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Curb Appeal: Restaurants Get Creative during Pandemic Closures

The Lynhall in the Lyn-Lake area of Minneapolis had to reorder bandanas that were being handed out with $50+ orders because they were so popular. But they also provide a nice barrier for staff who are handing out the orders curb-side.

When the National Restaurant Association released its forecast of what the industry would look like in 2030, projecting sales of $1.2 trillion and jobs at 17.2 million, they had no way to predict a pandemic that would shutter restaurants across the country and force Americans to shelter in place. 

Who had even heard of the phrase “shelter in place” before we were confined to our homes 24-7?  Or, “social distancing,” for that matter? And who could have predicted the restaurant industry with such tight margins could be squeezed even tighter?

While it’s easy in the midst of this economic crisis to temporarily forget the other side—the loss of human life and the effect of the coronavirus on health care workers and first responders—restaurateurs are just as concerned for their employees and suppliers as they are for their own bottom lines. After all, hospitality workers are the first to step up and donate their time and resources to charity when asked. And, as some restaurant owners are finding, it’s now their turn to be the one receiving, as their communities are buying gift cards for future visits to give the restaurants cash flow now and donating to funds set up for furloughed employees.

Jake at Brasa in NE Mpls. greeted diners at the door to hand them their “curbside” orders. After the first week, management decided to stop in-person ordering and accepting cash.

For “essential workers” still out there in public, there are all sorts of mandates and voluntary actions to keep them safe. Once the province of salad bars, “sneeze guards” are being installed between cashiers and customers. Lunds & Byerly’s  staff is wiping down self-serve registers after every use. And it’s not business as normal when your pizza is handed to you by someone wearing a mask and rubber gloves. 

If there’s one bright spot in all of this horror, it’s that our society was already moving toward home delivery of meals and groceries, as well as communicating via technology, so the infrastructure was already in place and tested. That particular wheel didn’t need to be reinvented, just refined, updated and expanded.

National third-party delivery providers promptly announced they would be giving restaurateurs a break on fees, however, in the early stages of the offer, restaurateurs complained the break was really for the consumer ordering, rather than reducing the portion the restaurants paid. Some carriers’ fees are as high as 30 percent. 

Independent chain, Pizza Luce added a message at the top of its website’s order page to request that if customers planned to add a tip to please add it electronically, rather than pay in cash, so drivers could maintain their six-foot barriers.

Takeout or curbside delivery clearly became the way to go if a casual- or fine-dining restaurant wanted to generate any income while their dine-in services remained nonexistent. In Minnesota, after a two-week trial, restaurants were mandated by the state to discontinue in-restaurant dining until May 1. 

While many restaurants in the Twin Cities have chosen to close their doors completely, others have shifted to curbside deliveries. 

Tenant—the fine-dining restaurant run by two chefs who with limited staff do it all from cooking to serving to sweeping the floors—switched to a pay-what-you-can “soup kitchen,” where they cooked large batches of gourmet soup and then sold it by the quart with bread. They promoted it on Instagram, and the cars lined up. When I picked up my quart of soup, co-owner Grisha Hammes was manning the takeout table. When asked how he was coping, he shrugged answering, “We’re not cooking dinner for people”—and that said it all.

The chef owners of Tenant turned their fine-dining establishment into a pay-what-you-can “soup kitchen,” with gourmet soup and bread.

Chef Jamie Malone’s Grand Café and Eastside Food & Drink quickly shifted to curbside delivery. They offer one family meal a night, with only two people working in the kitchen at a time, plus a manager to run the meal out to the curb. The meals have been selling out, but at a greatly reduced price from their normal check average. The family meals are running $15 per person (with a two-person minimum) and a dessert thrown in as a welcome bonus. When people dined in, the check average at Grand was closer to $80 per person ($60 for Eastside). To add a little more income to the order, they’ve gone to offering a medium loaf of bread for an additional $8. 

Over at Erte and the Peacock Lounge in Northeast Minneapolis Adam Milledge and his wife Kelly are struggling to use all the food they had just ordered before the pandemic restrictions hit. “I still have a lot of produce inhouse and I’m trying to burn through it right now,” he said. “I started air-drying herbs and using them in pesto and jam to make them shelf stable.” The family meals he’s offering are “on brand,” but are not menu items, rather entrées that can utilize what’s on hand. “Even if it’s $300, it’s $300 more than we had,” he said about daily orders. Milledge also reached out to his vendors to see if they had food they couldn’t sell that they’d donate to him. While he never intended to be a nonprofit, he said, right now as a small business he’s not making a profit. 

“I’m constantly creating menus on the fly, I’m a one-man line,” he said. 

While he may not have help in the kitchen, his wife and co-owner, Kelly, is handling the social media and the curbside delivery. “Influencers—like Kim Ly Curry—are sharing for us and tagging us and they have a huge following,” he said, a kindness  for which he’s grateful.

What he’s not grateful for, he added, is “incurring a debt that you didn’t ask for.”

The virus has changed social media posting, as well. Nikki Klocker, who runs Grand Café’s and Eastside’s social media platform, along with Malone, said they are much more cognizant of what they post. “I pulled back on my funny posts,” she said. “It just doesn’t feel right for ‘It’s Friday. Act like it’ and other themes.” Although for one Thursday meal, which is normally promoted as “Thursdays are for bubbles,” she added mini bottles of bubbles to blow to the orders. “I will bring back the fun,” she said, “but for now it just doesn’t feel right.”

It feels right, however, highlighting staff in the posts. “This is our core team. And they are working so hard, I wanted them to feel supported, but also for guests to understand that these are the humans who are putting in work to ensure meals are safely going out,” she added. But all the fun hasn’t been put on hold. There’s a pet pageant, where people submit pictures of their pets, and BINGO, played online with BINGO cards that were handed out with meals. 

Other clever marketers are using social media to raise funds to help out employees, such as Pig Ate My Pizza’s Instagram posts where donations are recorded on a card of pig faces, much like the ubiquitous oversized thermometers used by charities. And Hola Arepa raised $8,500 for its kitchen staff in three days of its Salsa SOS sale, its Instagram account reported. 

Takeout at Kado No Mise in Minneapolis’ North Loop included thin terrycloth wet wipes, a nice touch of normalcy in a takeout world. Packaging wasn’t a problem because they had plenty of to-go boxes used for leftover to be taken home and for an aborted attempt at lunch a couple of years ago.

Alex Roberts closed his Restaurant Alma and Cafe Alma, but continues to do curbside pick-up at his casual-dining concept, Brasa, which was already doing takeout and delivery. An updated message on the site asked customers to order online rather than call if possible. They are no longer accepting walk-up orders, nor cash. In addition, ownership added a 15 percent service charge to orders that goes directly into an employee relief fund. If anyone objects to the 15 percent, the website says, the charge will be removed from their bill. 

Ironically timing was everything for Chef Yia Vang. His kickstarter campaign for a brick-and-mortar restaurant had met its goal and he and his partner were in the early stages of locating their spot and hiring an architect. But before they signed on the dotted line, restaurants were mandated to close.

Now, “we’re just trying to stay afloat,” he said. He’s returned with limited staff to their “residency restaurant,” Union Hmong Kitchen, where they shifted to offering family meals for two, four or six, curbside.

Timing was fortuitous as well on his public television program, Relish, which features Vang talking to Twin Cities chefs in their kitchens about a variety of subjects, including, cultural heritage. “All the shows were pretaped, so we’re in good shape there,” he said. 

While he laughed when asked how his TV career was going, he did say he will occasionally have people stop him in the street and say, “You’re the guy on Channel 2.” It always surprises him, not that he’s recognized, but that he’s recognized as the “Channel 2 guy.” “I forget I’m on Channel 2, because I watch (everything) online,” he said. 

While the restaurant community was able to influence the governor’s office on postponing sales tax payments for a month, they haven’t, as of press time, been able to get laws changed to allow restaurants to include alcohol with takeout. Brent Frederick of Jester Concepts is working with the Minnesota Restaurant Association (MRA) to be able to include wine and beer with takeout orders to increase both the check average and the demand for curbside. Frederick spearheaded a petition that quickly received the necessary signatures. Liz Rammer, the head of the MRA, said in her update on March 30 that the governor had promised to look into the matter.

Freehouse, a brewpub/restaurant in the North Loop, can sell its made-on-premises beer in growlers and cans as curbside delivery, Stephanie Shimp, of Blue Plate Restaurant Co., said.

When I talked with her, they were just starting curbside at Freehouse. “If operations at Freehouse are smooth, we anticipate opening up at other locations, starting with Groveland Tap in St Paul,” she said. 

Liquor sales are doing well, with drinkers thankful liquor stores can now be open on Sundays, and many are doing deliveries.

With all this grit, creativity and hard-work, what are the odds the U.S. restaurant industry has a shot at reaching that $1.2 trillion projection by 2030? 

Adam Milledge at Erte in happier times when he had help in the kitchen, He is now a one-man cook, menu-writer and clean-up crew at his restaurant/bar in Northeast Minneapolis.

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