There are larger problems facing the industry too. COVID-19 won’t change everything about the way we live. But it has allowed home cooking to become suddenly fashionable on social media. Whereas before the pandemic a substantial number of customers looked to put their restaurant meals on Instagram, now they do the same for the things they cook themselves. If that trend lasts beyond the worst phase of the pandemic, it will make the restaurant industry’s recovery much more difficult.
Restaurants also depend on immigrant labor in a time when immigration is almost certainly going to slow to a trickle. One of the more arresting points in Christopher Caldwell’s new book, The Age of Enlightenment, is the American restaurant business grew into the behemoth it is today — and sustains itself as such — through low-wage immigrant labor, which greatly reduces the cost of meals prepared outside the home. In 1955, Americans spent 25 percent of their food budget in restaurants. Now, that number is over 51 percent, according to the National Restaurant Association.
If immigration slows down or the nationalist mood leads to tightened borders, will the favorable prices outside the home remain? How much of America’s recent cultural change, in which “enjoying food” became a fashion statement and an end in itself, will remain when the pandemic’s over?