These Days, Even a Michelin Star Chef Has to Sell Takeout
For nearly three years, the chef T.J. Steele refused to offer delivery at Claro, his Michelin star restaurant in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn.
He ignored the constant entreaties from online delivery companies like Grubhub and DoorDash, which were sometimes sent to his personal email address. Creating a delivery operation would have required a time-consuming overhaul of the menu. It just wasn’t worth the effort.
But because of the coronavirus, Mr. Steele has had to make some compromises to stay in business. He has signed up with Grubhub and Caviar, another delivery service. He has created a menu that eschews complex, hard-to-deliver items like tuna tostada in favor of homey offerings like chicken — a food he never thought he would serve. (He has always preferred turkey.)
Mr. Steele has also had to get used to seeing delivery drivers mishandle his carefully assembled dishes. And he has learned to package certain orders in foil containers so the dishes do not have to be removed from their delivery vessels to be heated in the oven.
“Before, we were a Michelin star restaurant where people would have a bunch of mezcals and hang out for a while and spend money,” Mr. Steele said. “Now we’re sending chips and salsa and soup to people.”
Before the coronavirus made delivery a necessity, restaurants across the country — from mom-and-pops to major chains like McDonald’s — were slowly beginning to reinvent themselves as logistics operations, using software to track orders on different delivery platforms or experimenting with containers and menu items designed to travel.
Now, what began as a steady evolution is taking place at warp speed, as even chefs and owners who had long resisted delivery, like Mr. Steele, adapt to the pandemic.
One day this month, Grubhub added more than four times as many restaurants to its app as it had on its previous record day. Demand has also spiked for Ordermark, a company in Los Angeles that provides hardware to help restaurants manage delivery orders. Last year, an average of roughly 300 restaurants signed up in a month. In March, more than 1,000 have joined.
“Oftentimes, the restaurants weren’t set up for delivery — they don’t really have menus that are designed for takeout or delivery,” said Alex Canter, the chief executive of Ordermark. “They’re having to quickly make adjustments. And for those restaurants, it’s a life-or-death situation.”
Even as deliveries have ballooned the last few years, their quality has been inconsistent. Often, the food arrives cold and soggy, in ripped paper bags or crumpled pizza boxes. Many restaurants consider delivery apps a necessary evil because of the large third-party commissions. And some restaurants lack the infrastructure to execute a successful delivery business.
Matt Le-Khac had always envisioned his restaurant in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood as a gathering spot — a place for people to share Vietnamese food in an intimate setting, with Vietnamese radio hits playing in the background. He never planned to offer his sautéed mushrooms and grilled shrimp lollipops on Grubhub or Uber Eats.
But this month, Mr. Le-Khac converted the restaurant, Bolero, into a delivery and takeout operation, with a line of four tablets set up at the bar like a command center. Where he once stored dishes, he started keeping paper bags and plastic to-go containers. He also rewrote the menu, removing an intricate jellylike dish that would fall apart in transit and modifying a beef item to make it work for delivery.
The transition was painful. Sales fell 70 percent. His staff of 20 had to be cut down to just two. And Mr. Le-Khac had to give up control over the dining experience.
“I’m not expecting the delivery guy to explain that this sauce goes with this beef wrapped in betel leaf,” he said. “So we mark the sauces. Once the customer receives the delivery, they can piece together what goes with what.”
The coronavirus has devastated the restaurant industry in the United States, especially the independent businesses, which make up about two-thirds of the dining landscape. Analysts estimate that 75 percent of independent restaurants that have been closed to protect Americans from the virus won’t survive the crisis.
“The first question that most restaurants are facing is, ‘Do I even try?’” said Scott Landers, a food delivery consultant. “Places with big front of house, if they don’t get rent reduction, it’s going to be a really difficult economic calculus even if you can do delivery.”
Some restaurants were already refining their delivery operations, which better prepared them to weather the shutdowns in cities like New York and San Francisco.
Mexicue, a chain in New York, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., recently unveiled a streamlined delivery program, complete with eco-friendly packaging engineered to keep its tacos intact, as well as new menu items.
The delivery operation was planned months ago as a supplement to Mexicue’s dine-in service, which accounted for more than 80 percent of the chain’s business. Now, rather than temporarily shutting down, Mexicue is relying on delivery to survive.
“We thought there’d be demand out there,” said Thomas Kelly, a co-owner of Mexicue. “A lot of people who were finding themselves at grocery stores with empty shelves or with a pantry full of ingredients and needing a little break from cooking.”
For years, the major chains have recognized the importance of delivery, which could make up as much as 60 percent of restaurant sales by 2030, according to some analysts’ estimates.
At Shake Shack, the logistics of delivery have helped shape how the chain designs new burgers and sandwiches at its test kitchen in Manhattan. “We’ll say, ‘We love it — but will the sauce fall off if it gets delivered?’” Mark Rosati, the chain’s culinary director, said in an interview before the pandemic hit. “These are questions we’re starting to ask a little more as we create food.”
Last year, online orders accounted for about 20 percent of Chipotle Mexican Grill’s sales. That was partly because two of the chain’s most popular items — burritos and burrito bowls — travel relatively well. Its tacos, however, are a different story.
“If they’re all wrapped together in foil and put at the bottom of the bag, they can get a little mashed up,” said Chris Brandt, the chief marketing officer at Chipotle.
So for the past few months, a team of about 10 employees has worked on developing improved packaging for the tacos, collaborating with experts from the fashion and footwear industries.
Not long ago, it would have been hard to imagine a burrito chain’s seeking advice from shoe executives. But the rise of digital ordering has spawned a whole universe of delivery consultants and entrepreneurs. Ordermark provides hardware and consulting. Toast, a Boston company, makes point-of-sale equipment for restaurants. And in Los Angeles, ChowNow designs apps for restaurants that want to avoid hefty commission fees.
For Mr. Landers, the consultant, mastering the logistics of food delivery has become something of an obsession. Before the pandemic, he would order from the delivery apps about twice a week, not unusual for a New Yorker. More unusual was what he did once the deliveries arrived: stick a thermometer into his food.
“My wife would get to the point where she was like, ‘Can we eat now?’” Mr. Landers said.
Since the pandemic forced restaurants to close their dine-in areas, he has offered free consulting sessions to owners who are trying to improve their delivery operations. And he has warned clients to keep a close eye on the economics.
“Make sure that you’re not losing two or three dollars on every order,” he said. “Because you’ll just go out of business even faster.”
At Bolero, Mr. Le-Khac said he was not sure whether he would continue offering delivery and takeout. It might not work financially, he said. And with New York now the epicenter of the pandemic, he’s concerned about the safety of his employees.
Last week, he closed the restaurant to regroup and consider the implications of continuing to offer delivery. “The margin of error is so small right now,” Mr. Le-Khac said.
If he decides to reopen, he said, he’ll probably switch from plastic containers to paper ones.
Kitty Bennett contributed research.
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