Published on Apr 16, 2020

  • Social distancing rules are negatively affecting restaurant revenues, food purchases and staffing.
  • Menus need to be laminated or printed daily to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 
  • Communities need to support local food kitchens, which are fulfilling an important need to prevent hunger. 

Video Transcript

JOHN WHYTE, MD, MPH: Welcome to Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer at WebMD. We've been talking a lot about how coronavirus impacts our health, but it also impacts other industries as well, most notably, the restaurant industry. We're dealing with issues of hunger, with issues of how do we keep small businesses afloat. My guest today is Robert Irvine. You'll know him as an award-winning chef and host of Food Network's Restaurant: Impossible. Robert, thanks for joining me.

ROBERT IRVINE: Oh you're welcome, John. Good to be here.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: Now, pre-COVID-19, it was hard enough to manage some restaurants. How has coronavirus impacted the restaurant industry? Is it changed forever?

ROBERT IRVINE: Definitely. If you think about pre COVID-19, restaurants struggled to stay afloat, paycheck to paycheck, the restaurants and the employees. Post, or in the middle of this, when we come out of this, is going to be very interesting. What was, or if we'd have had a restaurant that 15 or 500 seats, now we've got to cut that in half. The social distancing rules that are going to happen, which automatically, in fact, affects our revenue, our staffing, our food purchases.

Coronavirus has also affected our farmers, our dairy farmers, our meat farmers, the supply chain. So the whole thing is going to change, not only rules for eating in the restaurant but also food handling in restaurants. You know, we're used to wearing gloves, for the most part, prior to COVID-19. Now, we're going to have to start wearing masks and all the other things that the states are mandating, which we don't know yet, but they will start to mandate that in the next couple of weeks.

And when we come out of this, it's not only the restaurant themselves, the servers, the cooks, the owners that have to change their way of thinking, bottom line financing, their new break even points. So a lot is going to change, but we have to instill confidence in the clientele, the general public. You know, we've been used to staying home now for four or five or six, whatever number of weeks that you've been at home, but, but now we've got to say, well, OK, now get out, don't cook at home, go and visit these restaurants. But now, it's going to be -- it is going to be a weird sensation when we walk in, there is six foot away from us.

We're used to getting a laminated menu or a book menu. You won't see that anymore. The menus are going to probably have to be printed daily and thrown away when we've -- when you've handed them back to me, as a server, because nobody wants that transference of germs. Do the servers wear gloves when they're writing? I mean, all these things we have to find out but, but definitely going to change.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: And you've been an expert in trying to help small businesses, local restaurants survive, and, you know, we really have been encouraging people to do takeout in some areas of the country. And you've been giving tips as to what they might keep on their menu and what they might take off their menu. And I thought it was interesting some advice you gave, that don't be so quick to take off, necessarily, comfort foods or high ticket items. What tips do you have for folks?

ROBERT IRVINE: Well, well, first of all, I started off giving tips to all the restaurants, and I'm talking about restaurants across the country and across the globe now. But we started off, remember, all of a sudden, we shut down, everything was shut down, and we had food in the refrigerator. There's food in the freezers. What do we do with it? Throw it out? No. So we had to start to rethink, how do we put these foods that we have into new dishes?

And it's kind of interesting because one thing -- and it's not -- it is a good thing, I suppose. Coronavirus has made chefs become more creative, for sure, because we've had to use what we've got and create exciting things for people, then to come. You know, we take it -- we, we make a menu or a dish, photograph it, put it on social media. Some people see it, they would come to the drive-through or pick up.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: Can you give me an example of one of those creative things that you've seen or that you've created?

ROBERT IRVINE: Oh my goodness. There's, there's 1,000 things with fish, you know? We did one ourselves, which was a, a chicken stuffed with, with sausage meat, which was a vegan sausage meat stuffed into the breast of the chicken, coated with oatmeal.


ROBERT IRVINE: Where do they come from? It was on a shelf. Somebody figured it out, and there we are.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: Seems like a lot of work to make.

ROBERT IRVINE: Actually not. It's, it's it's, as easy as you writing a script, basically, to a person that does it for a living. But you'll see, now, because the restaurants have started doing that, their drive-throughs or their pickups have become a lot busier because it's not just a regular menu now. We still got the lobster salads, if we've had it, and we can still get it. I've got places that have now closed the restaurants and have their food truck in front of the restaurant. You'll see, beginning of April, sorry the end of April, where I'm FaceTiming all these, these restaurants, just like we're doing now, conversing about menu changes, cooking skills, and all those kind of things.

But what's interesting, now we've started to do that at home because we've seen it in a restaurant, because you've seen it on television, or Skype, or something like this, we're starting to do it at home because not every food is available. So we started to adapt and the interesting part is you know what kids are like. They don't like anything, let alone being at home for four weeks. They don't. Now the kids are starting to create food, which is really interesting to me. You know, we've got kids in the kitchen cooking, having fun with the parents. It's a bonding moment, especially in these times when, when we need those moments.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: I've been doing a lot of baking with my seven and five-year-old, and it gets messy at times, but it's a good way to teach math.


DR. JOHN WHYTE: I will send you some photos.


DR. JOHN WHYTE: What tips do you have for folks that are cooking at home? Advice? Suggestions?

ROBERT IRVINE: Well, first of all, you know, and I'll use the kid thing first because my, my children are a little older, but the more you can involve them in the kitchen, and it's so funny when you said baking, I want them to make a mess. I want them to feel that it's OK to make a mess in the kitchen because that's how they grow up and learn fast. They have to learn to clean it, by the way, too.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: They're not at that point yet.

ROBERT IRVINE: You can throw flour and have eggs, but you've got to clean it. I think, I think cooking at home, if we were smart -- also what we need to do is take a piece of paper, right, a piece of paper, write out a menu, a proposed menu, on a Sunday, for the rest of the week. All right, what are we going -- what do we have in the refrigerator? What do we have in the freezer? What do we have in the pantry? And try and create that menu that you know you can shop once, and you've got everything you need for the rest of the week.

I teach that in restaurants. Be creative thinking and make sure you have the stuff that you need to cook, and if not, you only want to be out in the public once right now, wearing a facemask, doing the right things, washing everything when it comes back, but plan your work and work the plan. Much easier to -- than just to try and think on the spur of the moment when you've got all these things going on around you, especially your kids going, mom, mom, mom, or dad, dad, dad, and you're trying to think of what you're going to put on the table next. So I think if you plan --

DR. JOHN WHYTE: When you go grocery shopping, do you -- how much do you buy for? The week, two weeks, a month? And then there's [INAUDIBLE]

ROBERT IRVINE: That's a great question. Buy for a week. Guys, the, the groceries are not going to run out, right? Toilet paper is going to be there. Paper towels are going to be there. It's coming back. All those folks that hoarded stuff, you know, I get it, there was fear and all those things. Please, don't do that. Take what you need for a week. Make one trip a week. Try not to take your kids at the moment. Be one person so that you can get in and out quickly, but you don't need to shop for more than a week.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: That's a good point.

ROBERT IRVINE: Unless you're living in a foreign country somewhere and transporting it. You don't need to do that.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: Well, you know, I want to point out, Robert, you talked about hoarding. A lot of people don't know what you're doing for the communities, and want to give you credit. I heard that you used your distillery to create 2,400 gallons of hand sanitizer that you've been giving out. Tell me about that. That's about giving back. I'm interested in that.

ROBERT IRVINE: Well, well, thank you. The first thing we did, when this all came about, was we used old product wine. We distilled and made hand sanitizer based on the World Health Organization kind of recipe. So it's 80% or 70 something percent proof of killing germs. It's a mist not a gel. We give that away, four ounces, six ounces a day to anybody that drives up with a bottle. We make it and give barrels and drums, and everything else, to the National Guard, firefighters, police officers, hospitals in New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.

Our Fit Crunch brand, based out of -- based out of Pittsburgh, is doing some amazing things. We are sending crunch bars and powders, protein powders and protein puffs, like cheese balls to all the hospitals. We've also done an online nominate a health care worker. We had 12,000 nominations in less than two days, so we've been sending out stuff to people out working the front lines. And our foundation, that's what I'm wearing here, the Robert Irvine Foundation --

DR. JOHN WHYTE: I see it.

ROBERT IRVINE: Is um -- Yeah, it's kind of loud and proud isn't it? Is -- we are buying food cards, basically, credit cards with $300 gift certificates for people to buy food at grocery stores.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: Yes. And you've always been very interested in issues relating to veterans and homelessness, and let's talk a little bit about hunger. Here we are talking about going to grocery stores, getting takeout from restaurants, but isn't this coronavirus epidemic exacerbating the problems of hunger?

ROBERT IRVINE: Yeah, and I think, when this is over, we have to have a real close look at first of all, a big shout out to all the food bank employees and managers and leaders. I deal with an awful lot of them, and have been for many years, supporting them in doing fundraising efforts, and visits, and all that kind of stuff. When you have 6,000 families waiting in San Antonio, Texas or in in New Jersey, Newark, New Jersey for food because they can't -- they don't have the money to buy food, and these are not folks, homeless folks. They're people with homes and apartments, wear suits and ties, John, just like you. They work in offices. They just can't afford food, and it's a sad.

For me, it's very sad that we live in the United States of America, and we see this, this continued growth of need. And we are throwing away and wasting milk, and vegetables, and product that we can't -- the farmers, bless them, have grown and taken all this time to grow. Then we can't pick them, we can't process them, and we can't ship them because we don't have the people or we've been on lockdown. And we're throwing millions of gallons of milk away, all the vegetables that have been tilled back into the ground, because we can't pick them, when food banks and soup kitchens are in such need.

And it's so funny, I was online yesterday talking to a bunch of amazing truckers, you know? How can we get this picked? How can we get it processed? And how can we deliver it to folks that need it the most? And it's got to be an intervention of the government that says, hey, farmers, pick it, process it, process it. We'll pay you for it, and we'll give it to where it's needed instead of wasting it. And it's such a shame because it's great food. Because restaurants are closed, hotels are closed, schools are closed, they can't sell it anywhere. So let's -- let's figure that out.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: And it's a good reminder to support those food kitchens who are really fulfilling a need. Now, on a lighter note, what's on your menu for today?

ROBERT IRVINE: Funnily enough, I've just had coffee. I haven't even asked my wife. So normally what we do -- it's kind of funny. Normally, we go on social media, and we tell -- we put a protein, and we put some vegetables, and the people on social media pick what we eat. So it can be chicken, fish, da-da-da-da, with corn or Brussels sprouts. And we'll go online, and we'll make it in front of everybody and join them to watch. We eat it, we get them -- And then they can copy it. So I don't even know what that is yet.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: To be determined. You've always been a big proponent of healthy lifestyles, physical activity, healthy eating. But what about now with stress and people, you know, are eating comfort foods. Do we -- Can we loosen up, kind of, our attentiveness to health?


DR. JOHN WHYTE: Are you eating chips and ice cream and can others do that as well?

ROBERT IRVINE: I have, I have rice pudding in the refrigerator. I have protein bars. I have cookies. I have -- let me tell you, in times of stress, and you would know this more than me, the stress part, what do we do? We go to food. It's a comfort. And I'm the same. I love -- it's not and ad. I don't get paid for them, but I love Cozy Shack rice pudding. I love, I love cookies. My, my bedtime snack is Raisin Bran. Yeah, there are times when you've just got to say, you know what, hey, I can still do push ups, I can still -- We can't go to a gym.

I went out and bought a couple of bikes just as coronavirus was starting to get kind of embedded, or when we found out about it, and my wife and I will bike 8 miles on a short day and 20 miles on a trail on a long day. And it's great when you go out because the winds behind you. When you come back -- The other day we did, we did almost 10 miles in 38 minutes out, and then coming back it was like an hour and 38 minutes.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: It takes up some of the day of working at home. But I want to thank you, Robert, for all you're doing for restaurants, for veterans, for the community, and for giving us some tips today and allowing us to eat cookies. So thank you.

ROBERT IRVINE: Well, it's great. Keep doing what you're doing. And if there's any, any listeners out there that need any advice or help at Twitter Robert Irvine, @robertirvine, I'm sorry, social media. I answer all my own tweets. You'll know cause all the grammar's wrong, and it's one long sentence, but we are here to help. And you're doing some great things, so thank you for that. But, also, Restaurant: Impossible is coming back and helping all these folks get back into business, and we hope sooner than later. So keep doing great work, and to all you out there, listen to this man. He's very wise.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: Well, terrific. Can't end on a better note. Thank you for watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte.