Fine Dining Restaurants Are Pivoting to Takeout and Delivery
As institutions across the country take drastic measures to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, the third-generation owners of Seattle fine dining destination Canlis decided they needed to make major changes, too. Brothers Mark and Brian Canlis announced yesterday they would temporarily close their elegant, midcentury dining room overlooking Seattle’s Lake Union and shift their space and attention to new dining options for customers. Starting Monday, Canlis will become a meal delivery service, a casual bagel shop, and in what’s typically the restaurant’s valet parking driveway, a “drive-thru” selling burgers, veggie melts, and their famous Canlis salad to-go — a previously unthinkable proposition at the jacket-recommended restaurant.
“Fine dining is not what Seattle needs right now,” the Canlis brothers wrote on their restaurant’s website. “Instead, this is one idea for safely creating jobs for our employees, while serving as much of the city as we can.”
Canlis will keep its 115 employees, for now at least, turning some into delivery drivers. Customers can order “family meal” delivery for between $30 and $60 per person via Tock, the site that normally handles Canlis’s reservations. They can even add bottles of wine from the restaurant’s cellar, if they wish.
According to Tock founder Nick Kokonas, the company is “working 24/7” to add the delivery and pick-up functionality to its platform by early next week. “We expect to offer this immediately to other restaurants currently on Tock, and to any restaurant that reaches out to us and wants to use the platform shortly thereafter,” he says.
Other restaurants with the same goals — retaining employees and serving customers despite a global pandemic — are coming up with new ideas of their own. They have to, now that cities like Los Angeles have forbidden events of more than 50 people, and New York’s mayor has mandated that all restaurants and bars reduce their capacity by 50 percent. Spago, Wolfgang Puck’s 38-year-old flagship restaurant in Beverly Hills, is adding an abbreviated take-out menu. Alexander’s Steakhouse, a high-end California chain, is debuting take-out and delivery so customers can “enjoy a fine dining experience in the comfort of their own home.” The Morris, a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco, is offering its whole menu, including house-made charcuterie and a popular smoked duck, for curbside pick-up, plus wines for retail purchase.
“The game’s not over, but the rules have changed,” says Mark Canlis. “If our game is to serve people, to lift them up and encourage them and restore them in this way, we can still play that game.”
Destination-dining establishments, even more than neighborhood-focused restaurants, are particularly vulnerable to losses as customers stay home to avoid spreading COVID-19. “Cancellations have been intense,” says chef Ben Sukle, owner of the celebrated fine-dining restaurant Birch in Providence, Rhode Island. “Seventy-five percent of our guests are coming from out of town, for a special occasion or special trip. Naturally, when people are doing these self-imposed stay-at-homes or restrictions, [dining] is the first thing that’s not considered, and that’s going to be extremely hard for us.”
Sukle is exploring Birch take-out, ordered by phone, with a menu of more casual dishes than Birch’s usual multi-course offerings. The menu would include items like a burger and a muffuletta sandwich, a popular monthly special at Birch’s more casual sister restaurant, Oberlin. “Who knows, maybe it won’t work for Birch,” Sukle admits. But it’s still worth a try: “I’d rather go out with my shield up and keep fighting. I’ve got a lot of people working for me… [and] if this works out, in six months, we can go back to serving a tasting menu.”
Adding take-out dishes at a fine-dining restaurant isn’t as simple as putting food in boxes, says Mourad Lahlou, the chef and owner of Michelin-starred Mourad in San Francisco. That’s one reason he’s avoided it in the past. “In normal days, when people say ‘Can I get a lamb to-go, or an octopus to-go,’ we say no, because it just doesn’t travel well.”
But these days aren’t normal, so for the first time, Lahlou is adding take-out at Mourad — although he’s tweaking dishes first. “We’re changing the sauces and the cuts [of meat] so the dish doesn’t die within two or three minutes of it being cooked.”
Lahlou was previously resistant to delivery through third-party services like Doordash and Grubhub, but now he’s in talks with those companies to start. Adding the option, however, isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. “It’s really hard to get set up on Seamless [right now],” says Ravi Derossi, a New York restaurateur who uses the service at his businesses Mother of Pearl and Night Music, and hopes to add it for more of his restaurants. “They’re really backed up... It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Scott Landers, who developed delivery for the fast-casual chain Dig Inn, knows the challenges: They’re why he founded a consultancy, Figure 8 Logistics, to help restaurants build out their delivery logistics. “I would be surprised if you could pull off [adding third party delivery] in a week,” says Landers. “Two is aggressive, four is realistic after negotiating a contract.”
There’s a whole host of things to consider, says Landers: “Adapting your menu, changing your equipment, your prices, negotiating the delivery fee.” That fee, essentially a commission from third-party services, can vary widely: Grubhub and Seamless, Doordash and Caviar, and others usually charge anywhere from 18 to 30 percent per order, a massive chunk of a given check.
Today, Grubhub announced it would temporarily suspend collection of up to $100 million in commission payments from restaurants affected by COVID-19 in five cities. The rest of the major delivery services haven’t reduced fees, but are rushing to adapt in other ways amid surging demand. Doordash, Uber Eats, and Postmates are adding contact-less delivery, in which couriers drop items at the door to avoid the potential spread of the virus. But while Doordash has announced a program to give financial assistance to couriers diagnosed with COVID-19, most gig delivery workers are operating on the front lines of a global pandemic without employer-provided healthcare and, if sickened, stand to lose their source of income.
For restaurants, however, added delivery orders could be a crucial opportunity to maintain revenue and keep up relationships with existing clientele. “You don’t have to step out to support your favorite restaurants and brands,” writes restaurant publicity firm Bullfrog + Baum, in an email sent to media outlets highlighting delivery options from their clients.
“Collaboratively [with restaurant clients], we wanted to come up with ways to drive some sales and keep people employed,” says Bullfrog + Baum president Jennifer Baum. “We’ve been through difficult times before, but nothing that happened quite as quickly as this, and everyone is trying to find the best way forward.”
In an email to his current restaurant clients, Landers advises that they consider expanding their delivery options to meet new needs. “I’d think about what guests will want while stuck at home or locally nearby,” he writes, “particularly focusing on family meals now that everyone is staying at home, both kids and parents. This gives you a higher check size and allows you to pass along almost the entire cost of logistics ~$5/order.” Another idea: full meal delivery kits, with raw veggies, beverages, and more. “Think items that you have easy access to as a restaurant, but which may be difficult for guests to access. At a certain point, bars and restaurants may be better built to deliver on demand groceries and alcohol, than are grocery stores and liquor stores.”
Chef Alex Stupak has always offered delivery and catering at his four Empellon restaurants in New York. But now, deliveries through third-party services like Caviar and Seamless are up roughly 65 percent while dine-in covers are crashing.
“Everyone is seeing a 30 to 70 percent drop [in dine-in customers] overnight,” Stupak estimates. To help, he’s adding more to-go and catering options at Empellon’s flagship location in Midtown, which has seen the biggest decline in customers: An abridged menu of the restaurant’s best-sellers like maitake tacos with quesillo.
While Stupak would prefer to serve customers in person, doing more take-out and delivery is at least “an opportunity to express solidarity to your community.”
“I just think it’s in the nature of chefs — style aside, business aside, ego aside — we all got into this business because we like to feed people, and this [situation] becomes a clarifier of that,” Stupak says.
Mark Canlis hopes other fine dining restaurants will come to the same conclusion. “Don’t give up. I want restaurants to turn to their teams and say ‘what can we do?’ The reality is maybe a lot.”