At this time last year, bottled water, toilet paper and hand sanitizer were flying off grocery store shelves, and an announcement was just days away that would close all in-house service at restaurants and bars.
To stop the spread of the coronavirus, common routines — cooking, eating, dining, shopping — took on uncommon traits.
Now, months later, even with COVID-19 cases slowing and vaccinations accelerating, the old days and old ways may never return — and, in some instances, that may not be so bad.
So here is a look at some pandemic practices that may outlive the pandemic itself:
A return to home cooking
The benefits of cooking at home and eating together as a family were known long before quarantine. But it took a societal shutdown to make many of us do them.
During the past year, we grew our own gardens, baked bread, slow-roasted meats and learned to roll out our own pasta. We scoured the internet for new recipes, sought inspiration in dusty cookbooks, or simply called mom or grandma for “that one recipe” she used to make.
About two weeks after the shutdown, Salt Lake City resident Miles Broadhead helped launch the Facebook page “What have you been cooking?” Today, the group has nearly 3,000 members who share photos of everything from avocado toast and slow-cooked chili to stuffed and smoked bacon-wrapped pork.
It became a trusted place to ask about an ingredient or cooking technique or to get recommendations on affordable pans or Utah cheese.
“It’s a fun glimpse into the kitchens of all skill levels and tastes,” Broadhead said. “I was once annoyed by Facebook food posts, but COVID helped me create such a comforting and nonjudgmental community of cooks. I hope it never changes.”
Convenient grocery shopping
Online grocery ordering and curbside pickup were gaining popularity before 2020. But the pandemic launched this service into the stratosphere as a way to avoid crowded spaces. It helped, too, that stores waived the usual fees during COVID-19.
Consumers can expect this service to continue and improve in the future, said Dave Davis, president of the Utah Food Industry Association. Any initial hesitancy to have “other people selecting products for them — especially produce — seems to have gone away.”
That’s good news for Utah consumers such as Stephanie DeGraw.
“I like how much time I save by shopping online for groceries and picking them up,” she said, “although they always give me giant potatoes or weird produce, so I’ll probably go get those myself now that I received the vaccine.”
Innovative food ideas
There are countless examples of Utah food businesses that, when faced with potential closure, sprouted innovations to survive — and thrive. And diners gravitated to the changes.
The tasting classes at Caputo’s Market & Deli went virtual, which expanded the audience beyond Utah food lovers to cooks across the country.
VENETO Ristorante Italiano offered virtual dinner parties and cooking classes with chef Marco Stevanoni.
New food entrepreneurs opened “ghost” or “cloud” kitchens in which customers ordered food for pickup or delivery from a “virtual” restaurant with no storefront or seating. Noteworthy offerings range from Ghost Sushi and Greek Tyrant to Mad Dough and Silver Moon Taqueria.
“I learned to reinvent myself,” said Utah pastry chef Marcela Ferrinha, who started offering virtual cooking classes. “There is so much opportunity online as a chef instructor.”
While takeout has started to dip as dine-in options rise, statistics from the National Restaurant Association show it won’t slip back to previous levels.
Restaurant owners were forced to invest in new systems that streamlined or enhanced their carryout and contactless capabilities, and all types of restaurants from fast-casual to family diners became more efficient as a result.
Now takeout and delivery have arrived as part of our dining routine.
According to the association’s most recent restaurant survey, 68% of consumers say they are more likely to buy takeout from a restaurant than before the pandemic, and 53% say takeout and delivery are essential to their lives.
Year-round patio dining
In Utah, just because it’s cold, we don’t stop spending time outside. We ski, skate and sled. We snowshoe and snowmobile. So why did we always cut off outdoor dining when the temperatures dropped?
That changed this winter as dozens of Utah restaurants and bars invested in space heaters, tents, canopies, yurts, even glass-enclosed dining globes. The alfresco trend not only attracted customers who were hesitant to sit inside, it also added tables at a time when restaurant capacity had been restricted.
Logan resident Emilie Wheeler spoke for many diners when she said: “I hope those added outdoor dining options stick around.”
They will, says Jeremy Ford, co-owner of Toscano and Garage Grill, both in Draper.
“The Investment...has a long payoff period,” he said, adding that “more seats often translate into more revenue.”
Mayors in several Utah cities waived the usual regulations that prevent outdoor activities on private property, which allowed restaurants and bars to expand into off-street parking areas or side yards.
At least in Salt Lake City, the waiver will remain in effect for the foreseeable future, Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s office said in an email.
“The proclamation will remain in effect until the Mayor’s state of emergency is rescinded. There is no timeline for that yet,” the statement said, adding that Mendenhall “constantly evaluates the most current local data to make the best decisions regarding COVID restrictions.”
Safer dining practices
Most diners can’t wait to return to their favorite neighborhood restaurant or the new place across town they’ve been craving to try.
The National Restaurant Association survey shows that 6 in 10 adults say restaurants are an essential part of their lifestyle.
“Our research shows a clear consumer desire to enjoy restaurants on-premises more than they have been able to during the pandemic,” said Hudson Riehle, the group’s senior vice president for research and knowledge. “With more than half of adults saying that restaurants are an essential part of their lifestyle, we are confident that, with time, the industry is positioned for successful recovery.”
Commenters on social media said they would like the heightened focus on cleanliness to continue.
“I would like to see [servers] continue wearing masks,” said one commenter. “It does make sense to me since they are close to our food while serving.”
Hand-sanitizer stations and disinfecting tables between groups are other practices that commenters would like to see last.
Appreciation for essential workers
The pandemic shined a light on the low wages and inadequate protections for the essential people who grow, harvest, process, prepare, serve and sell the food we eat.
“When everyone else was hunkering down at home,” said Davis, with the Utah Food Industry Association, “they still were required to go to work.”
Time will tell if our appreciation fades.
”I hope we take the things we have learned,” he said, “and be a little better than what we were.”