With one hard-hitting Covid winter in the past and the possibility of another harsh season on the horizon, how will restaurants and bars handle the cold months this year? In this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss their predictions for the second winter of the ongoing pandemic.
Many restaurants have already had a year to adapt and accommodate outdoor dining in the winter, our hosts discuss. That doesn’t necessarily mean this winter will be easier, though. Burnout, debates over requiring proof of vaccination, labor shortages, and shifting consumer desires will all play a role in what our hosts predict will be another tough season for the hospitality industry.
Tune in to learn more about what this winter might look like for bars, restaurants, and the patrons who frequent them.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Zach, man. So sorry you couldn’t be in Atlanta with us this past weekend. We had a good time.
Z: Atlanta? Are you guys OK? I’ve seen some pretty horrific photos and videos of New York.
A: Oh, you’re talking about the flooding?
Z: I’m talking about the flooding, yes.
A: Just speaking for myself, the only stupid thing I did was keep a dinner meeting last night. I wound up trying to get home just as I started getting alerts on my phone that told me to shelter in place, but I had to get on the subway. I destroyed a backpack, got soaking wet, lost an umbrella, and pulled into my subway station as it was flooding. I was lucky to get home OK. No flooding in my apartment, though. I’m luckily on the fourth floor.
Z: And Joanna, you did OK?
J: Very luckily unscathed by the flooding as well. We’re on the seventh floor. It was not pleasant walking my dog in the monsoon. He did not like that.
Z: I can barely get my dog to go out in the rain, period. It’s not great for much of the year.
A: Right. It’s Seattle, man.
Z: Sure, although, we don’t quite get the torrential downpours.
A: It was really insane. The rain was so heavy for such a long time. I’ve never seen it rain like that before. What makes it even more insane is that we had the hardest rain we’ve ever had in New York two weeks ago. When Hurricane Henri came through, for an hour, it rained more heavily than it ever had in Central Park. They said that last night, it tripled that amount in one hour in Central Park. We have some employees who did have some flooding. We’re trying to help them out.
Z: Did you at least drink anything exciting at your dinner meeting?
A: I had the worst Margarita I’ve ever had.
J: Oh, really?
Z: Well, this is at least a good story. Were you eating outside? Was the drink 50 percent rain?
A: No, it was indoors. It was really bad. Shots fired, Jean-Georges. Shots fired.
Z: Oh. Why was it bad?
A: It was just terrible and unbalanced. It was ABC Cocina. I hate when people try to get cute with it, you know what I mean? It was like, this is our version of a Mexican street corn Margarita. I shouldn’t have done it.
J: You ordered it!
A: I took the bait. I ordered it. It was bad. It didn’t taste like sweet corn at all. It didn’t taste like anything. Just sugar. There was no essence of corn. There was no essence of the smokiness of cotija cheese or anything. It was just not good. I should have known better. I should have realized it was marketing and they were trying to dupe me here, but I fell for it.
Z: But, you know what? Good podcast content. I’m glad you fell for it.
A: It was funny because it was one of the only times I’ve ever been honest in my life. When the server came by she asked how the Margarita was. I told her, “Not good.”
Z: We’re not doing good here.
A: It’s not a good Margarita.
Z: Why didn’t I get an emergency alert on my phone about this Margarita? Forget the hurricane.
A: I was like, “Forget the flooding. Oh, this Margarita’s worse.” I totally should have known better. I was pretty upset with myself. But, whatever.
Z: Fair enough.
A: That was the only cocktail I had. I realized it was starting to rain pretty heavily so I thought, let’s finish up our food quickly so we can go home.
Z: Joanna, how about you?
J: Thankfully, we had lots of great things to drink in Atlanta. There were some standouts for me. We went to the Kimball House for dinner and that was just exceptional. I had a really good take on a Daiquiri there. We also went to Ticonderoga Club, which was an interesting experience as well. The best thing I had there was the Knotsman, which was a delicious take on a Gimlet. I liked that a lot. Then, of course, we had plenty of outstanding wine all weekend.
Z: I would imagine. Anything that’s worth shouting out? Or was it just all good?
J: We drank a lot of wine. We drank so much wine.
A: I’ll shout one out. I had Brendel for the first time.
Z: Hey, you can listen to my interview with the brand director, Cassandra Felix, on the podcast.
A: That’s what I thought. The wine was really good. I really liked it. I got to meet Cassandra in person, and that was awesome. For me, that was the standout wine that I had. There were a lot of great ones, but I hung out at her table for a pretty long time.
Z: Cassandra’s pretty awesome. It is very good wine and an interesting project, to emphasize something that’s not Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa.
A: Yeah, it’s very interesting.
Z: It’s bold. And cool.
A: Very bold. So, what about you, Zach? What’s going on?
Z: Speaking of previous podcast topics, I got to have some birth year wine over the weekend.
J: We saw that. Amazing.
A: You tagged me.
Z: I wanted you guys to know. It’s important.
A: I thought, is he just bragging here?
Z: Let’s be clear, folks. Adam sees all of my Instagram stories anyway.
A: That’s what I thought! That’s why I was like, why did I get tagged?
Z: I just wanted to make sure. I had an ’83 Riesling from the Mosel. Can I be honest? It was all right. It wasn’t your sweet corn Margarita experience, but I’m not sure it was your Kimball Daiquiri, either, Joanna. It was fine. I sometimes really like aged Riesling. This one was a little light on complexity. It was kind of a little one-note, maybe a little bit past its prime. No comments about my age, please. But, if you get a wine like that, how do you not get a little bit excited about it? It’s cool. In keeping with this theme, I actually spent some money on some birth year wine for my wife and me because she told me, “You just talked about this on the podcast, so why don’t we have any wine for my birth year?” The year is not all that dissimilar from mine. We don’t have anything of mine, either, other than some port. I scoured some options and bought a few bottles.
A: Where did you go to find them, Zach?
Z: It actually worked out well. I get these emails from time to time from people who are liquidating cellars or trying to clear out cellars. They basically tell you everything they’re selling and ask if you’re interested. This goes out to a bunch of different people. I normally don’t even bother because my logic is, do I want what I like to buy back vintages of grand cru Burgundy? Yes. Can I? No. I decided to take a look at this one, and there was some ’83 gran reserva Rioja, which was not cheap but not crazy expensive. I decided to give it a try. If it sucks, I’ve learned something. If it’s great, that’s awesome. It was actually fortuitous timing that this email came where someone was trying to clear out their cellar. We’ll see. I have not yet gotten my hands on the wine.
A: Are these emails usually from people who are based in Seattle, or could they be farther away?
Z: They’re usually in the broader Seattle area. I’ve gotten a couple from people in California, but I’m not interested in trying to figure out logistics. If I’m buying wine out of someone’s cellar, I don’t want them shipping it by UPS or something. I haven’t dived all that deep into this world, but there’s a crazy world of cellar liquidation, auction wine, and other things like spirits and stuff. Some people with much deeper pockets than me buy their wine this way. They just keep their eyes open for this kind of thing. They let someone else do the work cellaring it, and then they buy it. Hey, good for them.
A: That’s awesome, man. If you want to ship me a bottle of one of the ’83s you bought, you’re welcome to.
Z: If you make it out to Seattle, we can figure something out. Maybe when I come to New York I’ll pack a bag.
A: Just don’t bring the Riesling. I don’t need a Riesling.
Z: OK, that’s fine. I didn’t buy any Riesling, I’ll be honest.
A: Sweet. It probably wasn’t very good. Anyways, we all know how I feel about Riesling. So, this week we wanted to talk a little bit about the future of restaurants this winter, and what winter will look like in this vaccination state that we’re in with Covid. I think a lot of us believed, or were very hopeful, that we would be through Covid by now. That’s clearly not the case. We want to have a conversation about whether things will look very similar to last winter or if they’ll look a little bit different. Where do we think things are headed? I definitely think that last winter, in New York, the majority of people were eating outside under heaters. That was the main way that people were dining. Yes, there were some people who were dining indoors, but not as many. The thing that’s changed in most markets is that most restaurants have gone back to full capacity inside. They still have outdoor dining options. Last year, the reason I think a lot of people also dined outdoors, even in the winter, was that the indoors were only at 20 percent capacity. Either you don’t feel comfortable indoors or you just couldn’t get a table indoors, right? For some of these places with 20 percent capacity means they maybe only had four tables inside. That’s definitely changed in the last few months. Whether it should have or shouldn’t have isn’t what we’re here to debate. So, what do you both think the winter looks like for restaurants and bars?
J: I don’t know. I think that it’s not going to look much different from what we’re experiencing now. I think proof of vaccination will, hopefully, be more widespread than it is. It’s required in New York, but when I think about coming back from Atlanta, I don’t think anybody asked us for our vaccination cards.
A: Not a single place.
J: Maybe diners will be more confident as well as they get boosters. Boosters will become more available at the end of this year. Luckily, those outdoor structures, for the most part in New York City, are still up. I think people will have that decision to make as well. If they’d like to be inside or if they want to dine outdoors, it’s up to them. It’s a good question of what restaurants will actually do in terms of capacity and if they’ll change that or not.
Z: There are three big questions that have been kicking around my mind. Are people going to be as game for whatever as they were last year? By November, December, and January last year, people were so fatigued. They were so tired of being stuck at home, that they thought, “It’s 37 degrees and raining, but if there’s cover and a heat lamp, I’ll eat outside. I don’t care.” I don’t know if that is going to be the case this year. At the same time, I also don’t know if there are going to be a significant number of people who — even if vaccinated or even if they’ve got a third shot — are going to be afraid of dining indoors again. I think we are in a weird period where the way I felt a month or two months ago is not necessarily how I feel now. I think we have a lot to still learn about. There are lots of elements of this disease and its continued presence. Along with that is the real question. We had an almost honeymoon period, which is a weird way to put it, of this great level of support and appreciation for the restaurant and bar industry. We found pretty quickly that, once people got vaccinated and places opened up again, that whole soft focus and loving attitude dropped really quickly. We heard and saw innumerable horror stories of people just being terrible guests, both revolving around things with masks and vaccinations and just in general. We have talked about this a number of times on this podcast. It has been talked about ad nauseum. I still think it is not widely appreciated enough that so many people who have worked in the service sector are just over it. I talked to so many people I used to work with who are not going back. Right now, places are getting by on being short staffed and working people hard, hoping that it gets better. I honestly think this winter could be worse than last winter in a whole host of ways. I don’t mean disease-wise per se. The disease obviously is a big part of it. But to me, it seems like everyone is beaten down, you know? So many people — and this isn’t just restaurants, it’s all of us — thought we were through it. We thought, by September 2021, life would be kind of back to normal. In some small ways, it is. My kids are going to school next week for the first time. In a lot of big ways and in a lot of small ways, it’s not that different. We all thought it would be. There’s much less of this sense that we’re all in it together. I think there’s a lot more anger.
A: It’s interesting. As we were starting this podcast and I was introducing the topic, I was ready to say that I thought one of the things we were going to see was a massive rollout of vaccines required to dine inside for people living outside of New York and in other places. Then, Joanna reminded me of Atlanta. I started thinking, a lot of places, like Florida, have gotten away with having this abundance of outdoor seating. But, actually, those places have had people sitting inside all summer, too, because it’s hot. They haven’t been checking, so why would they start checking in the winter? I think what’s going to actually wind up happening is that there will be even more of a divide of regions of the country. You’re going to see places like New York, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, L.A., and others really clamp down. They’ll say that this is what it takes to keep the city open. There will be mandatory vaccinations to come into offices, mandatory vaccination to go to the theater and restaurants. There will also be a whole host of the country that’s going to keep moving like Covid doesn’t really exist. There are going to be a lot of outbreaks there, I think, in those regions. It will be interesting to see if there is more of a departure of service staff in place. Do they leave the world of service? If I was a server in Atlanta, I’d be over it. I really would. I’d be like, this is bullshit. Atlanta’s a cosmopolitan city. It’s the largest city in the South. There’s a level of employees there in restaurants and bars that are career employees and they love this industry. I can’t imagine that they’re happy right now. I can’t imagine that they think, “This is fine. This is personal freedom.” You know?
A: I don’t know what will happen to those sectors. In New York, I think you’ll still see a lot of people. I also think you’ll see more things open, actually. I think that in New York, if things stay the way they are now, the general consensus I get from most people is that they feel safe enough. They don’t feel super safe, but they do feel safe enough. These mandatory vaccination rules, having to show proof, and other things are really helping that. The city’s almost 80 percent vaccinated. That’s making people feel better. I’m seeing lots of businesses open. I was walking down the street this morning in the neighborhood where VinePair’s offices are and there are three new restaurants that are coming in. There’s a new bakery that just opened. People are trying to start new businesses because they feel like it’s OK. In other places, though, you’ll still see just as many closures as we have the entire pandemic.
Z: I think it’s important to note, too, that the fatigue I was talking about isn’t all just about individual people or even individual businesses. A lot of the things that were done at a governmental and societal level to make that period of time survivable for businesses are going away. My interview with Linden Pride, one of the co-owners of Caffe Dante, will be on the podcast feed. We talked about how frustrating it was for him for New York to make to-go cocktails illegal again. We don’t know what the future will hold in terms of the disease. What you’re saying now might be true, Adam. It could also be that in October, November, and December, people are less comfortable dining out. Maybe there are fewer outdoor seating options that seem remotely pleasant to people. Is the state and city going to be responsive to that and make these things legal again? Or, have we moved into this weird phase where the sympathy that was there — the recognition of the extreme action that had to be taken to try and protect these industries — is now gone? Are people thinking, I could go to a bar now if I want, so that means bars must be fine. That’s the thing that I’m concerned about. It was so easy for average Americans who are not connected to this industry to think that since places are open again and vaccines are available now, everything must be fine. The reality is that doesn’t make up for over a year of that not being the case. Plus, the situation was not guaranteed to continue to improve, as we’ve seen. I just wonder if there’s going to be an appetite for things that help people out. Will there be things to help individuals, workers, and businesses out? I’m not optimistic about that, whereas in the winter of 2020, the crisis in restaurants and bars was seen, understood, and talked about. I feel like no one’s going to talk about it this winter.
A: One thing I was just thinking about as you were talking about this is that there was a lot of noise made about cocktails to go in New York a few months ago when they got taken away. The noise has just disappeared, right Joanna?
J: Oh yeah.
A: You don’t hear about how it needs to come back at all anymore. I think the state legislature has moved on, and I think that they dodged a bullet there. We forgot about cocktails to go until we went to Atlanta and a lot of restaurants were still really selling them, hard. At Ticonderoga Club, our server let us know we could take a to-go cocktail. And I realized, “Oh, right, you’re still allowed to sell these.” It was really interesting. Things remain to be seen. I think one or two things could happen in New York. You could have restaurants in New York say that they’re all about providing equal amounts of service, so they’re going to try as much as they can to support their outdoor dining facilities by heating them well and having things to provide for people who don’t feel safe but still want to eat out. You could also see a lot of restaurants in New York saying, “We’re checking vaccine cards now. We’re back open inside and our servers don’t want to be out serving in the freezing cold.”
J: The few servers they have, anyways.
A: Right. We’re going to say that whoever wants to come and dine, come on in, and hope there’s enough New Yorkers that do. In New York, I think there could be. I really do. It’s weird to see how crowded places have been. There definitely has been some slowdown since the Delta variant. In certain neighborhoods, though, it’s still really crowded. People are clearly going to places because they feel comfortable, because of the vaccine card. People aren’t doing that, maybe, as much in other places. I think the fall is also going to be a really good judge.
J: I agree.
Z: I also think it’s important to talk about the fatigue that is unique to this. The best analogy I have is about group workout classes. I mostly enjoyed them, but a thing that would happen from time to time that I would hate, is when the instructor said we were going to do three more rounds of this, then you finish and the instructor says, “Just kidding. We’re going to do one more.” I hate that. That, to me, is what this feels like. Obviously, that was lighthearted, but this is more serious.
A: Have you guys had a really bad trainer? That’s what Covid is.
Z: So many people made it through the early part of this year really believing things would get better and that we would look back on this time period, feel like it sucked, but know it was in the past. It is really hard to not talk about the fatigue, depression, and overwhelming hardship that comes with believing that this thing is nearly over — especially if you are an employee who has been battered by this so severely to then do it again. I see people who thought maybe we’d be able to be unmasked. Now, it’s back to mask mandates in Seattle, vaccinated or not. I think it’s the right thing, but it’s just hard. It’s hard because you thought it was over. The other day, we got some new masks for my son because he’s starting school. There were a couple that were kind of big, but I thought, he’ll grow into them. That’s a depressing thought to have, that he’s probably going to need these masks for a while and will grow into them. It’s just something to keep in mind. Whether you’re in the industry or just a patron, because of the fatigue of the last year and a half, I think this winter is going to be really hard. The one thing I will say as a positive is that we know how to do this. We don’t have to invent everything out of whole cloth. That is positive. The vaccines are a real thing and make a real difference. As you said, Adam, vaccine mandates and checking vaccination status will make a big difference in limiting the worst downsides of all this. But it’s depressing.
A: It is. It’s just crazy. It does feel like we’re in Groundhog Day in a lot of ways.
Z: Terrible déjà vu.
A: One of the things that I didn’t acknowledge and want to, is that I feel safer because of the restaurants checking vaccination status and asking for ID, too. I really do feel pretty safe. I think that the state of New York has done a really good job with that. But, I need to recognize the stress that puts on the staff, even more than they’re already experiencing. They’re having to check someone’s vaccination status, which probably means that, in a lot of cases, they are going to encounter someone who is very upset about that fact.
J: I went to a restaurant the other night and we were talking to the host. He said that there’s a lot of reluctance and a lot of anger around presenting a vaccination card. I just feel so bad. Never mind the people who are forging them.
A: Exactly. The reluctance is coming from a lot of reasons. I was talking to a server who said that they had someone react pretty poorly about being asked for their ID, because they thought, “What, you don’t believe that this is me?” Another friend of mine in the industry said that they had an encounter with someone who felt judged by when they got their vaccination, because it shows the date and everything on it. They thought the server was judging them, when really, he didn’t care when they got their vaccination. He was just glad they had one. Those are all issues that people are encountering, apart from the random person that probably has walked up to hosts and told them, “I’m not getting it, don’t ask me.” That’s happened, too. It’s just added abuse that’s happening at these places of business that are just not OK.
Z: It’s stuff that people are neither trained for nor compensated for properly. I’ve certainly had, in my service career, more than a few unpleasant encounters with people when checking their ID because they’ve ordered alcohol. For some people, it gets really fraught. For the most part, it’s something people are accustomed to and expect. There’s a minimum legal drinking age in this country, and most people are aware of that. If you’re relatively young and go out to a bar or restaurant, order a drink, and don’t have your ID, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for you.That’s not a surprise. I’ve had plenty of those confrontations in my career, which are never fun. They’re also relatively harmless. No one’s health is at risk. This is really messy. This is where I come back to this notion that we’re all fatigued. A lot of peoples’ sympathy has worn thin. A lot of people are frustrated. They’re bored. But, it’s so shitty to take that out on the person serving you or checking you in. They have no control over this, especially when it’s a city- or state-level mandate. You taking it out on them is just terrible. It’s so uncalled for.
J: Be good guests.
A: This was an interesting conversation. We’d love to hear what you think as a listener. Email us at [email protected]. Give us your thoughts on what you think might change or stay the same this winter. We’d love to share it with the rest of you next time we record the show. Zach, Joanna, talk to you next week.
J: Thanks, guys.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.