Coronavirus might do to restaurants what Prohibition did to drinks

America’s drinking culture took eight decades to recover after being shut down

(Image credit: Illustrated | AP Photo, iStock)

It was immediately obvious when stay-at-home orders rolled out across the country that the economic effects of the novel coronavirus could be ruinous to the American restaurant industry. As an Onion headline recently quipped, "Study finds most restaurants fail within first year of it becoming illegal to go to them."

As many as 75 percent of the independent restaurants that close in response to this pandemic are forecast to permanently fail, a horrifying prospect. My neighborhood is a veritable gastronomic tour of East Asia, to say nothing of the Mexican and North African cuisine, the local coffee shops, and the unspeakably perfect French-Vietnamese pastries. We would be poorer, culturally and literally, without them.

But the danger here isn't only that these particular restaurants may never reopen for normal business: We also risk losing an enormous body of culinary knowledge that could take decades to recover. It happened to drink during Prohibition, and it could happen to food with COVID-19.

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When Prohibition began in January of 1920, the United States was a nation teeming with what we'd now call craft breweries. Beer production measured in gallons had nearly doubled in the previous two decades, and though the total brewery count had declined from a peak above 4,000 in the 1870s, it was still at a healthy 1,300 when the Volstead Act took effect. After Prohibition ended, about half that number came back, but the industry was fragile and still subject to onerous regulations. Aside from a very brief post-war spike, American breweries steadily died off, bottoming out at a mere 89 nationwide in 1978.

That's the beer environment into which I was born and which persisted until the mid-1990s. American beer was weak, bland, and boring compared to foreign options like Belgian tripels and the then-exotic Guinness Draught. Its sole purpose was intoxication. One of my college professors thought (likely rightly) he was imparting deep wisdom when he revealed we could look beyond your Nattys and Bud Lights to sample such lofty brews as Pilsner Urquell, which I would now characterize as a pretty basic Czech lager.

The beer market re-expanded after deregulation at the state and federal level allowed small-scale exploration of new brewing techniques and recovery of knowledge Prohibition destroyed. Pre-pandemic, we were blessed with more than 7,000 American breweries, an all-time high. That's been fantastic for we who are alive and of drinking age now, but consider the timeline here: It took eight decades to reach pre-Prohibition brewery numbers. If this pandemic has a comparable effect on restaurants, we'd get back to this past January's level of local dining options around 2097.

Prohibition was no kinder to spirits. Unlike beer consumption, hard liquor use stayed consistent or perhaps slightly increased during the Prohibition years because it is more compact and comparatively shelf-stable, two attributes conducive to smuggling. But bathtub gin isn't exactly the stuff of exquisite cocktails, and many of the most skilled bartenders — especially those who'd achieved a degree of celebrity for their work at luxury hotels — left the country rather than risk speakeasy service. Some fled to Europe, some to Mexico. Some left bartending for another profession entirely. Meanwhile, distilleries closed and aged liquor production, which would require long-delayed investment return to start afresh post-Prohibition (i.e. during the Great Depression), was subject to unique disadvantage.

The 1800s and first two decades of the 20th century had seen the invention of classic cocktails like the Sazerac, the Manhattan, and the Old Fashioned. After Prohibition, though, cocktail culture stagnated. Cocktails we associate with the 1950s tend to be markedly simple (the Martini), creations of another era (the Manhattan), or tiki drinks, complex and delicious but ultimately variations on a single theme. The craft cocktail movement of today dates to the 1980s, but it has only been widespread for a mere 15 years. The mid-1990s return of absinthe to the United States and revived import and production of other historic cocktail ingredients in the early 2000s were pivotal changes that made it possible for mixologists to follow classic recipes for the first time in nearly a century.

It's troublingly easy to imagine similar damage to our food culture from the coronavirus shutdowns. A loss of three in four independent establishments would be catastrophic.

And independence is the key factor here. Chain restaurants are more likely to survive, but what are chains like Applebee's if not the Natty Light of the restaurant world? They're hardly repositories of culinary wisdom. Applebee's and its peers also aren't what sustains supply chains of unusual, often locally-sourced ingredients integral to more innovative establishments — supply chains now being thrown into chaos. Nor are chains employing ingenious chefs who could leave the country for stronger restaurant markets or quit cooking altogether.

If chain restaurants are all we have left after the pandemic, our food scene will be as bland and boring as mid-century American beer. Even if the economy is otherwise back to normal in two or five or 10 years, the diversity and creativity of our local restaurants could be diminished for decades longer. We must find a way to heed the warning Prohibition history blares.

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