Editor’s note: During this uncertain time, OpenTable is working around the clock on ways to support restaurants. Currently, we’re heavily promoting fundraisers, delivery, gift cards, and restaurants-turned-groceries; offering fee relief to impacted restaurants; and working with local restaurant associations. But we also want to highlight some of the great actions restaurants are taking to continue to support their community. If you have an example of what you or a restaurant you love is doing, write to us at email@example.com for a chance to be featured.
Curbside sommelier service. Do-it-yourself pizza kits. Reheatable family-style meals. Toilet paper delivery. As restaurants settle into the social distancing lifestyle, they are creating a wide-ranging set of offerings designed to both cater to this COVID-19-fueled moment in time and also keep them in business.
At popular Mexican taqueria chain Tacolicious in San Francisco, partner and marketing director Sara Deseran has a streamlined operation of DIY taco kits that come with a reheatable choice of meat and all the accoutrements from tortillas to salsa. Burritos are also a new menu item — something that Deseran says they had resisted selling pre-pandemic as a taco-focused place.
“If restaurants don’t pivot and don’t listen to what everyone wants and needs right now, they’re not going to make it,” she says. “The landscape is not going to go back to normal anytime soon. I think this year we’ll see much more fearful diners, so if we put our foot down and say, ‘No, we’re just going to be Tacolicious, and we don’t do burritos because that’s not who we are,’ it’s a disservice to ourselves.”
Keeping her business going has been two-fold, first as a way to keep staff employed and secondly to keep a connection with the community. Restaurants around the country are following suit, with everything from a drive-through crawfish boil at a New Orleans neighborhood gem to a James Beard Award-winning Seattle chef’s to-go burger kits.
Others are even adding an element of charity to their initiatives. New York City Korean steakhouse Cote is donating 3 percent of its revenue to a local nonprofit dedicated to feeding hungry New Yorkers.
“Every dollar counts right now, so I want every diner’s dollar to go far. Last week we made a donation to City Harvest for three weeks of operation, and it was over $5,000,” Cote owner Simon Kim says. “Not only do [diners] get to be full and help out vendors, but [they] also get to help out hungry New Yorkers.”
The Michelin-starred venue has gone from serving upscale dry-aged steaks and Korean sides to delivering boxes of raw meat and cooked sides for people to recreate a steakhouse-style experience at home. Kim says the restaurant is doing three times the expected volume, enough to help pay vendors and employ a few people, though not make any profit.
“It started off as desperation. As soon as we closed our restaurant, we went from highly, highly profitable — we employed 105 people — to overnight all systems stopped,” he says. “Now we have about 15 people employed, and we feel very fortunate.”
These forced pivots come as the novel coronavirus has left restaurants without dine-in business. The industry has been decimated, with OpenTable data showing that restaurant sales are down 80 percent, and more than three million service workers have been laid off since March 1.
The staff that’s left at Cote has been busy fulfilling orders and coming up with new ideas to stand out. Cote will soon launch a virtual bartender service where diners answer a series of flavor questions on delivery provider Caviar, and Cote’s bartender makes a custom batch cocktail based on each diner’s preferences. The idea is that people “can enjoy that going-to-a-bar experience,” Kim says.
“If you’re going to do this, and it’s a great cause, why not have a lot of fun?” Kim says.
It’s all been a steep learning curve, both restaurateurs say. Tacolicious started including instructions on how to best heat its tortillas “because I saw people sticking our tortillas in a microwave and almost had a heart attack,” Deseran says. The restaurant is also learning stewed meats reheat better than others and sticking to offering those.
But Tacolicious has tried to capture the fun side of it, too, by selling batched margaritas and leaning into its standbys.
“Tuesdays are pretty busy for us,” Deseran says. “Taco Tuesday continues even in quarantine.”
Below are fuller lists of restaurants around the country serving these types of unique offerings to find one near you: