The James Beard Foundation May 2021

James Beard Foundation

May 2021 Impact Assessment II


The James Beard Foundation is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to celebrate, nurture, and honor chefs and other leaders making America’s food culture more delicious, diverse, and sustainable for everyone.


To gather data for this second impact assessment, we held two listening sessions with 15 chefs in our community from across the country. We discussed how their business has been affected by COVID-19, the adaptations they’ve had to make (some of which they plan to keep in a post pandemic world), and what obstacles they’ve faced this last year.

In addition, the Foundation sent out a broader survey to our community of industry professionals across the country. We received over 300 responses. This report includes findings from both the survey and the two listening sessions.

There is an overarching feeling that the industry has hit rock bottom and people are ready to make drastic changes as they begin to rebuild. As a result of the pandemic, restaurants faced huge revenue drops and had to find innovative ways to make up the difference. The constant uncertainty of new public health mandates, grant and funding availability, staff retention and hiring if/when they reopen or open more fully, and protocols needed to address employee and customer health and safety has taken a toll on this industry. Owners and their staff were and are still nervous to reopen and operate in this new world.

JBF Survey Demographics

  • Fielded in February 2021
  • 300 participants
  • Participants encouraged to choose all that applied:
    • 84% Owner/Restaurateur, 38% chef, 23% manager, 8% kitchen and back of house, 7% server and front of house, and 6% other
    • 53% female, 43% male, .3% nonbinary, and 2% prefer not to say
    • 68% white, 11% black or African American, 8% Hispanic/latinx, 7% Asian or Asian American, 2.75% American Indian or Alaskan native

Industry Adaptations and Pivots

  • From the JBF survey we learned that,
    • 25% of restaurants pivoted to meal kits
    • 71% offered takeout for dinner and 57% for lunch
    • 42% of restaurants surveyed offer outdoor dining with 54% offer indoor dining at a limited capacity
    • 31% of this group began providing special culinary experiences (i.e., pop-ups, private catering) to their customers during the pandemic
    • Takeout was rated the most popular pivot amongst the group’s diners with home delivery being the least favored

New Business Innovations and Partnerships

  • Since farmers markets were closed at the height of the pandemic, restaurants had to find ways to continue to partner with their local farms. New and innovative partnerships included:
    • Hosting a farmers market as a popup at their restaurant, selling CSA style bags, meal kits, sauces, and prepared products, and more. Restaurants charged the farms a small fee to participate but each business gained from cross-promotion among their clientele. The restaurant felt they owed these farms the support since they have always supported them over the years.
    • Working with local food banks and farms to help connect the two and expedite light produce processing which remains a large issue for small farms. Also helping farms turn their excess crops into shelf stable products which they can then sell.
    • Partnering with local fisheries and oyster farms to create a frozen meal to distribute to local food pantries.
    • Facilitating an online farmers market where people can shop and add on to their purchased meal kits with offerings from local farms and food businesses.
    • Opening an incubator kitchen to help local chefs start their businesses including training under the FDA guidelines.
  • During the last year, many chefs pivoted immediately to providing support to their local community, with a focus on those that are food insecure, including:
    • Feeding seniors and school kids (close to a million meals between the students and seniors) with the help of state grants.
    • Turning restaurant into a commissary only for homeless and elderly working with different local agencies which has allowed owners to hire back staff that is not eligible or able to collect unemployment.
    • One chef through a CDC grant is conducting a low sodium clinic health program
  • Many restaurants pivoted to meal kits and virtual events and fundraisers.
  • Many corporate chefs were out of work because businesses closed in person offices.
    • We heard from one chef that she ramped up catering, personal chef jobs, and online demos. This allowed them to interact with new audiences because of the online reach.
  • Restaurants were able to feed people outside of their restaurant simply because they had a lot of food on hand. This led some to think about transforming into a membership model or patron membership model.

Economics and Cost Control

  • There is a large issue and discussion surrounding higher wage expectations in this industry. Some things we heard on this topic:
    • Many restaurants are switching to a service included model
    • There is a ripple effect and restaurants have been absorbing it for the last year – restaurants are paying higher wages and absorbing costs rather than passing it on to customers by raising meal costs.
    • Because of the pandemic, consumers have become more aware of increase in groceries and extra fees – need to do a better job of advocating and explaining to consumers what comes with extra fees.
    • Playing with different labor models when recovering from the pandemic – including a 5% “wages and benefits” charge to every bill (3% to the back of the house and 2% two for future fiscal responsibilities). This lives on the menu for guests to understand.
    • Deploying ghost kitchens (pandemic proof in the future) which allowed for additional revenue without a need for front of house labor.
  • Several restauranteurs and owners went into damage control mode and began handling their own repairs, taking management classes, Adobe design classes, and more rather than outsourcing the work.
  • Restaurants leaned into adapting to new technologies such as new delivery platforms, Tock to Go, and other platforms that streamline ordering and help market experiences.
    • One chef found the power of stickers and QR codes and began using them for instructional videos as well as a thank you to his guests purchasing takeout to connect with their local community.

Long-Term Challenges to Food System

  • When the community saw how the large corporate industrialized food system failed during the pandemic, restaurants and organizations tapped into their local food system.
    • Cities, like Detroit, have been pouring money and resources into urban agriculture community for years creating an infrastructure they can rely on
    • This began to pandemic proof the local food web, particularly in cities
    • This model allows cities to easily respond to the needs of their community because they have control of food production
  • The pandemic brought to light how broken our food system is. Some examples of this include:
    • Chefs working with local producers to build a small custom meat processing facility to try and provide a better alternative to the large players in the meat processing business
    • Chefs are working to change the global meat industry to be more regenerative and locally owned
    • Farmers trying to do their best within the industrial model

Permanent Adaptations and Pivots:

  • The top 5 offerings that restaurants want to offer or continue to offer once the threat of the pandemic has been mitigated:
    1. Delivery/Takeout
    2. Increase outdoor seating
    3. Wine and Beer to go
    4. Cocktails and bar kits to go
    5. Contactless payment
  • The bottom 5 offerings that restaurants do not want to offer or continue to offer once the threat of the pandemic has been mitigated
  1. Require reservations only, no walk-ins
  2. Operate fewer days of the week or fewer hours
  3. Space tables 6 feet or more apart
  4. Grocery items to augment business cash flows
  5. Requiring a deposit or pre-payment in advance of meals
  • The group surveyed want to prioritize in 2021:
    1. Giving back to local community (83%)
    2. Advocating for policy change for restaurants, (i.e., direct relief for restaurants, Paycheck Protection Program funds, etc.) (80%)
    3. Provide employees with health insurance (64%)
    4. Advocate for systematic food system change (i.e., hunger relief) (64%)

Challenges and Obstacles

  • Recruiting and retaining staff has been a constant battle as restaurants have begun to reopen at higher capacity in the past 6 months.
    • Creating a new layer of pandemic related issues for restaurants
  • In trying to support their local community, restaurants and organizations are struggling with the following:
    • The lack of platforms to help organize distribution for food to support and streamline processes if they use alternative, local models (farmers and local food distributors)
      • A food tech platform to aggregate and organize distribution for food to support initiatives taking place across the country to remove gross inefficiencies and redundancies.
      • For restaurants it would be super helpful to partner with organizations that already do outreach and work closely with farms because at the end of the day restaurants are focused on food and tacking on the distribution and coordination element is difficult.
    • Lack of infrastructure and organization from a federal level to navigate programs and resources for local food operations
    • A lack of funding from state/city or federal level for alternative models
    • Gross inefficiencies that prevent dollars from going to farmers, local purveyors, and children
  • We heard from the group that they feel that our government has the power to support locally owned restaurants:
    • Help provide restaurants with contracts so they can prepare meals for people in their community and in doing so support local farms
    • Not working in silos at a federal level by this administration as a variety of agencies lead on ag (production), food (health, economic development) and business programs, all that could support this sector
    • Intersectionality through the USDA: USDA/HUD/Health and Human Services
      • USDA has the power of food to tackle health care which is super important in how we begin to be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to health care of our citizens
      • Black and brown people with preexisting conditions were the most impacted by COVID
    • There is a push for federal dollars to go towards supporting restaurants that have prioritized fair wages and those who work with local purveyors
  • Because many farmers and ranchers lost their restaurant clientele during this pandemic, many were forced to dispose of perfectly good product
    • Because of this shift, we heard of one rancher switching over to a direct-to-consumer delivery model and is now serving more consumers than restaurants
    • Wholesale versus retail model
    • Can the USDA create an instant access listserv for an emergency portal that provides instant communication directly with farmers and ranchers?
    • Chefs would love to help find places for product so that it does not end up going down the drain
  • We heard the struggles of one chef from Long Island that there are barely any meat processors in NY so getting reliable sources of local protein is constrained
    • This causes farmers to take the ferry to CT with cattle or going all the way to PA
    • NYS department of ag needs programs that encourage creation of more slaughterhouses
    • Bottle necks with labor because there is no affordable housing for labor workers (staff working two jobs to afford housing or driving an hour or two to get to work)
    • There is a need to support smaller independently owned meat cutters and farmers that focus on pastured raised practices
  • Need to get more people into farming
    • Young farmers and smaller acreages
    • Resilience and creativity to the food system
  • We heard repeatedly that in order to make real change, restaurants need more money. One example we heard:
    • USDA Food Box Program: Instead of giving the food boxes to food banks, the included food and produce could have been provided to chefs and restaurants preparing free meals for their community. Greater communication is needed between food and nutrition services and food marketing services. Restaurants could’ve used those boxes for their community and assured full use of foods that were distributed and donated.
    • USDA has funding to purchase food and provide food to individuals but accessing those resources and programs can be difficult and opportunities are not always communicated to all potential funding applicants.

Some ideas we heard from our listening session

  • SNAP – could there be an expansion to work with restaurants that serve minimally processed foods
    • We know that an issue with SNAP and fresh produce is that a lot of people using those benefits don’t have the resources to cook. This provides a great opportunity to create prepared, ready to eat, easy to keep meals that people could order,
    • Could there be a system where people could order food from restaurants that qualify?
    • Raw materials can be difficult to sell to struggling communities, good food that is cooked already may align better with some target audiences
    • For these ready to eat meals proper storage is an issue
  • Subsidizing regenerative practices and broader set of products over the more dominant corn and soy production systems
  • Farms switching the direct-to-consumer models but with seemingly less support from the USDA
  • Need for an emergency feeding assistance “matching” portal for farmers/ranchers and chefs and consumers to connect food supplies to those in need
  • Neighborhood pockets for networking that can be utilized to connect farms and chefs
  • Membership model to restaurants like producer CSAs

Impact Assessments

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