Why is this interesting? - The Restaurant Creativity Edition 

On crisis, improvisation, and bright spots in a bleak month

Colin here. One of the bright spots in a bleak string of weeks has been the creativity, adaptability, and entrepreneurial spirit shown by the restaurant industry. The sector has been hit extremely hard, and without the usual flow of in-person customers, there’s a lot to shift. This means creating new delivery infrastructure, altering menus, managing vendor relationships, all within an ever-changing framework of laws, regulations, and protocols. 

According to a piece by WITI contributor Dan Frommer in the New Consumer, “the simple truth is that most small restaurants just don’t have the cash balance to handle a modest disruption, let alone what’s happening here. A 2016 study (pdf) by the JPMorgan Chase Institute found that the median small restaurant holds just 16 days worth of ‘buffer’ cash in reserve, compared to 27 days for the median across all small businesses, and 47 days for the median small business in real estate.”

Why is this interesting? 

Creative tactics are needed to generate cash at all costs to keep restaurants afloat. And the tactics that have been on display are inspiring. 

A particularly strong example is Tock. The platform was originally built to allow diners to pre-book their seats at high-end restaurants like Chicago’s Alinea. But, in the span of a week, they were able to launch Tock To-Go. The premise is simple: an online ordering and delivery platform for fine dining. Alinea, known for its revelatory, in-person meals is doing their twist on comfort food, offering a Duck Cassoulet, described as “duck leg confit, pork sausage and ham, onions, carrots, and slowly braised white beans to form a hearty casserole that is topped with toasted bread crumbs.” It comes with salad and dessert. So one of the world’s best restaurants is offering something that you can reheat at home, at an incredible culinary standard. Eem in Portland has been selling out of their set meals to go, having to go live with the menus in advance for people to pre-order. Their Colada kit is also a nice touch. 

Late-breaking changes to laws in places like New York and LA also allowed restaurants and bars to start allowing cocktails to-do. Top mixology bar Employees Only complied with a great deal of creativity, offering up pre-mixed elements for people to play home bartender. This ability to do cocktails to-go also allowed restaurants a much needed (and high margin) revenue source. According to Eater, “the do-it-yourself kits include everything but booze and ice. Also on hand are easy-to-follow recipes to guide at-home mixologists. However, those that require extra help can call the bar directly.”

In the early days of the crisis, restaurants had to get inventory off their hands, lest it spoils. The sushi restaurant Okonomi in Brooklyn whetted appetites on Instagram selling entire boxes of beautiful, sushi-grade uni direct to consumers. Cities have helped in matters as well. Chapel Hill in North Carolina is loosening parking restrictions, to allow customers to pick up orders from restaurants on Franklin street, making life slightly easier. Seattle is doing the same. According to KIRO7, “the city is setting aside food pick-up zones to keep people buying from restaurants while there’s a temporary ban on on-site dining.”

Another pivot is of the wholesalers. They typically have a brisk trade in selling to the top restaurants, but many have quickly shifted to a direct-to-consumer model. Natoora is a renowned purveyor of produce to places like Per Se. It now offers direct deliveries to discerning palates. Norwich Meadows Farm, with big-name clients like Gramercy Tavern, is delivering to Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, according to Eater

We’re used to seeing a ton of creativity on display when we eat out: chefs, comms, and staff innovate every day to bring dining experiences to life. And it is heartening to see that this improvisation, a cornerstone of great hospitality, also being applied to their businesses to keep them afloat and around for everyone to enjoy and appreciate so much more when we have a chance to return. (CJN)

Bonsai of the Day:

After yesterday’s bonsai talk, I got sent a few good bonsai links. There are the amazing Omiya Bonsai gardens in Japan and also the National Bonsai Foundation in DC (thanks PF). The striking California Juniper below is from their North American collection and has been in training since 1989. (NRB)

Quick links:

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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