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The Future of Restaurants Post Pandemic


At a time when many restaurants are closing, some of Virginia’s best-known foodies are busier than ever  -- launching new enterprises or finding new ways to please diners.  Sandy Hausman talked with them about the future of restaurants.

Nearly twenty years ago, Jason Alley and Michelle Jones teamed up to bring their favorite Southern foods to Richmond.  Their biscuits and pimento cheese were legendary, and Comfort was packed in February when the two announced they were ready for a new challenge and would close the restaurant.

“People flew in literally from all over the country to visit, and we got to hear all these amazing stories and see people we hadn’t seen forever, " Alley recalls. "We also had a really great month of revenue.  If we had not shut down then it would have been like somebody pulled the emergency brake.”

That was what happened to Charlottesville restauranteur Andrew Cole, who – along with several partners – had just opened a high-end steakhouse on the downtown mall when the pandemic hit.  

Credit RadioIQ
Owner Kate Hawk says Canteen's menu features items you can eat with your hands.

“We were just kind of coming into our own when we had to shut it down,” Cole laments. 

Alley and Jones started a consulting business and helped launch a new eatery in suburban Ashland called Canteen – filled with summer camp memorabilia.

“We just brought in a ton – well, actually, 2.5 tons of astroturf that we put outside for games," Alley says.  "We want people to be able to come and enjoy some music outside, maybe have a cold beer, play some corn hole, so all the food is very much hand-held and designed to be eaten outside while you’re doing other stuff.”

Think hot dogs, tacos and the products of owner Kate Hawk’s oven.

“I’m really excited to be doing the 17-layer biscuit.  It makes it flakier, so it will pull apart very easily," Hawk says.  "And then we do something called a doffin, which is a cross between a donut and a muffin.”

This kind of restaurant is called Eatertainment and Michelle Jones thinks it’s just what we need when Americans are spending so much time working and socializing online.

Credit RadioIQ
Canteen's outdoor theme excites customers who've been cooped up during the pandemic.

“They want to be interacting and do things.  They also want to stop looking at their phone constantly – get out, play a game, hang out – and that’s what we’d been wanting to do.”

She and Alley say restaurants that focus on convenience and carry-out are also doing well.

“You know you’re ordering from your phone," Alley says. "You go in, you pick up your bag of food, you leave, and a lot of those concepts are doing a really great job at it.  You can go to places now and not speak to a human and get something that’s really fresh and delicious.  I do think that fast casual trend is going to continue to grow and be big.”

What may be in trouble is fine dining – like Prime 109 in Charlottesville.  

Credit RadioIQ
Experts agree restaurants with outdoor seating have an advantage in the age of COVID -- as long as the weather is good.

“Y’know with the economy being forecast to take years to recover there really is no telling," Cole says. 

"I feel like in bigger cities fine dining will certainly still have a place at the table, but I don’t know about Charlottesville if I’m being honest.”

Fortunately, he and his partners have another venture called Lampo – a tiny restaurant serving Neopolitan-style pizza.  With just 28 seats, customers would sometimes wait two hours for a table. When COVID arrived, Lampo switched to carryout, and demand was strong, so they've  decided to open a permanent take-out location.

That way the original restaurant can focus on in-house dining if and when that’s an option.

“Even if it’s allowed for us to congregate in large groups," Cole says, "I don’t know how long it will be before people are comfortable doing so.”

He notes restaurants big on alcohol are also doing well.

“Places like breweries and vineyards have lots of outdoor space, which I think right now is absolutely key.”

He figures they’ll prosper as long as the weather holds – and it’s not impossible that dining at those places will become a seasonal affair.