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Two- time James Beard Award winner Chef Sarah Stegner is hopeful about the restaurant industry in 2021. As co-chef/co-owner of Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook, the pandemic has forced her to face the biggest challenges of her career—by far—in 2020.

What does the future hold for restaurants in 2021? Stegner weighs in as to what we may very well experience in the restaurant business in 2021.

Collaborative Meals Between Restaurants. It used to be that restaurants and their chefs periodically would team up to present a special menu featuring creations from all the participating chefs. These have been really catching on in 2020 and will grow stronger in 2021. Food lovers will see more collaborative menus, featuring multiple restaurant packages for curbside pickup.

Prairie Grass Cafe Lamb Sausage Meal Kit
Prairie Grass Cafe Lamb Sausage Meal Kit

Chef Driven Meal Kits. Meal kits have gained in popularity. The meal’s ingredients are prepped and packed to go; cooking and reheating instructions are included. Now, many chefs have seen the business value in making their food available in kit form.

“At Prairie Grass Cafe, our meal kits have been very well received by our guests,” said Stegner. “We don’t see the meal kit demand going away, even after the pandemic ends. Our meal kits have provided us with an ever-growing revenue stream and offer flexibility for our guests.”

Healthful menu options. The pandemic has clearly highlighted the importance of eating healthfully. People are seeking out restaurants that offer menu items that are not only delicious, but also sustaining and nutritious. Next year and beyond, consumers are more likely to see menu items centered around such ingredients as beans, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, locally raised meats and sustainable seafood.

Elizabeth Kennedy
Elizabeth Kennedy, Certificed Life Coach

Restaurants partnering with other small businesses. In keeping with the emphasis on healthfulness, restaurants have begun to partner with like-minded businesses that support emotional and physical rejuvenation. For example, Prairie Grass Cafe has formed a partnership with Evanston-based Certified Life Coach Elizabeth Kennedy. Together they will offer specially prepared lunch and dinner meals developed by Stegner. Also, personalized coaching sessions with Kennedy will be offered. “Our goal is to educate customers and help them feel more vibrant,” said Stegner.

Multiple Revenue Streams. Businesses that expand their offering to achieve multiple revenue streams will be the survivors. In the restaurant industry, that means offering meals and other items in a new and different way. “At Prairie Grass Cafe, we redirected our business in early March by being one of the first restaurants to offer meal kits. As time progressed, we started offering farm goods pickup and fresh sustainable raw fish,” she said.    

Stegner offered Zoom cooking classes and even a telephone hotline for consumers to call for cooking help. While she didn’t charge for all of this, the programs have been instrumental in building the restaurant’s reputation well beyond their local community.

Families Cooking Together
Families Cooking Together

The Family Meal reinvented. Many parents are working from home, and since the children are also at home, families are increasingly preparing meals together. “Kids are more interested than ever in how to cook—and they are enjoying the experience. It’s a great opportunity for parents to show budding chefs or home cooks how to prepare healthy dishes that are also delicious,” said Stegner. “Kids like to learn about new and interesting foods, including those that originate in other regions and countries. Kids will learn a lot of positive lessons about our society by learning about our various food traditions. Chefs can help by sharing their knowledge and passion for food.”

Demand for Chef-driven Cooking Classes and Demos. Many chefs have learned how to work with streaming video platforms such as Zoom and Facebook Live, and the results have been fun as well as beneficial. They are here to stay, Stegner predicts. Online events such as demos and classes using these platforms will continue to increase. To augment online cooking events, chefs will make on-demand recipes and cookbooks available.

Stegner has used these platforms to offer classes, demos and to help promote farmers.

Farmer Jerry Boone
Farmer Jerry Boone, Froggy Meadow Farm

Getting to know farmers. Online ordering platforms offering products directly from farm to the home table will grow significantly in 2021. After many months of social distancing, farmers and consumers will be more appreciative than ever to have direct connection with consumers, and remote connection via two- way video streaming will be a very useful way to achieve this. Using Zoom or other video platforms in addition to social media, farmers can connect on a more personal level with people ordering their products. Farmers can also engage with the public by answering questions and offering advice.

More give and take when doing community and charitable fundraising. Giving to the community has become stronger than ever during 2020. Organizations and businesses are increasingly partnering and strategizing together to develop ways to be community-involved. Restaurants will gravitate to those community and charitable groups who want to help their business, too.

“I used to get requests five, six, or seven times a day,” said Stegner. “Now, charities are asking, ‘how can we make this work for you?’ rather than simply asking me what I will do for them. Charities are suggesting that I offer a package for, let’s say, $45 and they will sell it for $65. We both benefit. Sometimes we get the farms involved, too.”

Impactful Gifting. Since the pandemic period, people are more likely to spend money on gifts that have an impactful meaning. Examples include artistic and artisanal items, personally meaningful gifts, and practical gifts that improve the quality of peoples’ lives. “People want things that lift them up, that make them live life better. Our guests like our thoughtfully designed meal packages—they make wonderful gifts,” said Stegner.

Re-focus on community involvement. “If we’ve learned one thing during 2020, it’s that we’re all strongly interconnected and we need to work together to keep our community strong,” said Stegner. “Restaurateurs who are engaged with and contribute to the community, in person and through promotions, PR and social media, will be the ones most likely to succeed going forward. The good news is that many restaurants have stepped up in 2020. Restaurants have been rocking it in terms of their community involvement.”

Chef Sarah Stegner
Chef Sarah Stegner


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