The Future of Restaurants? A Historian’s Thoughts

Paul Freedman

Did you know that restaurants have existed for well over 1000 years? Tracing its lineage to the tea houses in China, and the thermopolia in Greece, the concept of a public gathering space to share food and socialize has always gone hand in hand with human civilization.

The restaurant in its modern incarnation (with elegant food, atmosphere and waiters) descends from the French cabaret and tavern. In the late 18th century, these establishments made their way to the US and though they were immediately popular, Americans’ interest in them grew as time progressed. In 1970, there was one restaurant for every 7,500 people in the United States. By 2016, there were 1,000,000 restaurants – one for every 310 people in the country! According to a Gallup poll in 2016, over 50% of Americans ate out at restaurants at least once a week and 10% of the nation’s workforce was employed by the restaurant industry.

Then the Coronavirus pandemic hit.

According to an April 20, 2020 article from Business Insider, 8 million restaurant employees are suddenly unemployed or furloughed. The industry itself post losses of $30 billion in March 2020, expects to post losses of $50 billion in April and will have lost $240 billion by the end of the year.

So, what comes next? Paul Freedman, Chester D. Tripp Professor of History at Yale University has written numerous books on the subject of food, including; Food: The History of Taste and Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination. Professor Freedman will discuss the history of restaurants, where we were before Coronavirus pandemic spread and where he thinks the industry is headed in this fascinating and timely course.