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March 30, 2020

Restaurant closures are forcing innovation

The fight to stay open is part trial and error

When you’re in the midst of it, it’s difficult to find anything positive to say about what we’re going through right now. Businesses are fighting their hardest to stay open, furloughing staff and reinventing their menus to pivot to takeout and delivery.

One thing that is certain, however, is that we’ll look back on this time of stay-at-home and see it was a time that forever changed the food and beverage industry.

Last summer, long before this pandemic was anywhere in our minds, I attended a James Beard Foundation summit with Charlotte chefs, focusing on how to get the city’s culinary scene better recognition. Clark Barlowe, the former owner of Heirloom Restaurant and one of the city’s fiercest advocates of local foodways, thought the best way to do so was to come up with ideas that are solely Charlotte. One idea was to get the entire city to offer a pay-what-you-can dish on their menus. Another was for restaurants to order extra produce, and sell ingredients to customers directly.

The first idea gained some traction. Several chefs got together and served a pay-what-you-can community meal. Greg and Subrina Collier have added a pay-what-you-can dish to their menu at Leah & Louise. The second idea, however, seemed too far our there. How would restaurants know how much to order? What about the extra work it would take?

Amid coronavirus closures, however, selling ingredients directly to customers has become a way for restaurants to sell more, while continuing to support their farmers. Saturday night, for example, Jon and I purchased a box of Boy & Girl Farm veggies along with that night’s dinner from Fin & Fino. The Stanley is selling beautiful cuts of meat. NoDa Company Store has turned into a neighborhood grocer.

This is a terrible time for small businesses, especially restaurants. Innovation will be key to staying open, and soon enough, we’ll see how this pandemic brings change to the restaurant industry forever. —Kristen Wile

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