COVID-19 changed Iowa’s dining industry. Will restaurants (and customers) continue to remain flexible?

Illustration by Julia DeSpain

In 2019, the restaurant industry in Iowa was flying high. According to the Iowa Restaurant Association, there were close to 6,500 restaurants and bars across the state. Nearly 155,000 people worked in the restaurant and bar industry that year. Just over 100,000 were working in restaurants in Iowa in 2014.

“The food world was king,” Samuel Charles, head chef and co-owner of Rodina in Cedar Rapids said of 2019. “COVID destroyed that.”

By March of 2020, that growth was in a tailspin, thanks to the shattering effects of COVID-19. Roughly 70,000 Iowans working at restaurants were let go in hopes of getting unemployment benefits, according to Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association.

Entire menus and business models were flipped on their heads in order to survive. Trumpet Blossom, Iowa City’s purveyor of beautifully complex vegan dishes and a beloved concert venue, made the decision many did and transitioned totally to takeout.

“This is not something I had ever anticipated doing,” said Katy Meyer, owner of Trumpet Blossom. “The small crew who had come back to work in person really rolled with all the punches.”

Though thousands of workers were hired back in the coming months and years, restaurateurs and leaders of the Iowa food industry know one thing for sure: getting back to pre-pandemic conditions is not on the menu anytime soon.

But what is next for the restaurants that survived COVID? Can the pandemic prove to be a pivot point that leads to something newer and better? It’s possible, but first, they have to fully recover.

Of those 155,000 working in restaurants in 2019, 20,000 never returned to the restaurant industry, Dunker said. Of those 6,500 restaurants across Iowa in 2019, 600 to 700 of them closed. Dunker estimates that $1.5 billion was lost in the Iowa bar and restaurant industry due to the pandemic.

“We’re like deer on wobbly legs,” Dunker said. “We’re going to run again, but we’ve got to get our footing again first.”

Closed signs hang on the door at Scratch Cupcakery (927 E 2nd Ave, Coralville) during the COVID-19 crisis. March 27, 2020. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

Is a pivot to takeout the future?

In March of 2020, New York City was becoming the epicenter of COVID-19 before it reached full force in Iowa. With family working in the NYC food industry, Charles realized what was to come in Iowa. He checked with his financial advisor and got the news: Rodina had 16 days cash-in-hand. Any closure longer than that would be cataclysmic.

“Mentally, I had accepted that the restaurant was closing down,” Charles said. Rodina had just opened in January of 2019 as a high-end casual restaurant where groups shared dishes family style. By the end of that year, they had hit their stride. Suddenly, his dream restaurant was going to fall victim to a pandemic.

“I just had the mindset that they’re going to have to drag me out of the building.”

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On March 16, 2020, with COVID-19 spreading across Iowa, Dunker received the call from the governor’s office. They were going to close the bars for two weeks beginning at noon the following day, St. Patrick’s Day, the biggest bar holiday revenue-wise.

Her first question to Gov. Reynolds’ office was a simple one: “What is a bar?” Is it businesses that have a liquor license, or get 51 percent of their sales from alcohol?

To help the governor make a clear decision, the Restaurant Association held an emergency meeting of its board of directors.

“That board of directors, which included Pizza Ranch and Culvers and places that don’t even have liquor licenses, they unanimously agreed: take all of us. If you’re going to shut down one portion of our industry, we’re going to stand together,” Dunker said. The State agreed to let them keep takeout, delivery, drive-through. “That is the most defining moment for our industry because we chose to be a united voice and unified from day one.”

That unified front helped ensure the state would eventually get roughly $90 million in funds to about 1,200 restaurants in Iowa in 2020, Dunker said.

Suddenly, no matter what, Iowa restaurants were either closed or doing only drive-through or takeout service. For both Rodina and Trumpet Blossom, the transition to takeout was a brutal one. Trumpet Blossom was closed for five weeks. Rodina laid off its staff in order for them to get unemployment benefits.

“We don’t necessarily say we’re in the food business, but in the hospitality business. But how do you put hospitality in a box?” Charles said of Rodina. The early pandemic days at Rodina featured himself, his wife and business partner Phoebe Charles, and one or two other staff.

Glen Lowry/Little Village

When Trumpet Blossom opened back up in May of 2020, they were 100 percent takeout and stayed as such until May 2021. Meyer credited the restaurant’s then-manager Jenni Cannella and her entire staff for making the transition sustainable for the business. Jenni was answering all the phone call orders and running all the orders out to the customers for pickup.

Some menu items at Trumpet Blossom transitioned perfectly to takeout: their vegan macaroni and cheese with coconut bacon bits could easily be reheated at home. Their housemade ice cream was another story. Her staff got busy turning ice cream to milkshakes with exciting flavors like blueberry-lavender, and a turmeric shake with lemon and dates. Due to their success in the carryout-only days, milkshakes remain on their menu.

“My kitchen staff worked hard to remain creative,” Meyer said. “Basically everyone, myself included, was willing to do whatever it took to keep us afloat while we operated under completely new circumstances.”

Though many restaurants were embracing carryout and delivery due to the pandemic, Dunker said the transition to more carryout was already happening across Iowa before COVID-19 made it a necessity.

“Prior to COVID, we were looking at data that said 37 percent of food and drink that is created in a restaurant or bar is consumed in a restaurant or bar. That means 63 percent was already carryout, pick-up or delivery,” Dunker said. “COVID was really a catalyst that propelled us forward in a direction we had to go to anyways because consumer demand required it.”

This could potentially lead to other long-term changes for Iowa restaurants, Dunker said: smaller menus that can transition to carryout easier, less dining space so restaurants can focus on to-go orders, and higher prices.

In order to make carryout a more practical routine for all restaurants, the Iowa Restaurant Association is supporting House Study Bill 688, which would require an agreement between restaurants and third-party food delivery services. These food delivery services do not have to ask a restaurant to post their menu on their services. Since customers order food through a third party, and not the restaurant itself, things often go awry with what’s available and when items will be ready.

Becoming regional destinations

Carryout and delivery may be a new or growing lifeblood for restaurants, but there’s something inalienable at the core of businesses like Rodina and Trumpet Blossom: people coming together in a beautiful space with friends, family and restaurant regulars to experience food and a sense of community.

“People choose hospitality in the bars and restaurants because they love people. When you invite someone to your restaurant, it’s like inviting them into your home,” Dunker said.

In 2021, despite Charles saying he rarely felt comfortable, Rodina found its footing again as one of the premier dine-in destinations for elevated casual dining. After being voted the CRANDIC’s best chef by Little Village readers in 2019, Charles was named Iowa’s Chef of the Year by the Iowa Restaurant Association in 2021. In an interview with the Gazette, he said a large portion of his customers were travelers looking for Rodina’s take on Midwestern cuisine staples done with hyper-local ingredients.

“It is my absolute belief that the future of the food world lies in smaller communities that can actually sustain themselves on local farms,” Charles said. “Farm to table is not possible in New York City, or it’s not possible for the average person since prices would be too high.”

“In places like Iowa, there’s something that is very special, and it’s that good food is very, very accessible. I believe that there’s going to be this explosion of these really fun concepts in these smaller communities, and I think COVID actually sped that up.”

Since so many of the country’s biggest cities were hit hardest by COVID-19, Charles noted that many chefs at prestigious big-city restaurants moved back to their homes in smaller, more rural towns and brought with them their “massive talents.”

When dreaming of the future of Iowa restaurants, Charles also looks to the Michelin Guide. Starting in 1904, the now iconic food guide was first just a list of notable restaurants in the French countryside worthy of driving or biking to.

“That is what Iowa is. It’s a grouping of smaller communities within a drivable distance that have notable food establishments that are worthy of a trip,” Charles said.

Trumpet Blossom’s Rainbow Bowl — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Lincoln Cafe drove food tourism in Mount Vernon for 12 years. Big Grove Brewery’s success helped Solon’s Main Street rival any neighborhood in Iowa restaurant-wise. Charles hopes we see more and more of this.

“If we have all these great, unique, farm-to-table restaurants across the region, that warrants individuals wanting to travel the state of Iowa for something they may not be able to get anywhere else,” Charles said.

Dunker knows that the state has to invest in those rural places to make sure restaurants stay long-term. “My biggest worry about 10 years from now is that we won’t find ways to attract and invest in the rural main streets,” Dunker said.

What happens when the longtime owners of the iconic small-town breakfast place retire or face a crisis like COVID again? Dunker hopes to see the state create initiatives to attract more people and more money into those rural communities.

With Trumpet Blossom as the only vegan restaurant in Iowa City, and quite possibly the only fully vegan restaurant in eastern Iowa, Meyer said that her restaurant routinely has travelers coming for food. But Trumpet Blossom has another point of attraction: it’s a concert venue.

For a decade now, Trumpet Blossom has hosted scores of concerts, both independent shows for touring and local acts, and as part of local, multi-location festivals like Mission Creek Festival or Witching Hour.

“The revenue and exposure that live events generate has helped the business immensely and has enabled us to feel more connected to our community,” Meyer said.

Restaurants and customers: be more flexible

For Meyer and her near-decade-old restaurant, the most obvious lesson and change needed for restaurateurs is more flexibility and learning to “adapt in the environments we operate in.”

“The disruption of the pandemic has made us all question our foci in every aspect of our lives and as a small business owner, it has made me aware that I need to be able to pivot more and be more willing to try things outside of what I’d originally envisioned,” Meyer said.

Many restaurants had to pivot once again this past December and January as the Omicron variant spread. Due to more staff shortages, and people staying in instead of dining out, January 2022 proved to be worse for Iowa restaurants than pre-vaccine January 2021, Dunker said.

Rodina’s dining room in 2019. — Jav Ducker/Little Village

As reported by the Gazette, Rodina closed for New Year’s Eve 2021 due to staff shortages. The following day, the first of 2022, their two walk-in coolers broke down and most of their food was lost.

Due to pandemic-related supply-chain issues, they pivoted again to something he and his business partner had been planning at another location: SureBurger, a concept that sourced fast food-like burgers and fries with local, better ingredients. The pivot to SureBurger lasted just over a month but ensured that loyal customers had fun food and that the business stayed open.

Not only will restaurants have to remain flexible in the future, but customers will, too. Dunker knows that restaurants are still struggling to get fully staffed.

“The hours are hard, and you can’t work from home,” she said.

She hopes customers can extend grace to staff when service is a bit slower than it was in 2019, or when menu items can’t be guaranteed because of supply-chain issues. Her idea: customers should be as loyal to the local restaurants in 2022 as they were at the beginning of the pandemic.

“Consumers were amazing in the beginning. They bought things to-go that they would never do previously just to support local,” Dunker said. She remembered customers buying loads of corned beef simply because restaurants and bars closed on St. Patrick’s Day 2020 and had heaps of it left unserved.

“We may be struggling to get the ingredients you need, but please be patient,” Dunker said. ”We’re still on the road to recovery. We will not see 2019 revenue numbers in 2022, but we’re on the upward track, and that’s what really matters.”

This article was originally published in the 2022 Bread & Butter dining guide.