The restaurant industry in the U.S. and around the world has suffered a shock over the past year and a half, with the pandemic presenting unprecedented challenges to operators across the business. Within that context, few people are better positioned to weigh in on the future of restaurants than chef José Andrés, whose ThinkFoodGroup has 30 restaurants worldwide, and who is known as a thoughtful, influential and, above all, generous leader in the business.
Andrés addressed this past week's 45th Annual Impact Marketing Seminar via a video discussion with Wine Spectator's Thomas Matthews titled "Post Pandemic: The Future of the Restaurant Industry." He began by recounting his sense of wonder when he first visited the U.S. as a member of the Spanish Navy in 1990, and his subsequent time as a cook in New York.
"New York was like a university for me," said Andrés. "I felt like I had an entire encyclopedia of cooking right in my palm." That experience in New York's melting pot was important, he continued, because culinary culture "connects us with other worlds," broadens our horizons and, ultimately, brings people closer together. It also set Andrés on his path to building the formidable restaurant business that ThinkFoodGroup has become today.
That business—along with others around the world—was thrown into doubt by the pandemic. But Andrés hailed how restaurateurs and chefs answered the challenge, with many operators generously donating their time to feed those on the front lines and those in need even as their own restaurants remained closed. "We can feel very proud of how our industry responded," he said, recognizing not only those efforts but also the creativity of restaurateurs in keeping their businesses alive by pivoting to takeout and recreating the restaurant experience for the home.
Turning to the future, Andrés is hopeful that the worst is behind us, and the restaurant industry is headed in the right direction again. He's optimistic enough that he's even continued to open new restaurants, introducing an all-day casual spot, Café by the River, in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood in June, followed by a new branch of Jaleo, in the city's River North neighborhood a month later. ThinkFoodGroup plans to open three additional venues by year's end.
"Hopefully we will not lose more restaurants, more food businesses. If we look at what happened in 1920, it began 'the Roaring Twenties,'" Andrés said, noting that the world beat back an influenza outbreak during that time and saw rapid economic growth ensue. "Let's hope that the best is ahead of us."
Andrés is certainly doing his part to ensure that prosperous future. His World Central Kitchen (WCK) charity, started in 2010, has launched feeding missions in 13 countries, serving some 75 million meals to those in need. WCK received a $100 million donation from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in July, which followed a $250,000 donation from the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation in 2020. At the height of the pandemic, the organization partnered with 3,000 restaurants to help serve its humanitarian mission. "People that love food and wine already have something in common—we believe in longer tables," Andrés said. "We'll always put another plate on the table."
Acknowledging the scale of the challenges posed by the pandemic and natural disasters that WCK has worked to alleviate, Andrés exhorted U.S. political leaders to rise above the partisan fray to address these and other problems facing the nation.
"I believe with a bottle of wine on the table and a plate of good food, probably our politicians will get along more often," he suggested. "Mr. Shanken, let's open a Wine Spectator Club near Congress, where every time there are big political issues we bring them together, open a good bottle of wine, and we tell them, 'After you finish the second bottle, now you can start negotiating the destiny of our country.' I do believe one glass of wine at a time we can have a more perfect union."
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