A Chowbus order of pan-fried soup dumplings sits on a counter before being packaged up at Dim Sum Garden in Philadelphia's Chinatown.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
A Chowbus order of pan-fried soup dumplings sits on a counter before being packaged up at Dim Sum Garden in Philadelphia's Chinatown.

The new abnormal

Not so long ago, maybe a million years ago (or was that last year?), I’d hear the word pivot pretty much only on a basketball court and the word curve in my tortured inner dialogue about my waistline.

The pandemic has given us a new vocabulary, along with The New Normal — a phrase that I’d never used before the coronavirus.

There really is no “new normal” in the restaurant industry right now. It is a new abnormal. Restaurants and bars right now cannot do nearly all that they are designed to do — give people a worry-free place to work, to gather, and to socialize. That is abnormal.

All summer and into the fall, this new abnormal has been mutating into … an old abnormal. We are becoming accustomed to, resigned to, mask rules, wide berths, reduced hours, bottles of sanitizer, the fickleness of outdoor dining, and the stresses of indoor dining. When a vaccine and treatments become commonplace, and we’re able to order a Corona without wincing — at an actual bar, with a friend at our elbow — the old abnormal will become the new normal.

This new normal will feel like the old normal. Normal enough, but not quite the same.

Pete Martin, who owns the Ardmore Music Hall and The Ripplewood, says he sees the 1918 flu as a possible history lesson. When the flu subsided, he points out, America edged into the Roaring ’20s, one of the great times for revelry and innovation.

Pent-up demand can indeed be a force for change. Of course, the Roaring ’20s led to the Great Depression, but I see his point — to a point.

A hundred years ago when the flu faded and nightlife surged with the advent of movies and clubs, people returned to their businesses as before. But 2020s technology has given us the ability to do so much remotely. We’ve seen the virus' direct impact already on the restaurant business, as it has shaken up the lunch trade in Center City. Delivery apps? Who in 1920 could imagine someone in a Model T rolling up to the front door with an order of dim sum?

Delivery will be the next big thing. We’ll be eating delivery food from ghost kitchens that require a loading dock, not a high-rent storefront.

I also sense that going forward, after restaurants that failed to spin into the curve of change are left in the dust, we will see establishments that are more purposeful and useful, less generic.

Business models will be geared not only toward profit but toward addressing diversity and economic issues. Owners are on notice now that their shortcomings will be called out.

I predict fewer ego-driven salons and, alas, more well-funded, well-run chains. Back in March, when President Donald Trump was asked about the prospects for the industry after the dust settles, he replied: “It may not be the same restaurant, it may not be the same ownership, but they’ll all be back.”

That will be the new normal.