The Surprising Type of Restaurant That's Thriving During COVID-19
The restaurant industry has never suffered quite like this before. In New York City alone, close to 1,000 restaurants and bars have permanently closed since the start of the pandemic. According to recent Yelp data, nearly 16,000 restaurants across the nation have permanently shuttered their doors since March.
Still, while some 75% of restaurant owners don't expect to earn a profit this year, other businesses are doing exceptionally well during these uncertain times. So, what separates these restaurants that are defying the odds from those that are struggling to keep their doors open? The answer is simple, they're serving crowd favorites.
We know businesses that adapted their menus to fit the to-go model, as well as cut items that weren't as popular, or were able to offer outdoor dining are doing considerably well right now despite the circumstances. However, where some businesses have a leg up over other ones is largely attributable to the type of cuisine they offer. NPR recently interviewed local restaurant owners and vendors in major cities such as Chicago, Illinois, and Berkley, California and the commonality between all of them is that they serve comfort foods.
What is comfort food, anyways? We often categorize foods that aren't healthy for us but make us feel happy as comfort staples. For you, this may include fried chicken, French toast, donuts, and even broccoli cheddar soup. However, that definition may be a bit limiting as it excludes all other types of cuisine that make us feel good—which is oftentimes associated with a pleasant memory.
According to Merriam-Webster's definition, comfort food is "food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal." In other words, the foods a person finds comforting are unique to the individual or, in the case of these businesses, a community.
At Jibaritos Y Mas restaurant on Chicago's Northwest Side, manager Jenny Arrietta told NPR that patrons have consistently lined up outside every day for their homestyle Puerto Rican food. They had so much business during the height of the pandemic they had to open up another location to meet the demands.
Andrew Hoffman, owner of takeout burrito shop Comal Next Door in Berkely also witnessed an increase in foot traffic over the past couple of months, so much so that he was able to open a section location in Oakland.
In April, I spoke with Erin Wade, the owner of Homeroom restaurant in Oakland, which serves funky variations of a dish that's considered to be comfort food for many: mac and cheese. Prior to the pandemic, the restaurant operated out of two locations, one that was equipped for sit-down service as well as one that prepares takeout and delivery orders. The full-service location has been closed since March, however, the takeout location was booming with business from the start of the nationwide lockdown. In fact, it was so busy in the late evenings that Wade had to install a speaker so people waiting alongside the sidewalk could hear when their order was ready.
"Thankfully, our community has always loved eating our takeout, and that trend has only accelerated as that is the only way they can get our mac and cheese now. We are finding a lot of enthusiasm and engagement because so few businesses are open right now," she had said.
No matter what comfort food looks like to you, those dishes have likely been among your top takeout orders this year and your support has allowed local businesses near you to stay afloat. And since comfort foods tend to make us nostalgic, be sure to read 30 Comfort Foods From Your Childhood Everyone Loves.