Right now, all the restaurants in New York are closed. Soon, hopefully, they will re-open. What will that be like? Will people go? When I think about this question, it’s just one of a host of “When will we get back to normal?” questions. But I’m not sure that’s the right question. I think we should think about “What will the new normal be?” and “How will we get there?”
We go to restaurants not just for the food but to have a third place—a place that’s not my place and not your place but someplace in between. We go for the sense of community and the warmness of being together. But with the Coronavirus, that warmness becomes mixed with anxiety and fear. It used to be you and me sitting across a table, but now it’s you and me and the coronavirus sitting at our favorite Italian restaurant.
Things are different now. It reminds me of my relationship with onions. For a long time, I used to love putting onions on everything. Onions made salads, sandwiches, and burgers taste so much better. Then, one day, after eating far too many onions at lunch, I got horrible indigestion—indigestion so bad that I needed to go to the emergency room and drink a cocktail of milk of magnesia and liquid lidocaine. Afterward, things changed. Though I still love the taste of onions, I can’t eat them without thinking about a horrible pain in my belly. Now I eat onions more selectively.
There’s something very special about breaking bread with another person. Religious rituals are centered on shared meals. In Judiasm, we have a blessing over Challah, our sacred bread, that we literally tear up and share around the table. Anthony Bourdain built his career sharing meals throughout the world, showing that no matter how different we are, we can all connect with food.(1)Bourdain wrote, “I’m proud of the fact that I’ve had as dining companions over the years everybody from Hezbollah supporters, communist functionaries, anti-Putin activists, cowboys, stoners, Christian militia leaders, feminists, Palestinians and Israeli settlers, to Ted Nugent,” after his dinner of noodles and beer in Vietnam with then-president Barack Obama. “You like food and are reasonably nice at the table? You show me hospitality when I travel? I will sit down with you and break bread.”
One way of sharing food is at a restaurant, a 2019 construct. By construct, think about Coca-Cola. Coke takes the basic human needs of refreshment and happiness, combine them with some sugar water, and sell it. Humans will always need refreshment and happiness but we won’t always need Coke.(2)Coke has always linked its brand to basic human emotions. Think of the iconic campaigns like I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke and Always Coca-Cola. But the sugar water is a substrate that Coke imbues with supernatural properties through branding. This is incredibly clear when you look at the original product, the patent medicine Pemberton’s French Wine Coca.
We will always have the same underlying human needs of socializing and eating together, but in the future, how we eat together might change. We are getting out of the earliest point of our coronavirus response, where we shut everything down. Without testing infrastructure or contact tracing, we needed to push social distancing to the max, and pause the world for a while.
After we unpause the world, some people think that we will be able to resume a normal life. There’s a tendency to see these things as black and white. Either restaurants will be open or closed. This is what I think of as a “V-Shaped Recovery.” I don’t think this will happen. I think there will likely be a lot of give and take over the next couple of years. While we work towards achieving a “New Normal” we will be living in a world under construction. This will be filled with painful uncertainty, of trying things. Some that succeed and some that fail, but it’s necessary.
My friend was telling me about the admission for Masters’ Degrees at a prestigious university. “Why are we even doing this?” he asked. “Who is going to pay $50,000 to take online classes in the fall.”
My response was, “But we have to try. We have to have some people push for that education. Maybe it’s having more 1:1 time with professors. Maybe it’s not feasible but these students get priority for the next year.” The important thing is that within the bounds of public health and regulation, everyone needs to push forward and work out these compromises.
We are conditioned to think that the world moves in these quantum transitions between one state and another, and if we have a vaccine, that may be the case. But until then, we need to think about this as a natural process. We will make a move in one direction, the virus will counter in another. Overall we will end up in a dynamic stasis that isn’t perfect but meets our needs.
The New York Times had an article about our unhealthy relationship with prediction. We spent a lot of the last few months pondering what will happen with the Coronavirus and how the future will look. It would be nice to have an accurate view of the future and then build towards that; however, that won’t happen. So we need to focus on agility so we can better deal with whatever that future will hold. Take the example of vaccine creation. We don’t know what an exact vaccine will look like; however, we do know that we need to invest in lots of different ideas and also invest in more general manufacturing capabilities. Only with this kind of humility can we effectively respond.
Getting back to restaurants, history gives an example of how things may work out. A century ago, the US passed the 18th Amendment, starting Prohibition. When alcohol was outlawed, the restaurant landscape completely changed. Hundreds of restaurants closed without this stable source of revenue. But restaurants didn’t go away entirely. In their place were family-friendly restaurants where parents could share hot dogs and milkshakes with their kids. By the end of the decade, the number of restaurants had tripled.(3)From the Atlantic’s how the pandemic is changing retail.
I’m confident that we will get through this pandemic, and that at some point, we will be able to go to restaurants again. It will be a tough path with lots of twists and turns. We always need a place to break bread with one another, but it may look very different from the restaurant of 2019.
Update (6/14/2020): Blue Zones has a good article on how to live in a world of coronavirus.
|↑1||Bourdain wrote, “I’m proud of the fact that I’ve had as dining companions over the years everybody from Hezbollah supporters, communist functionaries, anti-Putin activists, cowboys, stoners, Christian militia leaders, feminists, Palestinians and Israeli settlers, to Ted Nugent,” after his dinner of noodles and beer in Vietnam with then-president Barack Obama. “You like food and are reasonably nice at the table? You show me hospitality when I travel? I will sit down with you and break bread.”|
|↑2||Coke has always linked its brand to basic human emotions. Think of the iconic campaigns like I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke and Always Coca-Cola. But the sugar water is a substrate that Coke imbues with supernatural properties through branding. This is incredibly clear when you look at the original product, the patent medicine Pemberton’s French Wine Coca.|
|↑3||From the Atlantic’s how the pandemic is changing retail.|