Gold Stars for Innovation

Restaurants that rose to the 2020 challenge

When COVID-19 hit the United States one year ago, in late January 2020, few could imagine its enormous consequences. The first COVID-19 cases were reported on March 12 in Northeast Florida, the same day The PLAYERS canceled its annual Sawgrass event. The next day, a national state of emergency was declared and was quickly followed by a local state of emergency. This closed schools, event venues, city parks, libraries, and the Jacksonville Zoo. In less than two weeks, restaurants, shops, bars, theaters, and most other venues open to the public shuttered their doors and sent workers home. 

The chain reaction of the pandemic’s effects had particular ramifications to the restaurant industry. Dining out is inherently social, so it was among the first activities to be considered risky due to the airborne virus. Behind the scenes the other effects were huge—restaurants are an integral part of the agricultural distribution chain, which was now slowed, and, like virtually every other sector of society, restaurant owners had employees’ livelihoods to consider.

Some opportunities to pivot came quickly, such as the formation of Project Share, an innovative program for solving hunger and assisting restaurant employees. The unused food that was intended for The PLAYERS was prepared in the suddenly unused restaurant kitchens by their staff and donated to Feeding Northeast Florida. This idea continued to blossom as other institutions donated food and kitchen space and workers, including Florida Blue. Jon Insetta, owner of Orsay, Black Sheep, and Bellwether restaurants, was one of the minds behind Project Share. “It was just instinct,” Insetta says. “We have a specific skill set and I wanted to find a way to take care of our staff and our community.” Further, Insetta says that, “it helped our employees’ morale. Especially when everything was so dark and scary, this was a bright spot.” In fact, employee morale has become a big factor during all of the year’s upheaval and Insetta’s Orsay provides weekly family meals for the staff there. And, despite struggling themselves, many local restaurants such as bb’s and Taverna continue to provide free meals to our community’s healthcare workers. 

Over the balance of 2020, we learned more about COVID-19 and its spread. In many ways, the restaurant industry has come back to life, but it’s a new life, with many changes that may or may not be temporary. As stated in a November 30, 2020 story on, seated dining at restaurants worldwide declined by 51.3 percent last year, resulting in an industry suffering billions in losses. Some restaurants have been able to reinvent how they interact with and accommodate their customers, creating safe ways to enjoy good food. Once regulations on indoor dining were lifted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to recommend 50 percent capacity for restaurants. In addition to rearranging indoor seating to allow for spacing between parties, a marked shift is toward increased outdoor dining options, and we are very fortunate to live in an area that allows for this virtually year-round. Another is expanded takeout options, including the increased use of third-party food delivery services and curbside pickup. 

Like most everything, our annual Gold Star restaurants list looks different this year. We uphold the highlighted restaurants included in previous lists, but in such unprecedented times, not only were we unable to revisit them to see what new ideas and foods were cooking, but most were not focused on menu changes, new locations, or the like. Instead, most restaurants placed their emphasis on how to continue to provide top-notch food safely, which has been no easy feat. This year we are spotlighting the Gold Star restaurants that rose to the challenge and reinvented themselves, managing to make the most out of an incredibly challenging year. These restaurants offer amply spaced indoor dining, outdoor dining, and innovative to-go options. 

Cheers to the restaurant industry for all that you do. At times like this, it is abundantly clear that it is not just about your food—it is about your role in our community. You are the first to donate to nonprofit and fundraising events, constantly providing all forms of nourishment to your neighbors. We truly hope this year’s list inspires our readers to give back to you. Thank you from all of us at Arbus Magazine!

Click here to read this year’s Gold Star list.

Author: Arbus

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