Industry experts share advice on shifting their business strategies overnight to weather the storm of COVID-19.
As of this morning, many local governments from Los Angeles to New York City have limited restaurants to delivery and take-out service to curtail the spread of COVID-19. For some chefs, this means speeding up previous conversations about packaging, staffing, and to-go order fulfillment. For those at the helm of fine dining restaurants that typically rely on the dining room experience for guests, this means inventing an entire business plan on the fly. Neither are easy scenarios, and both pose their own unique challenges.
Whether your restaurant offers omakase or barbecue, here are some tips from chefs around the country who are creatively finding ways to stay in business while keeping their communities healthy and well-fed during the pandemic.
Set aside your ego and think about what guests need right now.
At 610 Magnolia in Louisville, chef Ed Lee made the call to start his delivery menu from square one, since his restaurant only offers four and six-course tastings. “The emphasis is on value and dishes that can hold for a long time,” he says. “We are considering that dishes may need to be rewarmed or even saved until the next day.”
Lee’s new Southern comfort food menu includes classic dishes like meatloaf with garlic mashed potatoes, baked rigatoni with a homemade tomato garlic sauce, and fried chicken with coleslaw. For Lee, the goal isn’t to exactly replicate his restaurant in a takeaway box, it’s to provide his customers with nurturing, nutritious options that focus on pragmatism over presentation.
Similarly, Seattle’s fine-dining institution Canlis pivoted to a comfort-driven drive-through menu earlier last week, serving up burgers and fries and ice cream sandwiches instead of its usual $135 prix fixe menu. In Washington D.C., chef Amy Brandwein of Centrolina and Piccolina encourages her colleagues to put their communities above their own visions for their food.
“Right now, I’m thinking about an intersection of the following: Food that’s easy to produce, dishes that people want, and at a price point that is correct for the times,” she says. “If you want to work with a delivery service, reach out right now––they’re being bombarded.” Brandwein intends to offer Centrolina’s full dinner menu via Caviar, in addition to free delivery within a one-mile radius of the restaurant and curbside take-out.
Recognize the value your restaurant can add, even without a dining room.
At French-inspired Milwaukee restaurant Fauntleroy, chef Dan Jacobs identified 10 to 12 dishes that are sure to stand up to temperature changes and other obstacles that come with delivery, like half a roasted chicken with creamed kale, jus, and chow chow, and the grand royale burger with American cheese. “Items that are intricately plated or provoke a diner to think about how to eat it are not typically dishes that work for delivery or takeout," he says. "Food has a unique ability to provide a sense of comfort in times of need, and I think now is a great time for the restaurant industry to band together to continue to feed and offer comfort to the world.”
You don’t need to abandon luxury and nuance altogether.
Shoji on 69 Leonard Street in New York City is a 10-seat, intimate sushi and kaiseki spot that offers menus ranging from $190 to $295. The team is turning to their heritage for inspiration on translating a high-end omakase experience to apartments around the city. “In Japan, it’s always been a tradition to do beautifully boxed takeout lunches or dinners,” says owner Idan Elkon.”In Ginza, they give guests sushi in ceramics to-go, and they’d bring them back.”
Instead, Elkon’s team will offer three at-home omakase experiences, the most affordable of which costs $80. “We’ll make adjustments to give people the option of at-home luxury. We won’t put soy right on fish and we’ll adjust the rice [to travel well]. We’re going to be using the wild fish that we have already, and offer freshly grated wasabi.”
Likewise, at New York City’s Nami Nori, managing partner Lisa Limb says that instead of translating the restaurant’s temaki-style menu to convenient hand rolls, her team intends to preserve the menu’s essence. “We’re staying positive. We’re doing something––the delivery of temaki rolls––that’s new, and that’s exciting.”
Don’t forget about the environment.
While preparing your menu to travel, don’t let sustainability fall by the wayside. Lee suggests holding back on offering plastic cutlery, as most people are taking food back home to their own kitchens. At Nami Nori, the kitchen is using entirely compostable packaging and abstaining from single-use plastics.
Sustainability extends to food supply, too. In Los Angeles, Otium chef Tim Hollingsworth says he created the new take-out and delivery menus based on products that he already had in-house, in order to maximize a sustainable supply chain, while in Boston, chef Tiffani Faison is offering a daily set menu at each of her three restaurants based on what’s already on hand (for example, Bostonians can currently expect a lot of Orfano’s delectable meatballs).
Consider offering grocery and wine delivery for those who are self-isolating.
If your restaurant typically offers retail items, now is a great time to add those products to your delivery service. In Cincinnati, brothers Austin and Tony Ferrari watched their morning business at Mom & M Coffee dip from a typical flow of $900 to $50, and knew they had to act quickly. Now, they’re accepting payment via Venmo and orders on their personal cell phones, as well as Uber Eats.
“I thought it wouldn’t work, like, I thought it would be kind of a joke," says Austin. "But when we put it out to the public that we’d do curbside delivery and home delivery, I had $500 in wine sales in an hour, or orders for bags of coffee worth $200.”
Details matter, especially now.
Emotions and stressors are high without adding a botched order or an overlooked allergen to the mix. “It’s very important to triple-check each order for accuracy, as it’s obviously not easy to fix an error after the people get home as it is when the guest is at the restaurant,” says Sam Slattery, Co-founder and director of operations of Palm Beach's Ember group. “Take home errors are understandably, extra frustrating for guests after they get to their house.”
Offer a DIY kit.
After closing his dining rooms, Chef Andrew Bachelier and the teams behind Carlsbad's Campfire and Jeune et Jolie came up with a nightly family meal to-go called "Camp Jeune." The meals are priced at $28 per person and include three courses, which will change on a nightly basis. Orders can be placed and paid for online at and picked up at Jeune et Jolie outside the front door.
Now that New York City governor Andrew Cuomo has announced local bars can sell to-go cocktails during the pandemic, iconic spots like Dante are thinking about how to translate what they do best to a bottled format.
“We’re exploring providing a cocktail kit with all the accoutrements like tinctures and things like that to get a taste of what to do, so people would just have to add vodka or gin at home,” says owner Linden Price. Price also mentioned that bottled cocktails have been a concept the Dante team has been tinkering with for some time, and this new state of affairs gives his team an opportunity to get creative.
When the dust settles, think about how to work delivery into your permanent business strategy.
While it seems impossible to think beyond the current day to day scenario, many chefs do see—for better or for worse—the sudden pivot to delivery having a lasting impact on their restaurants.
“In bad times, opportunities form,” says Elkon. “Sometimes there’s a death and then there’s a birth. No one today is really delivering sushi meals of this quality. It’s harder to scale, but in the future we could do bentos or incorporate kaiseki, or pressed sushi that you don’t see as much.”