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Delivery, Drive-Thru or Bust: How the Pandemic Is Shaping Restaurants

An empty restaurant.
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From delivery, to carry-out and meal kits, restaurants across the country are finding new ways to cater to consumers during coronavirus. On this episode of Full Disclosure, host Roben Farzad, sits down with Adam Chandler, former Atlantic writer and author of Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast Food Kingdom.

Episode Excerpt

The following excerpt was edited for clarity. [42:59]

Roben Farzad: I want you to look to your crystal ball and tell us how this is going to shape an industry that has always changed, sometimes violently. We've had commercial real estate collapses that have killed chains. They come and go, they get subsumed into other chains. We know that there's regional variation. For example, many people in SoCal wouldn't be caught dead at a McDonald's they want to be at an In and Out Burger. Even if it takes 40 minutes to get your food. There are people in Texas who are particularly into Whataburger. You go all around the country, whether it's Chick-fil-a or Cookout, fast food, do you think will survive? But what are going to be some of the lessons out of this? For example, for starters, do you think that finally there's going to be public opinion or some sort of creeping unanimity for a living wage or a $15 minimum wage?

Adam Chandler: Well, I can't predict that it'll happen but, I certainly hope so. I think that we are going to kind of have a reckoning where we look at all the vulnerabilities that have come out as a result of this pandemic striking the economy. There are so many people who have had to make so many difficult choices. And that should hopefully factor into future calculus, I think, especially fast food chains are going to garner a lot of goodwill by virtue of staying open. And they're also going to get a black eye for worker protests and issues like sick pay and sick leave. I think that that's hopefully something that will cause re-examination. But zooming out, fast food has always kind of adapted to the different tastes and trends and social conditions. The reason we have fast food is because the interstate highway system was built after World War Two and the suburbs were built and their commutes, and there were dual income households. All of these factors kind of created fast food. And so I assume whatever form America takes after this and the world around it, there will be adjustments and calculations and reformatting of the systems to fit whatever world we're in once this whole thing subsides. And I'm curious to see what that's gonna look like. I really have no idea just yet.

Farzad: Adam are you in Manhattan right now? Are you in Brooklyn?

Chandler: I just moved out of Brooklyn. I'm actually in Yonkers, which is just north of the city.

Farzad: So illustrate the scene for me in the city, when were you last in Manhattan? I have a good friend of mine, his sister is a nurse at Sloan Kettering. She's describing the kind of the sense of fear and loathing on the subway trains. Especially for service workers, or central workers who have no choice in this most densely packed US city, which is almost ground zero for the coronavirus epidemic in the United States. What's the mood, what's the scene? Because there's this duality to it. On the one hand, you're trying to avoid people and you're trying to self correct quarantine and stay at home. On the other hand, you cannot live without the Seamless driver without the Grubhub or Postmates person. Without the say the undocumented immigrant who's delivering your Chinese food or who's bringing it across town on a bike while wearing an N-95 mask.

Chandler: Right the scene on this was as recent as last week, there's a stressful solidarity I don't know how else to describe it. There really is a scene of people really trying to do their best and to be respectful of a difficult situation, but also continue to get things done. There isn't a kind of space to be precious in this moment. And you really see that around. People are in grocery stores being shockingly polite to each other and spacing out and trying to do their best. There are still people who are trying to go about having a normal life and maybe with a little bit more disregard for the standard than there should be. So it's the mix of New York that you're used to. But, you know, broadly you see people kind of banding together at six feet increments and trying to be conscientious and it's meaningful, given how serious a toll it's taking on New York City.

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