell alcohol to go during the pandemic, and many say they'll continue to do so as long as the state allows.

"We find that there are still a lot of people who would prefer to eat at home and are not ready to dine out," said Peter Amone, aka Tiki Pete, director of operations for Cellar 335, an American restaurant with a funky tiki bar. "So we sell quite a bit of to-go cocktails. We also find a lot of people come in to dine and often purchase our cocktails before they leave, since they know it would be too difficult to re-create on their own. We will continue to sell cocktails to go as long as the law permits us." 

Among the restaurants serving cocktails to go in the Garden State: The Shannon Rose Irish Pub in Clifton and Ramsey, Low Fidelity in Jersey City; The Irving Inn Social in Rahway; Tapastre/Project Pub in Somerville; and Talula's in Asbury Park. 

Schlossbach, of the NJRHA, predicts that liquor delivery will be the "biggest thing to grow" post-pandemic. "It was not prevalent before the pandemic," she said. People will order not only cocktails to go from restaurants but bottles of wine and more from liquor stores. "Liquor delivery companies are popping up everywhere," she said. Drizly is one. "We use it," she said. "It’s like GrubHub — only for liquor."

We're going to party like it's 2021 

The Roaring Twenties followed the horrid 1918 flu pandemic. As Yascha Mounk, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in The Atlantic: "The 1918 virus killed more people than the deadliest war humanity had hitherto experienced, but it did not reduce humanity’s determination to socialize." 

Experts and restaurateurs predict that a second Roaring Twenties will follow this horrid pandemic. After being cooped up for a year in our homes with almost nowhere to go for an escape — theaters closed, travel banned, restaurants restricted, retail shops modified — many say we will want to celebrate ... big time.

"Where is all that pent-up energy going to go?" said Gaccione, of South + Pine in Morristown and Central + Main in Madison. "It's going to be a huge boom for all businesses, especially restaurants."

We're going to have a lot to celebrate. Some of us have already begun, finding even a jab in our arms a good excuse to raise a glass at our favorite neighborhood hangouts.  

"If I heard it once, I've heard it one thousand times," said Wagner, of Ott's Restaurant. "People come in exclaiming, 'I'm one down. One to go.' It's an energy, a great vibe. We are eager to celebrate." 

"Restaurants have been hit harder than anybody," said Kunisch, of Allendale Bar & Grill and Mahwah Bar & Grill and a board member of the NJRHA. "It’s what people have missed the most. It's where people are going to celebrate the most." 

This article contains material from Sarah Greisemer, Jenna Intersimone and Tracy Schuhmacher.

Esther Davidowitz is the food editor for For more on where to dine and drink, please subscribe today and sign up for our North Jersey Eats newsletter.


Twitter: @estherdavido