In the world of food, 2023 kicked off with a bang: shots fired at fine dining. Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant perennially at the top of “world’s best” lists, will close for service at the end of 2024, announced chef and founder Rene Redzepi. “It’s unsustainable,” he said of the business model to The New York Times. “Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.” Closer to home, California chef David Kinch closed his Michelin-starred Manresa at the end of 2022, as we all watched “The Menu” on screens large and small, chortling at a horror film that skewers high-end restaurants and those who haunt them with the precision of a chef knifing a lobster right between the eyes.
What does it all portend for the hospitality industry? Seems like the perfect time to predict what’s on the horizon for food and restaurants in the coming year. We talked with chefs and experts around town to hear what they are thinking about, and what they expect to see in 2023. (Recurring catchphrase: Work smarter, not harder.) Here are some takeaways:
Menu prices will go up
Top of mind for everyone: the increased costs of food and labor. Food prices surged in 2022. For consumers, overall food costs rose more than 10 percent between November 2021 and 2022. (The cost of eggs was up more than 49 percent. Thanks, avian flu.) In January, Massachusetts raised the minimum wage from $14.25 to $15 an hour, with the rate for tipped workers going from $6.15 to $6.75. For restaurant groups that employ a lot of servers, it adds up. These costs have to be compensated for elsewhere, and there’s not a lot of wiggle room. Diners should expect to see higher prices on menus, smaller portions on plates, altered operation hours, and other cost-related changes.
“Hopefully people will figure out that there’s no control over it. That’s what the market is and how much stuff costs,” says Michael Serpa, chef-owner of Atlántico, Little Whale, and Select Oyster Bar. “Hopefully it doesn’t keep too many people from dining out.”
Surprising restaurant closures
Although openings will outpace closings, we will still see places shutter, and some of those closures will be unexpected.
“We are talking to a lot of restaurateurs who are proud to report revenues are back to where they were before the pandemic, and in some cases revenues are up — but profitability is down,” says Jesse Baerkahn, president and founder of Boston-based retail real-estate advisory, investment, and brokerage firm Graffito SP. “It’s really hard to make money right now as a restaurateur, and really hard to raise money right now as a restaurateur.”
Same reason: the nonnegotiable costs of food and labor. A busy restaurant and a profitable restaurant aren’t always the same thing.
More and better restaurants in the suburbs
Overall, however, Baerkahn is optimistic. He expects to see more openings in suburban locations increasingly tolerant of greater density.
It’s driven by more people working from home, of course. But it’s more than that. “In some ways it’s linked to policy,” he says. “There’s been a move to densifying transit-rich suburbs. There hasn’t been that much vertical development, and we’re starting to see that change.” As an example, he cites Mida in Newton, which helps anchor a building with more than 100 units. Watertown, Malden, Quincy: All are getting more housing, which brings more retail space.
“People move out of the city and want the same urban amenities,” like good restaurants, he says. And when people see these amenities opening, they are more inclined to move to the suburbs. “It’s a chicken-and-egg situation.”
Baerkahn also expects to see more out-of-town restaurant groups opening in Boston, with the emergence of dining neighborhoods like the Seaport, Fenway, and Assembly Row in Somerville. “Many of these groups aren’t going to come here and just open one restaurant. They want to focus on a market and be able to scale,” he says. In the past, chef-driven concepts from people like Daniel Boulud and (ahem) Mario Batali haven’t done particularly well here. “But Major Food Group had a really great opening at Contessa, and no one’s going because of the name of the chef.” Add in a couple local branches of Parm, and it starts to be worth their while.
From kelp to nuts
Chefs will treat dietary and environmental concerns with increased attention and care.
“What are we doing for our planet? What are we doing for our bodies? Are we listening to our bodies? Are we listening to our guests about what they can and cannot eat? It all ties together,” says Pagu chef-owner Tracy Chang. Since the restaurant opened six years ago, she has heard increasing feedback about the need for nut-free, gluten-free, no-shellfish, no cross-contamination dishes. In the past, kitchens have often responded to such requests with workarounds and shortcuts, sometimes potentially dangerous (taking off the offending ingredient and microwaving the dish, for example, doesn’t work for someone with a life-threatening allergy). That attitude needs to change, she says. “What people like and want and need have to come together.”
For instance, almond-based orgeat is used in many cocktails, particularly tiki-style drinks, no good for patrons with nut allergies. “Why not create sunflower-seed orgeat in-house, rather than buying something off the shelf?,” she asks. The need should lead to creative invention, should be seen as a culinary challenge like any other.
Also, prepare to eat more kelp, both climate-friendly and delicious. “Kelp will be a more mainstream product over the next five years for sure,” Chang says. “You see big-name chefs working with the product and wholesalers like Wulf’s Fish carrying it, you see it in your Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, and you’ll see more and more restaurants using it.”
Specialization is the name of the game
“One thing we restaurateurs learned from the pandemic is that you probably don’t make 30 things better than everybody, but if you make two or three things better, people will buy that,” says chef-owner Avi Shemtov of Chubby Chickpea, Simcha, and more.
Bagel shops? Dumplings shipped to your door? Pastry pop-ups? Handmade pasta brands? Bring on the artisanal everything as entrepreneurs narrow their focus.
“In theory it leads to way more quality,” Shemtov says. “People are realizing they can work smarter, not harder. They don’t have to do everything. I’d rather walk into a shop and all they make is grilled cheese, but it’s amazing grilled cheese, and the energy is high because everybody feels so good.”
Side hustle: also good
Restaurants make more money with merch. T-shirts are always nice, but expect to see more packaged food items people can purchase, whether in-house or online.
“The restaurant business is not what it used to be, not just due to the money side, but people are in front of the computer, taking work home,” says Yahya Noor, chef-owner of Tawakal Halal Cafe. His restaurant is known for its shaah, a Somali tea drink similar to chai. People kept asking how to make it at home, so Noor figured it out. He plans to have a retail shaah product ready to sell by spring. It will join Tawakal’s bottled mango-habanero hot sauce, already available via tawakalhalal.com. “We’re shipping it nationwide. We recently shipped some to Utah and Oklahoma.” He hopes to add additional bottled sauces: “Our goal would be to create more products,” he says.
Forward-facing hospitality is warm and welcoming, but the business behind the scenes can be a real challenge. The industry continues to seek new ways to turn a profit while treating and paying workers well, a subject that has trickled into public discourse. As restaurants adjust to meet this goal, both customers and staff will be looking for increased explanation and transparency of business model. Expect to find it.
Kyisha Davenport is founder of Black hospitality collective BarNoirBoston and beverage director of soon-to-open Dorchester restaurant Comfort Kitchen. “We had a front-of-house training today, and the conversation of tips came up, in terms of should we automatically be adding gratuity, and who should be paying wages, and how do restaurants function?,” she says. “It had me taking a step back. We’re three years out from the start of this pandemic, and the industry is still shifting to make things work. … I really foresee this year a lot more restaurants being really, really, really upfront around how this runs and how this happens, just being as transparent and direct with guests as possible. My hope is this is the year where guests really start to take that into account — not just the folks who can afford to dine out on the regular or visit more high-end craft places in the city, but as an overall.”
Innovative beverage programs
Drinks will take center stage, sometimes pushing food into the background. “People are coming in to talk about restaurant concepts, and first pitching the beverage concept,” says Baerkahn. “For 15 years, since I’ve been doing this, the first conversation was food. Now it’s: I want to open a natural wine bar, and of course I’m going to have food.” Recent openings like sake bar The Koji Club and cocktail bar Birds of Paradise are examples.
Beverage programs will amplify and expand upon the restaurant’s concept. “Our mission at Comfort Kitchen is to follow the spice trade, how it’s traveled through Africa and Asia and made its way to the Caribbean and North America, shifting over time,” says Davenport. She’s been visiting all the local African markets, seeking out ingredients to incorporate into cocktails. She’ll use the West African spice blend suya in a rum-based drink, for instance. “Our menu will be really special for the city, I think. It almost exclusively consists of Black and brown producers. I think folks will have a chance this year to explore what people have to say from those backgrounds.”
And zero-proof cocktails will continue to be a trend, says anyone and everyone. “There is certainly a market for it. We do get a lot of folks who don’t drink,” Chang says.
Renewed creativity and energy
The pandemic burnout is real. But there’s energy in restaurants again, and dining rooms are buzzing. There’s a sense of renewal.
“Everyone just wants to cook food again and make pretty restaurants and have a busy place,” says Serpa. “Hopefully this year we’ll see people getting reinvigorated and past the pandemic stuff, getting back into the fun part and the food part. A lot of friends of mine in the industry have been — not ‘lost the love,’ I wouldn’t say that’s the right term, but oh my God this is hard. Hopefully we’ll see a trend where people are getting back to what they loved to do from the get-go, and why they got into it.”