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Curbside, contactless menu and meal kits: The words that shaped the way we ate in 2020

Addie Broyles and Ligaya Figueras
Austin American-Statesman and Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Curbside was the name of the game in 2020. At Austin's Cafe Divine, a community restaurant housed inside St. David's Episcopal Church downtown, Kenneth Spivey prepares a curbside order in July.

There was a lot to swallow in 2020. Our plates have been too full, as we chewed on now-commonplace terms such as personal protective equipment, contact tracing, quarantine, social distancing and essential, or front-line, workers.

All the while, the liquid pleasure in our glasses has needed refilling, perhaps with more frequency than we'd like to admit. The pandemic changed the way we work, learn and play, and certainly the way we eat and drink.

Here, in no particular order, is a recap of some terms that defined the way we dined when 6 feet became the measurement that mattered.

Many stores, including H-E-B, hired more curbside and delivery staffers to meet increased demand in 2020.

Curbside: Millions of Americans started ordering groceries and restaurant meals, not for delivery, but with a once-little-used method called curbside, which became one of the safest ways to buy food directly from a business without using a delivery driver or leaving your car. The best curbside operations keep things socially distanced and contactless, letting you pay in advance and simply pop the trunk upon arrival — no need to exit the car. Curbside waned over the summer. It is back.

Pivot: This was the verb of the year for restaurateurs, who shifted repeatedly in response to every round of state and local guidelines, public health advisories and new findings about how the virus is spread. Operators weighed the sentiments of staffers and guests as they determined whether, when and how to reopen safely. With revenue from on-premises dining slashed, they also scrambled to bring takeout programs into the digital age and built new revenue streams.

Chris Carson, owner of Snack Share, carries a delivery of produce to a residence off Airport Boulevard in March.

Online ordering: This technological feature is something that every restaurant, farmers market and food business wished it had set up by the time COVID-19 arrived.

Food delivery: If a food business didn't already offer delivery, it scrambled to find a way to get food to people's homes, from hot prepared meals to frozen cuts of meat.

Meal kit: Early in the pandemic, restaurants started packaging ingredients for everything from pizza and ramen to ceviche and roasted marrow bones so customers could re-create parts of the restaurant experience at home. Comedor launched a side business called Assembly Kitchen to help restaurants make this pivot. 

Former Comedor chef Gabe Erales hosted a virtual cooking class on Instagram with Austinite Nicole Trunfio to promote the Assembly Kitchen meal kits.

Online cooking classes: Food professionals who don't mind being on camera launched virtual cooking classes to connect with home cooks who wanted to learn skills directly from their favorite chefs. The Washington-based baker and author Kate McDermott took her pie camps online and says the experience was even better than the in-person classes in some cases. 

Family meal: This is what the industry previously called a pre-service meal for the staff served at some restaurants, but with the rise of takeout during the pandemic, the term took on another meaning. Harried parents, working at home while dealing with kids learning remotely, needed help with dinner. Restaurants responded with take-and-bake (or reheatable) aluminum trays of mains, sides and something sweet for the entire household, rather than individual orders.

Ghost kitchens: These food operations don't have a traditional dining room; they prepare food in a commercial kitchen for delivery or takeout only. In Austin, the number of ghost kitchens expanded quickly as restaurants closed and food professionals sought new ways to make a living in the hospitality industry. 

Island Creek Oyster Co. ships oysters around the country, and that came in handy during the pandemic, when many of us were eating most of our meals at home.

Contactless menus: Once restaurants reopened for in-person dining, many of them started using contactless menus to replace a physical menu. These menus feature quick response (or QR) codes that customers scan with a smartphone camera. It takes them to an online digital menu, where they can view food and beverage options.

COVID surcharge: This fee — which some restaurants around the country tacked on to the bill to help pay for personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and even increased food prices — riled a lot of diners but has helped keep these businesses afloat.

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GoFundMe: Caught off guard by the swift arrival of the pandemic, which forced a spring lockdown, countless restaurant operators launched fundraising campaigns, primarily to support displaced food service workers. In the past few weeks, the popular crowdfunding platform has been back in local dining news, with area restaurants appealing to the community to help keep them from closing permanently.

Mask policy: Whether masks were mandated for customers was the most contentious restaurant issue of 2020.

Restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses required customers and staffers to wear masks as the pandemic wore on.

Plexiglass: This is the functional interior décor item of the year. Plenty of dining rooms now have plexiglass partitions between booths, some more professional-looking than others. Plexiglass also can be seen protecting those staffing cash registers, reception stands and even buffet lines.

Outdoor dining: In 2020, the best seat in the house wasn't a see-and-be-seen "display table" or a secluded corner booth. Prime seating was anywhere outside, even in a parking lot — the farther away from other people, the better.

More:20 words we learned to use in 2020 that helped define the year

Patio heaters: These were the hottest appliance of the fall. Restaurants that secured them have made outdoor dining during chilly weather a bit more bearable.

Tony and Kim Scott own Tony's Jamaican Food, which has two Austin-area locations. It is one of dozens of Black-owned food businesses that saw a bump in sales over the summer.

Food justice: After a summer racial reckoning, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Land O'Lakes announced they would drop the stereotypical imagery used to sell syrup, rice and butter. The protests calling for racial equity also inspired more people to buy from Black-owned food businesses

Quarantine 15: These were the extra pounds that some of us gained as a result of staying hunkered down at home, stress-eating, day-drinking, ordering takeout and doomscrolling in our pajamas.

Libbey Goldberg and Sarah Stevens spent most of 2020 baking loaves of sourdough bread to raise money for COVID-19 relief.

Sourdough bread: This was a popular baking project among some aspirational home cooks (the rest of us stuck to banana bread) — and a possible cause of the Quarantine 15. It also provided a fundraising opportunity: Bread for the People founders Libbey Goldberg and Sarah Stevens have raised $25,000 for local community organizations by selling nearly 40 loaves of sourdough each week since March. 

Comfort food: Mac and cheese, fried chicken, casseroles, tacos, pizza, pasta, soup — you name it, we ate it and called it comfort. The pantry snack shelf offered plenty of comfort, too.

Alice Huang and Sarah Zeng launched Dough Re Mi, a 
cottage law cookie delivery company, just a few months into the pandemic.

Cottage law: The so-called cottage food law allows bakers and some food makers to produce food for sale in their homes. This was a game-changer for people, including the entrepreneurial teens behind Dough Re Mi cookies and Nutssosweet nut butters, who wanted to start food businesses during the pandemic but didn't want to rent a commercial kitchen.