As restaurant capacity restrictions and social distancing requirements continue, restauranteurs are left with the realization that keeping their doors open may not be viable.
Several states across the country have implemented increasing restrictions for restaurants as the pandemic surges once again. Capacity restrictions are heading south, from 50 to 25 percent. Some states and cities are reducing open hours, closing bars, and restaurants at 10 p.m. In other states, such as Illinois, Kentucky, and Minnesota, indoor dining has, once again, been prohibited.
Los Angeles County, Oregon, and New Mexico recently re-closed on-premises dining as COVID-19 cases surged. Unfortunately, this notice came after some restaurants had already invested in winterizing their outdoor area.
An increasing number of operators have determined that operating in this environment is not sustainable. Here’s a look at those shutting their dining rooms and focusing on the takeout/delivery model.
Union Square Hospitality Group
This New York City-based restaurant company was one of the first major restaurant groups to announce it would temporarily close all 19 restaurants after the outbreak took hold in March.
Eight months later, on November 20, Danny Meyer, CEO, made the announcement that the group would be discontinuing on-site dining for those restaurants that had opened. Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, and Blue Smoke closed for both indoor and outdoor dining but will remain open for takeout and delivery.
As another means of revenue, these unique concepts, known for contemporary charm, soulful barbeque, and seasonal elegant fare, ship signature dishes across the nation through the Goldbelly platform. Offerings include Blue Smoke baby back ribs, several chicken wing selections, mushroom lasagna, and a whole beef brisket.
After sharing the discontinuation of indoor and outdoor on-site dining, Meyer stated, “Instead, we will focus exclusively on pickup, delivery, nationwide shipping, and virtual food and wine experiences. This will allow our teams to put 110% of their effort into cooking amazing food that you can enjoy in the comfort and safety of your own home, whether picked up contact-free or delivered to you.”
Across the nation, hundreds of restaurants are following suit.
Independent Operators Closing On-Premise Dining
Iowa’s capital city, Des Moines, known for its corn-fed beef, Steak de Burgo, and morel mushrooms, is home to several restaurants that have created delivery concepts within their existing business. Zombie Burger, offering gourmet burgers in a post-apocalyptic setting, launched the to-go concept, Kaiju Ramen, within their four walls. While the duo seems like an unlikely pair, Chef Tom McKern told Des Moines Register that they sold over 200 bowls of ramen their first week in business.
Joe Tripp, chef and co-owner of Harbinger, a plant-based, small plate concept, understood that their menu was not a good fit for a takeaway model. Early in the pandemic, the Harbinger kitchen became home to Basic Bird’s Korean Fried Chicken. In mid-November, Harbinger temporarily closed due to Covid-19 concerns and Tripp continues to run Basic Bird.
While the takeout and delivery model has worked well for some in the restaurant industry, few can say that their sales are near the pre-pandemic numbers. Some restaurants that have increased their profits are those well-suited for delivery with an established program in place pre-pandemic. Wingstop and KFC are two of the lucky few.
Others, such as Broken Spanish, a contemporary Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, opted to close its doors for good. Owner-chef Ray Garcia is, however, heading into the delivery-only model with a taco outlet called Mila.
La Tejana, a Tex-Mex breakfast taco pop-up began providing Tuesday breakfast tacos at Bammy’s, a Washington DC hotspot offering Caribbean-inspired cuisine. Their pop-up schedule now includes four restaurants where they offer their takeout-only tacos several days a week.
Fat hen, an Italian tasting menu in Somerville, MA, went the route of pop-ups when they closed their regular service Sunday through Thursday.
In addition to pop-ups, they offer Fat Hen takeout and Fat Hen @Home, a growing model that involves chefs traveling to people’s homes and creating a fine dining experience in the comfort of their own kitchen.
Brian Miller, chef de cuisine, said it well when he shared his thoughts with the Boston Globe, “Ultimately, there isn’t anything that is a sure thing to remain sustainable right now. Our hope is that…providing a space for friends and industry family to continue doing what we all love will allow us to keep the lights on and the doors open until we are able to get back to a normal industry standard.”
When that “normal” will be arriving is anybody’s guess. What the optimist thought was a few-month trial and the pessimist saw as a 6-month grind is now heading into the third wave and 10 weary months.
“Hold on” is the key phrase resonating through the restaurant industry. And many are doing whatever they can to make it through to the other side. A recent survey conducted by NYC Hospitality Alliance found that 88 percent of New York City restaurants could not pay their full October rent, and 83 percent were unsuccessful in renegotiating leases.
The urgent need for economic relief is palpable, with even those in the congressional wings understanding the severity. And yet, here we are, a faint echo of the Restaurants Act, introduced in the House on June 15, barely resonating.