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Amuse Bouche: Bring on the (to go) box stores

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By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

To break my own rule and use a cliché: our industry is “dying on the vine.”

And by that I mean the hospitality industry. 

One year ago, the world as we knew it essentially stopped. And here we are a year later and there are still some states and counties that still do not have restaurants and bars open for indoor seating.

 Not only is this incredibly depressing, but it defies science and logic.

Great Britain and the U.S. have led the world in back-to-back healthy beer renaissances over the last 50 years. Before that, the beer world had dwindled to a handful of massive conglomerate brewers, virtually all of whom lacked depth of character.

And we have a handful of Brits and Yanks to thank for this. They had had enough of sub-par beer, plain and simple.

But we’ve also seen an incredible food renaissance as well. The most amazing, thought out concepts have opened all across America. 

From Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz, to Danny Meyer and Steve Ells—all in their unique way, they changed the way we eat and even view food and the overall food experience. And with the millennial generation’s cultural shift from occasionally sitting down and dining in a restaurant, to eating much more casually while simultaneously almost never cooking from scratch at home, fast casual concepts are rapidly on the rise. One of many stats that prove this is since 2017, Americans spend more money annually on restaurants than the grocery store.

But will it turn out to be all for not? It seems we are in the midst of another sea of change because we are rapidly moving in a direction in which only the large, (to go) box stores can survive. Only the fattest of restaurant chains can weather this storm. 

We’ve all seen it in our own cities. It seems a restaurant or bar closes “indefinitely” with frightening frequency. Or a hotel cannot keep its doors open and is purchased by an even bigger company, swallowed up and rebranded before we even knew what happened. 

Restaurants and bars simply do not have the coffers to hold on. PPP loans [MB1] were only a prolonging of the inevitable for many. Sure, we have to go food, or delivery, but that is a far, far cry from the social interaction and quality of food that we so cherish. Social interaction and quality of food that is our due, given everything we have endured and accepted.

When pick up or delivery food is your only option as a consumer, you have now decided to compete with the big fish in the big pond. The companies that do this day in and day out are companies that have structure and systems in place, that have teams and boards and divisions larger than your entire independent restaurant has employees. These teams have spent decades figuring out the best and cheapest to go container China has to offer, figuring out the right chemical make-up of food that maintains its integrity through traveling and temperature changes. 

Sometimes your best dish on a plate in a warm, friendly restaurant is suddenly sub-par in a wax lined container when you open it in your kitchen one hour after it was prepared.

Take a look around at how many restaurants from state to state are struggling, yet I’ve never seen more consistently long drive through fast food lines in my life.

We simply cannot keep this up and expect our industry to survive, let alone even resemble its former self.

We are a resilient bunch, but can’t do this forever.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the multi-concept culinary director for a Bozeman based restaurant group

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