One of the greatest unknowns for the culinary and hospitality industries – which have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic – is what does life look like on the other side when the bans are lifted, restaurants are opened and life begins to reflect a dusting of normalcy?
San Diego-based writer, food critic and television personality Troy Johnson is a trusted authority within the industry and he has spent a lot of time pondering that question.
He has written about many of the heart-warming culinary stories over the last month. From documenting the pizza shop preparing CSA boxes from local farmers to conducting live interviews with food and beverage leaders on his Instagram page, Johnson is trying to maintain optimism and faith that the industry will recover.
“Humans are social creatures. That face-to-face interaction isn’t just nice to have, it’s absolutely essential for our mental health, and restaurants are so important because they curate the places to do that,” Johnson said. “We are increasingly becoming one of the most anti-social countries on the planet. Technology has isolated us and restaurants are [the way to break] that isolation. They brought us together and reminded us how vital human-to-human contact is. Talk. Joke. Laugh. Love. It sounds like a bad ‘Eat Pray Love’ sequel but it’s true.”
Johnson is predicting cautious optimism moving forward. Like many, he sees a nice rebound for culinary. However, from a consumer perspective, he’s also anticipating what he calls an “initial tepid response” because people first need to feel secure.
“People are going to need to go out cautiously for a while until they know for sure it’s safe, and only repeated personal experience can make people feel safe,” Johnson said. “Once we do, then we’re really going to see the boom. The restaurants that can hold on through all of this are going to see a massive flood of people coming out almost every night because we are going to have so much pent-up need for human contact and social interaction.”
Along with that confidence comes a deep faith in the people who operate within the industry. Johnson has built a national network of chefs and sources through his years as a television personality for the B1G Ten Network and the Food Network, among others. As someone who has documented restaurants and chefs for the bulk of his career, he’s seen an abundance of goodwill over the last six weeks.
“You’re seeing owners opening their freezers and refrigerators and letting their employees shop and clean them out, which is a remarkably generous gesture,” Johnson explained. “… Most of these people are small business owners. They are not endlessly wealthy people. They are doing fundraisers for their employees who might be out of work. They are guiding them through the unemployment process. There are so many great stories out there.”
During this time (since he’s not allowed to surf San Diego beaches) Johnson has been a vocal advocate for 1) practicing social distancing and 2) finding a safe way to re-open famer’s markets. His Twitter page is also pretty darn funny.
And like millions of others, he can’t wait to get out and enjoy his favorite meal — in an actual brick-and-mortar restaurant, among friends and family.
“Restaurants provide an invaluable service beyond just food,” he said. “They will again.”
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Photo Credit: Claire Johnson