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How Restaurants Are Innovating During The COVID-19 Pandemic

Hamburgers and fries

Hamburgers and fries to go.

Photo by Kristina Paukshtite from Pexels

Did you know that the U.S. restaurant industry employs over 15.5 million people? That’s about 7% of all employment in the country. Within the last two weeks, nearly half of that workforce has been laid off as bars and restaurants were forced to close their doors due to COVID-19. “Unlike many other small businesses, [restaurants’] cash flow is completely dependent on current business. The bills from 45 days ago are paid with revenue earned today,” outlines a post from Food Policy Action, in which they urge Congress to step in and support the industry. When a restaurant shutters, it’s not just the employees who suffer; it also impacts suppliers, often times small-scale, local farmers, who have their own employees to support. The ripple effect can go far and wide.

Yet, some restaurants and bars are shifting their business models to match the current demand for “shelter in place” eating experiences. Here are just a few examples of how fine-dining, fast-casual, and other establishments are meeting the current moment with new concepts and rapid innovation.

Canlis restaurant website screenshot

Canlis website screenshot

Eve Turow-Paul

From Fine-Dining to Drive-Through.

For 70 years, Canlis in Seattle, Washington has been a beacon of fine dining in the Pacific Northwest. Recently, they reinvented their business structure and narrowed down their menu. By morning, they’re selling bagels and breakfast sandwiches. By evening, the menu switches over to burgers, salads, and ice-cream, all available via a drive-through operation. And so far, their ability to evolve is paying off. According to reporting from Esquire, one morning Canlis sold out of nearly 500 bagels in 90 minutes. The enthusiasm for a drive-through concept pairs up with the market research data; a recent survey by Datassential found that “most consumers would still consider getting food from the drive-thru, often viewing their car as an additional protective barrier from other people.”

For those who don’t want to get in their cars, Canlis is also running a dinner delivery service, with a winnowed-down menu of one single meal option that changes on a daily basis. While a far cry from their former business, their new model is allowing Canlis to continue purchasing from their local farm suppliers and employ their 115 member team.

Meanwhile, Saint Dinette in St. Paul, Minnesota is employing a similar plan. Considered a Midwest leader in fine dining, Saint Dinette released a new menu on Friday exclusively for takeout, curbside pickup, and delivery. They’ve simplified their menu to sandwiches and sides, and even offer “combo meals.” Comfort foods like hotdogs and cheeseburgers dot the menu. This is not to say they’ve tossed their refined culinary skills to the wayside—Saint Dinette’s PB&J is stuffed with foie gras, mixed nuts and preserves.

From Molecular Gastronomy to Comfort Foods.

Three-star Michelin restaurant Alinea in Chicago, Illinois has entirely reimagining their highly-acclaimed dining experience. Usually host to an immersive theatrical food performance with sugar balloons, food-splattered canvases, and edible vanilla beans, Alinea is now selling a dinner of Beef Short Rib Wellington with a side of 50-50 mashed potatoes and a crème brûlée, all for the price of $34.95. Pick up only. Alinea co-owner Nick Kokonas revealed on Twitter that they created the Alinea To Go option as a way to hire back some of their staff.

An example of Crisp & Green's bulk to-go boxes.

An example of Crisp & Green’s bulk to-go boxes.

Crisp & Green

From Fast Casual to Bulk Meal Boxes.

Midwest fast-casual chain Crisp & Green have developed the Crisp @ Home program, a meal kit delivery and pick up service available at all seven of their Minnesota locations. It allows patrons to select 20 meals worth of a la carte ingredients, such as Crisp & Green’s salad mixes, grains, cold and hot ingredients, beverages, snacks, whole fruits, prepared proteins, and dressings. Ingredients can be assembled at home, or refrigerated and enjoyed throughout the week.

Michelin-starred restaurant Kanoyama shifts their business to take-out only, promoted through a street-side table.

Michelin-starred restaurant Kanoyama shifts their business to take-out only, promoted through a … [+] street-side table.

Eling Lee

From Omakase to Bento Boxes.

Michelin-starred Kanoyama in New York City’s East Village has set up a street-side table for meal sales. The revered establishment featuring the impeccable sushi skills of Chef Nobuyuki Shikanai is now selling their fresh fish in the form of bento boxes, chirashi bowls and sushi roll combo boxes.

From Robots to…More Robots.

Famous for their robot-made hamburgers, Creator in San Francisco is now using their techie forte to distribute meals in a safe, contact free manner. “Our entrance is now sealed, with all meals moving through a pressurized transfer chamber. The chamber protects the inside of the restaurant from outside air, and has a self-sanitizing conveyor surface,” they explain on the company website. Guests can place orders through an intercom, and then pick up their hermetically sealed, double-bagged meals through the conveyor window.

Instagram Page of Cookies by Lori

Instagram Page of Cookies by Lori showcasing cookie quarantine kits.

Cookies by Lori

From Bakery to Baking Kits and Pizzeria to Pizza Kits…

With all this time at home, a number of establishments are offering not just a meal but a family activity. Small-town bakeries across the country, such as Beascakes Bakery & Breads in Armonk, New York, Hannah’s Bakery and Cafe in Salem, New Hampshire, and Cookies by Lori in Grapevine, Texas are selling cookie quarantine decorating kits for both children and adults to enjoy. Kits are commonly stocked with baked cookies, frosting and sprinkles.

Pizzerias are taking up a similar concept by offering pizza kits. Renata’s in Portland, Oregon, known for their fresh handmade pasta and wood-fired pizza, quickly sold out of their par-baked pizzas for home delivery. Other local pizza shops across the country are filling pizza boxes with fresh balls of dough, a bag of cheese and containers of sauce for patrons to home assemble and bake. Other establishments are riffing on the same concept with pho kits and taco kits.

This is a peculiar and challenging time for us all. But no other industry is suffering more than our restaurant industry. “The economy stands to lose 4% of GDP without immediate assistance to local restaurants,” notes the Independent Restaurant Coalition. Luckily, the industry is full of creative, imaginative individuals who are pivoting to meet the needs of our current crisis.

And hopefully, in time, it will be easier and easier for us to continue enjoying the culinary talents of those in our home towns. For example, in Chicago, the new website Virtual Dining Chicago shares the latest news on take-out options and ways to support local bars and restaurants during this time, be it through ordering delivery or purchasing a gift card for later use. In New York, the beta site goodhang allows users to choose a local restaurant, bar or cafe as a “venue,” invite friends to a chat, and encourage friends to support your local establishment through gift card purchases and GoFundMe donations. “We built goodhang to help people connect (safely and virtually via Zoom) while supporting the small businesses they normally would be convening in,” says goodhang founder, Janvi Jhaveri of Jack, an experience design studio. Both Virtual Dining Chicago and goodhang launched within the last week. Hopefully, similar websites for other major cities will soon arrive.

In the meantime, the industry is petitioning for government intervention. To learn more, visit SaveRestaurants.Co and Food Policy Action. And try to enjoy the extra time at home, around the table, with family.


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