Restaurants Strategize to Keep Business Alive through Coronavirus Crisis
Restaurateurs adjust delivery, pick-up and staff management in a tumultuous time for the industry.
Food and beverage business owners in Los Angeles, New York City and other major cities are adjusting their business models to feed their communities and stay in business through COVID-19 regulations and closures.
Julia Sullivan had been paying attention to the news long before she realized it would affect her two businesses in Nashville. She’s the owner of a restaurant called Henrietta Red, part of Strategic Hospitality Group, and the owner of a catering company called The Party Line.
“The first time I started paying attention to coronavirus was 6-8 weeks ago because I was scheduled to go to Seattle for Taste Washington to cook there at the food festival,” she says. “So I thought it would have an impact, but once that was canceled, there was an incredible domino effect where every day it became more apparent how big this was going to be.”
As coronavirus has spread across the globe and become a pandemic, according to the World Health Organization, restaurants, bars and their staff have had to adjust quickly to a new normal that’s changing not even day by day but sometimes hour by hour.
For The Party Line, the effect was immediate, with events getting canceled for the next two months. Julia and her team decided to create boxed grocery kits and meal kits for those stuck at home, which was inspired by a community-supported agriculture model.
For Henrietta Red, the changes were different and more fluid. At first, Julia moved tables to make more space in the restaurant to create a safer distance between diners but the business has since transitioned to takeout only.
“We never had a pickup or delivery option before, and we have a raw bar so we can’t be sending people out with a dozen oysters,” she said. “We’re limiting what people can take out because the last thing I want to do is put something out in the universe and have it not work well.”
Other restaurants and bars have found similar experiences. Gabi Lombardi, the owner of Sorellina Hoboken, where ICE alum Jan Christie (Culinary, '08) is the executive chef, initially tried to stay open. As business slowed, she never saw the crisis escalating to the point it has.
“Our regulars were giving us support and we were trying to keep assuring everybody that we were being safe and sanitary and that as long as we were allowed to open, we’d provide a place for people to go,” she said.
With a broad C liquor license, the restaurant was allowing the purchase of a bottle of wine with any takeout orders and tried delivery for the first time, but then the city of Hoboken put out an order that all restaurants and bars could only do takeout and delivery, something that Gabi knew would never keep her restaurant afloat.
“Trying to stay true to who we are, it made more sense to close down our operations,” she said. “There’s no date for how long this is for so we’re taking it day by day. We had everyone come in today and clean out what would go bad in the next couple days and we’ll do it again in a couple days.”
The staff is taking groceries home to support themselves, as finances will be difficult in this time for Sorellina staff and all other restaurant staffers.
Matt Glassman, one of the partners at both Greyhounds and ETA, in Los Angeles, had similar concerns for how this would affect the livelihood of his staff. Initially, Matt was streaming Twin Peaks at the Greyhounds locations, when they would normally be streaming sports, but soon enough, he and his partner decided that the more responsible decision was to close for the time being.
“We have 80 members of staff between the three stores. We also have vendors whom we owe (who also have employees). We have bills to pay and an obligation to pay them. But at the same time, we have an obligation to the greater good and to keep people away from one another,” he says. “I think it would be bad for business to come up with long-term plans when it changes so much, but we’re planning for the worst.”
"Stay on top of industry notices from organizations such as the New York City Hospitality Alliance," advises Dean of Restaurant & Hospitality Management Rick Camac. "There may be government funds available for your employees. Continue (or start) offering delivery with a skeleton staff. Fees from third parties have been capped at 10%."
Elsewhere in the world, restaurants are trying to be creative to not only save business but also serve communities. Mamo in Ireland has launched The Hatch, a limited takeout and collection service. They’ve scrapped most of the regular menu for more rudimentary options like fish and chips.
And Canlis in Seattle, one of the hardest hit places in America, has redefined its business model with a bagel shop, a drive-through burger option and a family meal delivery option that includes a bottle of wine.
“You have to play as much offense as you do defense ... So what would we look like from scratch? If my job is to feed and restore a city, then I have to do it inside the new rules,” co-owner Mark Canlis told Fast Company.
In L.A., seasonal bowl restaurant Porridge and Puffs is converting to a grab-and-go shop with pick-up and delivery, while the West Holywood outpost of bar Employees Only is delivering DIY cocktail kits via Postmates. In New York, MáLà Project developed a quarantine delivery menu with meals designed to last two weeks. Even Milk Bar Lab converted its flagship locations to delivery and grab-and-gp.
Meanwhile, many restaurants are designating a portion of gift card proceeds to paying employees whose hours have been cut while ensuring investment in their restaurants' futures. Some operators are even pooling portions of salaries to benefit hourly colleagues.
New rules will continue to crop up as the world and the hospitality industry navigates its new, turbulent normal. Just like any recipe or new business plan, trying new creative ideas will undoubtedly be a big part of starting from scratch.