Coming together over food, whether shopping or dining, looks vastly different for farmers’ markets and restaurants that have either opened or re-opened since mid-March. Undoubtedly, the global pandemic has led to devasting effects on the food and food service industries. However, the establishments rising to the challenge are the ones that are able to succeed. These markets and restaurants are meeting CDC and FDA guidelines, state by state reopening recommendations, and innovating to offer new-found shopping and dining experiences.

You won’t find food or beverage sampling or be able to greet your favorite vendor or restaurateur with a handshake or hug. But you may find “lane lines” to assist with traffic flow, sanitizing stations, curb side pickup, walk up windows and even new drive through lines. Beyond arriving donning a mask (and throwing in an extra set of patience), here is a round-up of trends we’re finding across the food service industry.

Shifts at Farmers Markets

Farmers markets and patrons across the country participated in National Farmers’ Market Week from August 2-8, many of which supported local food pantries. In addition to supporting local, farmers markets offer the added comfort that food will pass through fewer hands, since markets are part of a shortened supply chain.

Shopping with Purpose.

The activity of moseying along vendors booths or lingering with friends after shopping is no longer the case at markets. Customers are heading to the market with a “get in and get out” mentality, often planning the shopping list in advance. It’s also encouraged to leave kids and four-legged friends at home, and instead, shop solo.

Point, Don’t Touch.

Some vendors are incorporating clear coverings over their products to minimize customer access. They are handling and bagging products and may limit the number of customers at their tables. 

Going Cashless.

Take note on social media or your local market’s website if cash is being accepted (as noted in this Washington Post article on farmes markets). Some vendors have switched to credit card readers like Square that require a minimum dollar amount. Now is a good time to consider larger purchases, stocking up on fresh produce to freeze or can for later.

Collaborative Grocery Boxes.

Many cities are joining forces with local market vendors to offer creative product boxes that can be pre-ordered. For example, in Rochester, NY, Flour City Bread Company teamed up with several local merchants. Customers can preorder a selection of fresh produce, chicken and eggs to pick up curbside at the market. Positioned as “taking a break from the grocery store,” more than 400 grocery box orders were placed during the first few weeks of the pandemic and are still being offered.

Restaurant Transformations

Restaurants are innovating quickly to keep up with the demand for ways to enjoy a meal prepared by someone else. Or at least, a meal planned by someone else.

ServSafe Dining Commitment.

The National Restaurant Association and ServSafe launched a nationwide program called the ServeSafe Dining Commitment. The initiative helps restaurants showcase their participation in enhanced cleaning and sanitation protocols. Expect to see commitment logos displayed at eateries, as well as on social media via the hashtag #ServSafeCommit.

Expanded Al Fresco Dining.

In order to accommodate more outdoor dining, many government initiatives allow restaurants to expand their footprint. One example is New York City’s Open Street plan. Tables now spill over onto sidewalks, streets and parking lots that are partially or fully closed to regular traffic.

Inside Out-of-the-Box Structures.

Custom tents are also popping up on restaurant properties over garden areas or parking lots. San Francisco recently introduced geodesic dining domes, igloo-like plastic tents described as a playful “permamask.”

Touchless Restaurant Technology.

Diners are welcoming back QR codes and other new apps that allow for touchless services. Expect everything from electronic waiting lists to virtual menus and making payments right on your phone. A recent story in Architectural Digest notes “we can likely expect to see more forms of contactless ordering and payment in the future.”

DIY Meal Kits.

Fresh, pre-packaged (and even pre-portioned) meal-kits arriving at your door to cook at home aren’t new; however, now restaurants have joined the build your own meal-kit game. According to the Wall Street Journal, DIY meal kits allow restaurants to generate sales without bringing their entire kitchen staff off furlough. Kits are also cheaper, or at least no more expensive, than takeout. We’ve spotted make your own pasta, burger, brunch and dessert kits. Even well-known restaurants are sending out shipments across the country that arrive straight to your front door. James Beard award-winning chef Stephanie Izard of Chicago’s famed Girl & the Goat restaurant created seven different meal kits available for nationwide shipping. One option features a VIP Cooking Class on Zoom with the chef! 

The Rise of Ghost Kitchens.

With indoor dining limitations, ghost kitchens (also referred to as virtual kitchens) are emerging. These are facilities that produce food for delivery only. In place of a brick-and-mortar restaurant, ghost kitchens are lower-risk, require less permitting and present a more affordable way for entrepreneurs to enter the business. Ghost Kitchens could be the way of the future, beyond the pandemic, according to this article in the New Yorker.

Show and Tell – Communication is King.

Diners are taking to their phones to find restaurants that are visually showing what’s taking place behind the scenes. Restaurants that don’t have updated safety guidelines online are a step behind. Many eateries are distributing emails with their protocols and filling social media feeds with images that feature staff members posing with face coverings, safety signage on display and tables clearly spaced at six feet apart. It’s vital to make expectations clear well before customers even arrive.

Remain safe, stay hungry and most of all, find comfort in the incredible variety of food opportunities that can still carefully and effectively bring people together for a delicious adventure.