2022: Looking Forward

Permanent changes and a blurry horizon

Saint James Seafood interior
Durham's Saint James Seafood plans to reopen at the end of January 2022 (Anna Routh Barzin)

By Matthew Lardie

It’s the time of year for reflection and for looking forward, and many in the Triangle restaurant and hospitality industry are cautiously optimistic about 2022. Of course, with the recent surge in the Omicron variant it’s hard to tell what the next few weeks and months will look like, but as we approach the third year of the pandemic many of the systems and processes that restaurants and bars have put in place should help at least mitigate the effects of staff sicknesses and hopefully stave off another round of closures.

The Southeastern Dispatch reached out to a few friends to gauge how they’re feeling about the upcoming year and ask what they see in store for themselves and the industry as a whole. A few common themes emerged from our discussions. First, many things have permanently changed in the restaurant and bar industries since March 2020, and what seemed at first to be temporary accommodations are now just normal features of the business. Staffing will continue to be a challenge, and price increases are here to stay—although some, like Chef Matt Kelly of Mateo and Saint James Seafood would argue that they were too low to start with.

In all we spoke with three chefs, one bar manager, and two wine industry professionals. Here’s what they had to say about the prospects for their respective industries in 2022. (Note: these conversations have been lightly edited for clarity and flow.)

Saif Rahman, Chef

Vidrio, Raleigh

Chef Saif Rahman of Vidrio
Chef Saif Rahman of Vidrio

2020 and 2021 were rough times in our industry. Many of us had to adapt quickly to this new norm — we created new ways to earn business and we worked our butts off to make ends meet. We did not want to shut our doors and lay off our teammates, who had families depending on them.

I am looking forward to cooking simpler yet refined food. In 2022 I want to highlight more local and boutique farmers. I am going to focus on using a head to tail approach on every product that we get, due to the fact that we are paying higher prices for the same goods compared to 2019. It will be an educational process for our small team and our respected guests. In 2022, I will focus more on wants versus needs, making luxury quality food from the least expected of ingredients, and focus more on community involvement. I believe these changes will help me sustain my team and make enough money to keep [us open].

In 2022, I want to see myself and my team have more of a work-life balance, maybe focus on having a weekend off a month. Maybe take my wife out on a date on a Saturday night and not look for a restaurant on Sunday or Monday nights.

I believe that in 2022 we will see smaller restaurants opening. It will be too high risk to open expensive restaurants due to staffing still being a major issue. Although a lot of us received governmental financial help, we are being wise on how we spend this money, spending the bulk of it on staffing and such. In 2022 I think we will also see more restaurants shifting their focus towards takeout food rather than dine in. While we will see smaller teams operating, I don't believe there will be more closures as opposed to more openings.

MJ Weber, Bar Manager

Corpse Reviver Bar & Lounge, Durham

In the year 2022 I am hoping to see a busier bar filled with maskless and smiling faces, happy and fully vaccinated staff, and cocktails, cocktails, cocktails. Professionally I'm looking forward to completing my WSET Level 2 in Spirits, teaching my team more about cocktail history and science, and hopefully taking my staff to a cocktail convention. There's so much networking to be done, and so many things to learn from incredibly skilled professionals not just in the Triangle, but all across this fine state of ours.

The Triangle is such a small and talented community, even though it spans several cities/towns. This area is just going to get bigger and busier as the years go by. As a Durham native, I of course have mixed feelings about rapid gentrification, however it is nice to finally see Durham with things to do and people to see. Though many restaurants and bars were forced to shutter in 2020, there have been quite a few new places established in the past two years as well, including Corpse Reviver.

We are lucky to live in an area that has a plethora of industry veterans still making their way up the F&B ladder, but there is definitely still a shortage in staffing. It seems to me that restaurants are having a harder time staying staffed versus bars that don’t feature food. I imagine this is due to the long hours and belittling treatment that many have come to know (pre-pandemic) when working in upscale (or any scale) restaurants. Bars on the other hand tend to be more relaxed.

In the next few years I think that, much like the 1900s, we will go through our own version of "The Roaring 20s". The resurgence of the food and beverage industry starts now. The cocktail scene in the Triangle has been strong since the late-aughts; but now we have patrons who actually want to learn about cocktails and truly enjoy imbibing drinks that once seemed taboo. My conversations with bar guests have gone from a "I'm not drinking this out of some girly glass" to "tell me more about how glassware affects the different drinks being served in them."

I am really hoping that Speakeasy and Tiki Bars will come to a rest — I find them to be a bit outdated and stuffy. I think that what consumers are more driven to now isn't just a bar with great cocktails but a place with a “come one, come all” laid back attitude that serves you top-notch cocktails without the side of pretension.

As someone who frequently receives bad service based on the fact that I may look different than the rest of the clientele in an establishment; I strive to create a place that is welcoming in Corpse Reviver. Guests can tell me that our cocktails are phenomenal all day—and of course that makes me feel good—but nothing feels better than a patron telling you that your bar feels like their second home.

Matt Kelly, Chef/Owner

Mateo, Saint James Seafood, et.al., Durham

Chef/owner Matt Kelly of Mateo in Raleigh and Saint James Seafood in Durham
Chef/owner Matt Kelly of Mateo in Raleigh and Saint James Seafood in Durham (Baxter Miller)

I’m looking forward to getting back on track. By the end of January we’ll have our last restaurant that closed (SaintJames Seafood) back open — that’s a big accomplishment. I’m looking forward to being thankful and having gratitude.

I think that coming out of the pandemic, or getting used to the pandemic where it’s becoming normalized — as a chef I’m trying to make careful decisions. I see a lot of people growing really fast, opening a bunch of places, that’s not for me. I’d rather stay focused, focused, focused.

I have a lot of faith in chef-driven restaurants and in 2022 I’d love to see more restaurants with that intention opening up. I hope there’s some new young talent that has the opportunity to maybe take over some new spaces and do something special and exciting, something that creates a different dialogue.

I still believe going out is special. It’s expensive, it isn’t going to get any less expensive, and I don’t think it should. It’s been too inexpensive for too long.

Things are looking back up, compared to where they were. I think being intentional and focusing on the craft is where my heart is. I don’t see myself opening more restaurants, that’s not for me. What I have right now is plenty.

When it comes to St. James, I’m looking forward to making myself some crab dip sandwiches before service and then making some good food!

Andrew Mehring, Wine Consultant

The Winebow Group

Andrew Mehring of The Winebow Group
Andrew Mehring of The Winebow Group

I’ve been excited to be back working more events as a sommelier after the long hiatus that Covid caused. In 2022, I want to be much bolder with the types of events and pairings I develop. This pandemic has caused me to fall deeper in love with the complexities of food and wine as well as the joy of sharing this deliciousness with dear friends and family. A lot of R&D has been happening in my home lately, and I hope to share my findings with the Triangle very soon!

I think we will see more “wine bar” concepts pop up around the Triangle in 2022. Having to go to a very high end restaurant to find a well curated selection of wines is a thing of the past. There are so many more wine professionals in the triangle nowadays. With this comes an increase of fun and interesting wine programs.

I foresee wine lists expanding in some some ways and shrinking in others. In the by glass section, I believe we will see an increase in offerings. Consumers are much more likely to try something new or interesting if they can taste it before ordering. I also believe they are willing to spend a bit more on a glass of wine ($15-$18) if they see something a bit higher end or unique on the list.

In the by the bottle section, I believe there will be a decrease in selections. I think there are many restaurants realizing that a lot of bottles on their lists are dusty due to lack of sales versus intentional aging. There are a couple reasons for this: a lack wine knowledge among servers and staff as well as customer awareness of wine markups compared to retail shops. I’d love to see slightly lower markups on bottle lists that incentivize people to commit to a bottle of wine, but I think it will take more time for most restaurants to break away from the traditional markups that have been around for a very long time.

Cheetie Kumar, Chef/Co-Owner

Garland, Raleigh

Cheetie Kumar, chef and co-owner of Garland in Raleigh
Cheetie Kumar, chef and co-owner of Garland in Raleigh (Anna Routh Barzin)

Keeping in mind that our crystal balls are completely broken, for Garland and for me personally I’m looking forward to having a more predictable and stable year. We’ll be getting back to doing what we love to do, which is feed people, welcome them, and make them feel connected to the best parts of their life and the community in general. I’m also looking forward to rebuilding our team and showing people the best that this career can offer.

We hope to also welcome some friends and do some pop-ups, to have a little more fun and break the monotony. We’re working on a new project and hope to do some pop-ups to preview that, but I can’t really say much more about that right now!

As for the rest of the industry, I don’t think anything was ever really normal, even before the pandemic. Staffing has always been a challenge and I think will continue to be. Hopefully the grant [the Restaurant Revitalization Fund] being replenished will prevent a mass extinction of independent restaurants. I do think the number of restaurants will continue to decrease, but those that are dedicated to the industry will survive and hopefully thrive.

I think we’ll need to figure out a new math for restaurants. I think things are going to be a little more expensive and the restaurants that are able to provide an appropriate quality of service and food will be able to survive those price increases.

I hope people will be a little more mindful of the challenges restaurants face. I hope diners are learning the distinction between a big corporate chain and independent places that their neighbors own.

I think that we’re going to continue on a painful growth process but I think a lot of good things are going to come out of it. I really do hope the Farm Bill can include a little bit more for the restaurant industry. On a personal note, I already can’t wait for spring produce!

Tyler Morgan, Sales Representative

Empire Distributors

Tyler Morgan of Empire Distributors
Tyler Morgan of Empire Distributors

I’m looking forward to a number of things in 2022, most of which center around a hopeful return to a sense of normalcy. For me, the thing that I’ve missed the most professionally over the course of the past two years is engaging directly with the public about wine and the stories behind the producers I represent. I’m looking forward to those events and opportunities hopefully coming back to more normal levels in the New Year.

The other thing at the top of my “look forward to list” as we move into 2022 is that some of our supply chain issues will settle down. I hope this not only for the wine industry but across the board. (If you’re at all curious about “across the board” talk to a chef about how much time they’re having to devote searching for packaging options to make to-go service operate).


About the Author

Matthew Lardie

Matt Lardie is a food, beverage, and lifestyle writer. Born and raised in New England, he has been exploring and eating his way through the Carolinas since 2008. He has been published in Our State Magazine, Wine Enthusiast, Apartment Therapy, Eater Carolinas, The Kitchn, Durham Magazine, and more. His first book, Unique Eats and Eateries: North Carolina, is due to be published in the fall of 2022. He lives in Durham, NC.