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The restaurant industry has always been a tough one, featuring thin margins and intense competition. In that context, independent actors often struggled to find a way to fulfill their dreams and share their food creations with the public. Opening a restaurant, hiring staff, marketing—those costs simply put the dream out of reach for many would-be chefs. But then came COVID-19, upsetting the very structure of the industry and creating a new, promising space for individual cooks to reach consumers, with the help of social media.

For people on lockdown or who prefer to maintain very strict social distancing, takeout is the better option, so demands for an appealing restaurant environment, where servers would bring the food to their table, no longer drove their consumption. Instead, they sought a variety of options, along with fresh and diverse ingredients, to disrupt the monotony of eating at home, yet again.

In this market context, independent chefs have a remarkably compelling value offering. These small operations, often just one person cooking in a tiny kitchen, promise that the same person can visit the farmer’s market for the freshest ingredients, come up with the recipes on their own, cook everything, and even deliver the takeout containers to the diner. Their operating costs are minimal, so they can function at a reasonable scale and still earn profits. In addition, they are dedicated to keeping their operations lean, so that they can adjust their activities and marketing efforts as needed, depending on future developments.

To link up with customers, these chefs mainly rely on Instagram, where they announce daily specials and pop-up offerings. The burden is on consumers to find, follow, and respond promptly to the offers. Once a tiny operation sells out of its daily special, it is unlikely to restock with anything else, because it does not have the capacity.

But for many consumers, the effort is worth it. The diversity of foods they can access is massive, including representations of various cultures and ethnicities, sold by dedicated cooks who want to share their food offerings. The different operations provide the meals using various routes, depending on the methods that work best for them and their local, dedicated customers; some offer delivery, whereas others establish central pickup locations.

Their longevity remains a question though. Can somewhat unregulated kitchens safely continue, or will authorities ultimately crack down and require inspections of people’s homes and kitchens before allowing them to continue selling meals? Will consumers continue to work to find independent meal options, or will reopening trends lead them to embrace restaurant visits again? Are we on the cusp of a new structure for the restaurant industry, or are the pop-ups on Instagram just a temporary niche?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What factors make it more or less likely for independent food purveyors to continue succeeding through Instagram?
  2. What regulations should be imposed on such businesses?

Source: Tejal Rao, “Cooks Turned Instagram into the World’s Greatest Takeout Menu,” The New York Times, January 26, 2021