What It Takes to Reinvent: 3 Lessons You Can Learn From Restaurants in the Pandemic

UPDATED: May 22, 2024
PUBLISHED: December 2, 2020

Did you ever see the Friends episode where Ross buys a new couch and tries to squeeze it up his apartment staircase with the help of Chandler and Rachel? Maneuvering the couch around the switchbacks of a New York City apartment staircase is no easy task, and Ross ends up famously yelling at his friends with increasing intensity and agitation: “PIVOT! PIVOT! PIVOT!”

That scene pretty much sums up the year we’ve just experienced. After the initial shock in mid-March, there was a nationwide scramble to pivot. Schools suddenly went virtual. Talk show hosts began broadcasting from their bedrooms. To those of us living in New York City, no pivot has been more inspiring than that of our local restaurants.

The brief timeline: On March 16, all dining establishments in the city were forced shut. Shortly after and for the first time ever, those establishments with a liquor license were allowed to deliver food and alcohol. By the summer, thousands of restaurants were allowed to set up tables and offer guests a socially-distant outdoor dining experience. It was incredible to see what these restaurants did amid the circumstances, and those that survived have offered a masterclass in what it takes to reinvent.

Here are just three of the many lessons I learned while living and dining in NYC during the pandemic.

Lesson No. 1: Get creative.

An Upper East Side ice cream shop was known for its wacky flavors, whimsical décor and (because they also had a liquor license), making adult beverages feel more like a dessert. When it started delivering its beverages in funky collectable cups—think cocktails and boozy ice creams served in a plastic Eiffel Tower, or a giant Lego block—devoted patrons went crazy for it! Instead of regularly stopping in for a cone, they obsessively ordered delivery so they could fill cupboards with the unique dishes.

It’s tempting in times of extreme transition to play it safe and, when under so much pressure and with so much stress, creativity can be a challenge. However, a little creativity can go a long way when it comes to surviving and thriving a pivot.

Lesson No. 2: Show up.

On a late September evening, my husband Michael and I went out for a date. The streets were alive, and the night air was warm in that uniquely autumn way that feels like a long farewell hug. After all, winter was coming.

First we stopped into our favorite neighborhood spot, Eighteen, and said hello to Sydney, the owner. We’ve become friends with Sydney because every time we visit, he has a new story to tell. Then we walked up the block to a little Italian place we’ve been wanting to try to see if we could grab a glass of wine and dessert. A man greeted us. “I do not have a spot for you tonight… we are all full! Come tomorrow, 6 p.m., I will have a table for you!” Michael asked: Is this your place? The man smiled behind his mask, his old eyes crinkling outside the corner of his glasses as he looked out at a sidewalk filled with people enjoying his masterpiece. “Yes,” he said. “This is mine.”

Still wanting something sweet, we walked up that block, over one and down another until we found a little Mexican restaurant. We were greeted by the owner, who directed us to his last two spots.

As we walked home that night, I marveled that every place we went, the owner was there—not just in the back, but out front, actively welcoming and engaging guests. Whether you own a business or not, if you’ve ever wondered what to do in times of uncertainty, follow the lead of the restaurant owners: Show up, in front, each day. People notice. 

Lesson No. 3: Be vulnerable.

I’ll never forget the first summer night that we dined at a table that wasn’t in our kitchen. It had been months! We sat down, awkward at first and, though we weren’t even hungry, ordered dinner. We had long conversations with the other street-side patrons—all of us just so excited to be out and around other people. The server urged us to take our time.

And at the end of the night, the owner came out to thank us (which shouldn’t surprise you now). But he didn’t just share an expression of gratitude, he also shared his heart. “How wonderful it is to make you food and have you eat it here at my place instead of take it back to your own. The streets have been so quiet. The only people I see are the delivery men and the only sounds I hear are the sirens. I’ve been so lonely.”

When going through hard times, so often we keep the struggle to ourselves. However, opening up, being vulnerable and sharing the whole story creates opportunities for connection, support, camaraderie, loyalty—everything that’s needed to survive the ultimate reinvention.

* * *

In September, the city announced that outdoor dining would be permanent. With a cold winter around the corner, the restaurateurs faced another challenge—another pivot point.

I wouldn’t count them out. When it comes to the restaurant reinvention, if there is a way, these brave entrepreneurs will find it and teach us all in the process. 

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by Canipel/Twenty20.com

Kindra Hall is the bestselling author of Stories That Stick and a sought-after keynote speaker. She is the president of Steller Collective, a marketing agency focused on the power of storytelling to overcome communication challenges.