Article contributed by Tracy Nieporent, Myriad Restaurant Group
Since the 2nd week of March, we wake-up each morning and it’s Groundhog Day, with each day blending into the day before it. In the classic movie, Phil Connors’ life, played brilliantly by Bill Murray, takes a happy turn. But for those of in the fine dining segment of the restaurant industry, the future is uncertain. It’s not just a question of economics. With new rules of engagement that limit the number of people we can serve, and the way we can serve them, it goes to the very essence of what makes a restaurant experience satisfying and meaningful.
When my brother Drew and I were kids, we dined out quite often with our parents. When seated, we never faced a wall. We always looked out so that we could observe the action in the restaurant. We saw a buzz of activity. Guests were fully engaged in conversations, servers scurried around the room, carrying trays with culinary treasures that emitted enticing aromas. There was an atmosphere of excitement and theatricality. There were big groups, and small groups. There was intimacy. There was a commitment to excellence and the dining experience. We took it all in, and it inspired us.
Now, a half-century later, restaurateurs with the hospitality gene are facing the greatest challenge of our careers. We want to provide our guests with an exemplary experience that inspires them, as we were inspired as kids. At its best, there is magic in a restaurant. Guests convene with family, friends, and colleagues. Well-crafted food is served with warmth and pride. The problems of the world are suspended, as good food and drink provide an oasis for a two hour mini-vacation.
Now that harmonious dining experience is threatened. An insidious pandemic has changed the rules of engagement with our guests. We understand that the precautions are warranted. To earn entry to the restaurant, our guests may be required to have their temperature taken. Once they pass that test, they are seated in small groups, spaced at least 6 feet from each other. They are, by necessity, wearing masks, and handed disposable menus that will self-destruct like something out of a Mission Impossible episode.
The servers are also wearing masks, and doing their best to keep a distance. Engagement with the guests is kept to a minimum. Everyone is happy to be out and about, but there is also a sense of unease. Despite the best efforts of everyone to obey the rules and do the right thing, someone might still catch the Coronavirus. Leaving the anxieties of the world at the door, and enjoying a little two hour mini-vacation is a noble, but unfulfilled goal.
We want to reopen our restaurants. This is our life’s work, and we want to welcome back our family of colleagues, who work so hard and with such integrity.
Our greatest satisfaction is to serve our guests, and provide them with happy memories that will give them many good reasons to return. But how do we extend heartfelt hospitality when it’s most truly needed, in an atmosphere of necessary restrictions that inhibit the essence of true hospitality? It’s not just about serving food, and making sure that we can attract enough guests to generate the revenue that will keep our doors open. It’s about providing a dining experience where all the bases of excellence can be met.
In this time of uncertainty, we’re fervently hoping for our Phil Connors moment.
Tracy Nieporent is a Partner in the Myriad Restaurant Group that includes the Tribeca Grill, Batard, and Nobu. He is also Chairman of the Restaurant Committee of NYC & Company, administrators of NYC Restaurant Week. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.