A Reflection of The Hospitality Industry, Pre and Post-Pandemic Shut Downs.
2020 was a year like no other— not just for our industry, our nation, and our world, but for every person on the planet. When the novel coronavirus was identified and named COVID-19, there were few clear answers as to what was coming. Many of us, myself included, thought we would have some precautions and interventions for a few weeks to a few months.
Three years later, we were still trying to navigate the choppy and ever-changing waters of the global pandemic.
Instead of going over those challenges and that pain, I want to reflect on what we may have lost— at least temporarily—but what really matters to our industry: connection.
Hospitality brings people together across all borders, across all cultures, and across all times. Coming out of the pandemic, I hope that sense of connection comes back.
By 2020, restaurants had become so elevated in our collective consciousness that people understood who and what a foodie was, what was meant by food porn, and what made a chef a celebrity. Restaurants became the places we went to celebrate, be romantic, close deals, mark anniversaries, propose marriage, or mourn a loss. Food and wine events became some of the largest events held in many cities.
I have witnessed this firsthand on many occasions, but two occasions stand out to me. One large and public, one small and private—both exemplifying the grandeur and the intimacy of hospitality.
The first was an unprecedented, charitable gathering of local chefs in Portland, Oregon, in 2000. It was a formal, five-course dinner for 300 guests staged on the Hawthorne Bridge. Entertainment was provided by local fantastical puppeteers and performers. The food was served by Portland’s most talented chefs and their teams.
I was working for the Kimpton Hotel and Restaurant Group, and both our chefs in Portland participated. I was so proud to be part of this group of restaurant professionals raising hundreds of thousands of dollars— Challenging themselves to bring upscale food, beverages, and entertainment to the oldest operating vertical lift bridge in the country and making it seem like a breeze. They proved that hospitality can travel anywhere.
The next took place over a decade later when I was a new GM at the RingSide Steakhouse in Portland. I received a call from a guest with a reservation asking if I would be willing to help him propose to his beloved girlfriend. I had seen proposals before but never taken part, and this plan was elaborate.
They had shared a bottle of Silver Oak ‘75 on their first date at the RingSide years before, and it became their special occasion wine.
He asked if I would be willing to hide the engagement ring in our new 10,000-bottle wine cellar and then offer a cellar tour when they ordered the Silver Oak. I was so pleased to take part in one of the most important days of this soon-to-be-married couple—even I was nervous on the elevator ride down to the wine cellar. To this day, I am so grateful and amazed that I was part of this magical moment brought by hospitality.
The question remains— what sense of connection in hospitality has been put aside during the last 3 years?
Are these momentous occasions, large and small, lost to us? Or can we come back stronger, remaking hospitality?
Many connections remain broken or disrupted in the aftermath of COVID-19. Masks, social distancing, canceled events, limited hours, online delivery services, remote work, and even ghost kitchens have done much to disrupt the feeling of hospitality that is the very foundation of restaurants, hotels, and almost all service industries.
The most important characteristic of hospitality, the secret sauce, has always been a connection. That bond between people that makes us feel seen and heard, cared for and valued, and allows us to relax into the joy of others’ company.
Connection is what makes us human.
Our task now is to find all the ways that we can reconnect in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, and specifically, in restaurants.
It isn’t complicated, but it isn’t easy either. Connection takes a mindset of service to ourselves, to those close to us, and, most importantly, to those we don’t know.
Finding new ways to connect will bring back those moments of magic that make hospitality work.