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How restaurateurs are adapting to COVID-19

As COVID-19 continues to impact the food and restaurant industry, one restaurateur is opening more locations. Restaurateur and Chef Matthew Kenney joins The Final Round to discuss how restaurants are adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Video Transcript

MYLES UDLAND: Welcome back to "The Final Round" here on Yahoo Finance. Myles Udland with you in New York. Well, big news here in New York City. Today, Governor Andrew Cuomo announcing that at the end of the month, New York City restaurants will be open for indoor dining at 25% capacity. Of course, across the country, restaurants have been open in a limited form in many states. And the other side of the pandemic for the restaurant business is starting to come into focus.

And our next guest is planning on opening 10 locations over the next year. We're joined now by Chef Matthew Kenney. Matt, thanks so much for joining the show. Let's just kind of start with how you've seen the last six months play out in the space, in your restaurants, talking to your peers in the industry, and how you kind of see the future unfolding here?

MATTHEW KENNEY: Well, it's been a big shake up, of course, in the industry, and hard on a lot of people. Especially teams of all the rest-- the hospitality businesses has really been suffering. We've fortunately been relatively well positioned, because we always look for restaurant spaces that have outdoor seating. And this, the worst this was during the summer. So in that sense, it's been OK.

There's been an increase in-- I think in the beginning of the pandemic, everybody was going toward comfort food and staying at home. But over time, I think that there's a lot of increase in awareness about health and wellness. So in that sense, it's been a positive for us. But nonstop challenges, for sure.

MELODY HAHM: And Matthew, of course, you're-- you've been the pioneer of the plant-based food industry, first starting off with very high-end, gourmet options. And then with Double Zero, that plant-based pizza restaurant in New York, as well as LA, and I think you're opening up several other locations, you've diversified trying to make it more accessible. I would love your thoughts on the Impossible Foods, on the Beyond Meats that here at Yahoo Finance we cover almost on a daily basis. As I understand it, you don't actually carry either those in your restaurants because you prefer the cashew-based alternative. Can you speak to what you think of those plant-based options?

MATTHEW KENNEY: Sure. Well, first of all, we've had to diversify very quickly to adapt. One of the first things we did when virtually all of our restaurants were closed within 72 hours-- we got the orders from several states at the same time, and countries-- our entire team went to work on launching an online culinary platform, Food Feature Institute. And we now have 1,000 students, which, obviously, was 10 times what we projected.

But we've also shifted toward more accessible models. We're opening a drive-through concept in Orange County and a couple more in New England. And to go into the fast food market, we do it in a more plant-based way. A lot of my friends and business partners are involved in Beyond and Impossible. And I think they've done tremendous work in making plant-based accessible and creating awareness.

And, just as you said, you talk about it every day. The media discusses plant-based now. For me, as a chef, that's a bridge. It's a product that anybody can buy.

And while it may be good and taste good to some people, we really like to do scratch cooking, and everything involving non-processed foods. So we think we can accomplish the same sort of experience without-- without relying on those brands.

MYLES UDLAND: And Matthew, you mentioned how early in the pandemic, there was this rush towards comfort food, whatever that might be for whoever out there, burgers and mac and cheese, et cetera. But, I mean, the real trend in the industry the last several years-- and not even the industry, I think just in society-- was, again, towards that wellness customer, that wellness lifestyle, I think, that your kind of restaurant group speaks to.

And I guess this gets at a way of thinking about the next decade. Do you think that the trajectory we all kind of thought we were on in the 2010s is actually something we're going to get back on? In other words, people are going to continue to emphasize kind of clean living, plant-based alternatives, and not just revert to whatever kind of American diet we all got stuck on in the '80s, '90s, and we're trying to wean ourselves off of?

MATTHEW KENNEY: I do think that's happening. My entire belief for the last 20 years was that we would ultimately have a complete food paradigm shift globally toward understanding that foods that are also-- that are healthy and promote wellness are actually the best tasting foods as well. It's just that it's about resetting our expectations and our palates and so forth. And, of course, it's taken a really long time.

But because of the media coverage and because of the financial markets now paying attention to plant-based and education in general, it is coming around. And I think this is not a trend at all. It's accelerated to a great degree.

And to me, that was something that was broken in the food system. If we go to a nice restaurant and have a great meal, we shouldn't feel bad the next day and have to diet for two or three days. So I think that we are coming to a point where we understand we can go out, have a great meal, have a glass of wine, feel good the next day, go for a run or whatever. And we don't need that discrepancy between wellness and culinary art.

MELODY HAHM: Oh, you're speaking to my soul, Matthew. That has happened one too many times, where the food hangover and coma is so real. It's really unbearable.

I actually live a stone's throw away from your Make Out location in Culver City. And Plant Food + Wine was one of the last restaurants I went to in person prior to COVID and me holing up. But just thinking about here in Los Angeles, New York City, Dubai, Kuwait, Buenos Aires, you have a pretty global presence. And they're very cosmopolitan cities, right?

But if you think about true accessibility, how do you anticipate-- do you see suburbs eventually? Do you see more rural areas that are typically food deserts really gravitating towards your concepts? Or do you feel like it's still very much an urban, still privileged appeal?

MATTHEW KENNEY: It's a process. But I see it-- I see it growing everywhere. First of all, you'll be really happy, we're opening to new restaurants in Culver City. We'll announce them soon. So we'll have more options in your neighborhood.

But our largest volume restaurant is in Providence, Rhode Island. It's certainly not a suburb. But it's a small city, 250,000 people. And by far, that is our biggest and largest volume restaurant.

And that's a big step for us, going from New York and Los Angeles and other cities like that to a smaller city. And the next step will be urban markets that will adopt this cuisine. I mean, if you look at a company like Panda Express, for example, which is the opposite kind of cuisine as us, their-- some of their best performing stores are in cities or towns with less than 100,000 people. And I think plant-based is going in that direction, and not in 50 years, probably in the next two or three years.

MYLES UDLAND: All right, Chef Matthew Kenney, thank you so much for joining the show. Really interesting stuff going on in your space and in the restaurant world broadly. Thanks again for the time.

MATTHEW KENNEY: Pleasure. Thank you all.