It wasn’t a particularly good year for anyone, but it was especially rough on area restaurateurs. The state-mandated, six-week-long shutdown of indoor dining rooms in March forced many restaurants to lay off valuable employees, cut staff hours and raise prices just to break even. When dining rooms reopened, anti-maskers harassed restaurant staff for complying with county mandates.
COVID-19 forced food industry professionals to be more creative and resilient than ever. We know it wasn’t easy, but your perseverance was inspiring, and helped us all to discover new ways to eat and drink. Here we take a look at some food and drink trends of 2020.
Turning to Takeout and Home Cooking
“I think the biggest food trends of 2020 were home cooking and takeout,” Lea Doyle of the Horse and Jockey told the Gabber. “The latter benefits the restaurant industry somewhat, the former is a really miserable trend for our business!”
Food writers were among the first to notice the takeout and home cooking trends. Restaurant reviews turned into articles on the best places to get takeout in the Tampa Bay area, and home cooking columns experienced a huge comeback.
It was a weird time to start covering food for the Gabber. In my first Gabber feature, I addressed the home cooking trend in “The Art of Cooking at Home,” with a collection of recipes submitted by Gulfport artists.
An avid home cook myself, I continued to seek locally inspired, delicious recipes to share with Gabber readers throughout the year. I cooked Habana Café recipes in my home kitchen, talked quarantine baking with A Friend Who Bakes’ Brittney Sherley, gathered cooking advice from Gulf Coast Seafood’s Carol Merkle, and asked local produce markets how to prepare veggies during the holidays.
Meanwhile, restaurants ramped up their takeout efforts, tempting us with creative specials and pre-made meals to-go.
Though she figured it wouldn’t be profitable, Dia Vartsakis kept Gulfport’s Neptune Grill open for takeout to avoid dismissing her long-time employees. Luckily, the community showed up just enough to make it work.
“Honestly, the amount of customer support — the way that they came and supported my staff, from buying gift cards to tipping — was amazing,” Vartsakis told the Gabber.
Getting Creative with Delivery
A lot eateries wanted to offer delivery but couldn’t afford to take another hit to their profit margins.
“I didn’t want to do Grubhub or Uber Eats or any of those,” North End Taphouse’s Houston Gilbreath told us in a July phone interview. “They’re asking such a high percentage — they wanted 33.5% of the order, which is just insane, considering our profit margins.”
So they got a golf car and a burner phone and started doing their own deliveries. When a couple other restaurants took interest, they created Gulfport Restaurant Delivery.
“It was a network of people that would take turns,” Gilbreath told the Gabber. “It saved the restaurants their 30% at a time when our businesses were taking a 60, 70, 80% reduction in revenue.”
Liquor Becomes Essential
It wasn’t the best year to open a taphouse or brewery, but Gulfport welcomed North End Taphouse and Gulfport Brewery in February and March, respectively.
Both are already contributing to the community in creative ways — Houston with his homegrown golf car delivery service, and Gulfport Brewery with exciting local brewing collaborations.
When travel was practically forbidden, Tampa Bay residents drank their way to the islands courtesy of a major Tiki revival. 2020 brought three new Tiki bars in St. Pete — Tiki Docks Skyway Bar & Grill, Pier Teaki, and Twisted Tiki — and the expansion of Gulfport’s the Tiki Bar & Grill at 56th & Shore, formerly known as Little Tommies Tiki.
“No doubt ‘vacation drinks’ have been popular,” says Tiki Dock’s Tara Matheny. “‘Forget Your Worries Here’ is part of Tiki Docks’ vibe, so getting lost in a fun, tropical Tiki drink contributed to the trend in 2020 of escaping the challenges we all have faced.”
The Gabber also mixed its own version of the Gulfport Geckotini and made a delicious batch of Josefa Gonzalez-Hastings’ frozen peach daiquiris.
Outdoor Drinking and Dining
When we asked Matheny what it was like to open Tiki Docks in the middle of a pandemic, she told us that it was all about the outdoor seating.
Once we learned how easily COVID spreads in indoor dining rooms, people avoided them like the plague. A restaurant’s best hope of getting dine-in customers was to set up tables six feet apart outside. In keeping with the times, North End Taphouse, Gulfport Brewery, Tiki Docks and Pier Teaki all opened with ample outdoor seating, while others, like Stella’s and Habana Cafe expanded their outdoor space.
Eating for Comfort and Health
It wasn’t just our drinking and dining habits that changed in 2020. Some leaned into sweet and salty comfort foods, while others ate healthier than ever.
On the sweet side, Sherley baked holiday treats throughout the pandemic, Let it Be Ice Cream celebrated the Gabber’s revival with a new flavor of ice cream, and North End Taphouse developed a popular dessert pretzel.
I will always remember 2020 as the year of booze and baked goods. But one can only consume so much of these things before it becomes a problem. Once our pants got tight, many of us – OK, some of us – adopted healthy cooking and eating.
People cooked more healthy seafood dishes at home, according to Gulf Coast Seafood’s Carol Merkle.
Golden Dinosaurs Vegan Deli’s Audrey Dingeman observed a rise in veganism, while also noting the appearance of quesabirria tacos, which replace the beef with slow-roasted jackfruit for a healthy treat.
While we discovered new food trends and recipes throughout 2020, many in Tampa Bay went hungry. But there are many ways to help. Food banks and other food-security resources still need us more than ever. Volunteer and donation opportunities abound at organizations like Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger (networktoendhunger.org) which sponsors Meals On Wheels programs for kids and for seniors; Feeding Tampa Bay (feedingtampabay.org), which focuses on providing food to over a million families; and The Kind Mouse (thekindmouse.org), a local nonprofit for food-insecure children. Got a little extra in your pantry? The Gulfport Senior Center food pantry (727-893-2237) provides supplemental food for seniors, and you can also drop non-perishable items at the Little Free Pantries at sites at the St. Pete Beach Library and around Gulfport.