The Virtual In-Person Restaurant Event

Or, when offline-to-online becomes online-to-offline

The Infatuation quietly released a new thing recently: Outpost is a “marketplace where restaurants, chefs, bartenders and hospitality professionals can sell goods, services and other experiences.” Outpost was created in response to Covid, according to Infatuation CEO Chris Stang.

“Felt like an opportunity to serve our community with things that they want while they can't go to restaurants, and also maybe help restaurants find some new sources of income,” he wrote in an email. 

Outpost is, of course, brand new, but available options (in New York for now) show the breadth of offerings it can support. There’s Austin-style Breakfast Tacos Brunch Pack for four from King David Tacos in Brooklyn ($66),  a virtual cooking class and meal kit for two from chef Leah Cohen ($92), a $6,000 group dinner at home for up to eight people with wine pairings from chef James Kent of Crown Shy (a portion of those proceeds are donated to charity), and more. For now, Outpost isn’t taking commission from participating chefs and restaurants, though it might in the future. “We'll likely try a few different models to see what works best for everyone involved,” Stang said.

Diversified revenue streams, omnichannel marketing, taking money however you can — whatever you call it, a restaurant needs it to survive 2020. What’s interesting to me about this is that so much of restaurant tech (and also restaurant media) pre-pandemic was structured around taking the offline to online, i.e., how do you translate this in-person restaurant experience driven by senses like taste and touch and smell onto a screen? Now, things are moving in the opposite direction: online to off, i.e., How do you use the safety of a screen to promote, market, and sell an in-person experience when in-person experiences still feel… weird? Or, how do you facilitate an offline experience like cooking restaurant-quality food with an online component like a live demonstration? While this offline-online shift has been happening as long as there’s been a commercial internet, it feels especially important now when technology and screens equal safety and shared tables feel like a danger zone. (A recent survey from restaurant technology company SevenRooms, for example, found just over 1 in 4 people won’t feel comfortable dining out until there’s a vaccine, and just under 1 in 4 will only order for pickup and/or delivery for the rest of the year.)

The pandemic has obviously forced every industry to ask itself challenging questions. Among them, “What is a restaurant right now?” There are as many correct answers to that question as there are restaurant businesses: private dining, pop-ups, takeout, delivery, pivots to digital, cooking classes, cocktail kits, secondary brands... (Sidenote: it’ll be interesting to see how the maligned restaurant awards machine eventually adapts to this change, assuming it plans to adapt to change.)

The Infatuation is an editorial brand, once running critical reviews and rankings, now chronicling the industry’s evolution. It bought Zagat from Google in 2018, reviving the iconic maroon NYC guide last year. Now, Zagat Stories chronicles the struggles that the chefs, restaurateurs, and workers in the restaurant industry are facing, from the feel-good pivots to the challenging and devastating closures. (Somewhat ironically, I wrote about a feel-good pivot for Zagat Stories that turned into a devastating closure. So it goes.)

The company also decided to remove numerical ratings from its reviews in late June. In a post on the site at the time, editor-in-chief Hillary Reinsberg wrote, “Restaurants are facing the most profound changes and challenges in their existence. How could we possibly go in and fairly rate them within the next year? Or the next two years? Would our old ratings be accurate?” 

Outpost feels like more of this, a practical embrace of the realities of the restaurant industry right now. It also inspires more big questions: Is it a reviewer’s job to prop up a restaurant in crisis? Or, more broadly, if a company is built upon the success and failure of restaurants, what is its responsibility when restaurants’ businesses are upended? 

I’m not the first to ask these questions , and I don’t think they’re easily answered over the long term, especially given how quickly things are changing. It’s clear that big industry changes and challenges will stretch for months and years beyond this crisis, even with a vaccine. But in the short term, I believe we have our answer. 

Thank you, thank you to everyone who has converted to a paid subscription. I remain grateful for your support! 

Expedite is produced by Kristen Hawley, a San Francisco-based journalist with over six years of experience covering the restaurant technology industry. Previous iterations of this content were available via Chefs+Tech and Skift Table. Thanks for reading.