CHICAGO — Six months following the first shutdown of restaurants for the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the restaurant industry is in limbo. For some out-of-the-box thinkers, the new norm presented them with an opportunity to be creative and secure their share of the limited foodservice dollar.
Nearly one in six restaurants is closed either permanently or long-term, according to a survey from the National Restaurant Association (NRA), Washington, DC. Nearly three million employees are still out of work, and the industry is on track to lose $240 billion in sales by the end of the year.
Similar to many cities across the country, modified indoor dining has resumed in Chicago. Restrictions include filling seats at no more than 25% capacity, or 50 diners maximum, to ensure proper social distancing between tables. Along with enhanced cleaning and sanitation practices, restaurants require patrons to wear masks when not seated and eating or drinking. Many restaurants chose to focus on outdoor dining this summer, as the temperatures were pleasant and with little rain. They also continued to offer food for pickup and delivery.
In Chicago, bars that did not serve food were not allowed to open inside. (Popcorn and peanuts didn’t qualify.) Brian Galati, co-owner of the whimsical Wicker Park restaurant Machine, as well as the bar-only River North-based Headquarters Beercade that could not open because of restrictions, decided to develop an outdoor popup in the parking lot of Headquarters Beercade. It opened this past week and goes by the name of Elsewhere.
The 64-seat popup features over-the-top cocktails, popular menu items from Machine and a swanky backyard vibe. There are optional tents to manage rain and heater lamps for when the temperatures dip. Instagram-friendly communal cocktails — premade in large, elaborate serving vessels for minimum hands-on contact — include the Black Hearts Club, which is activated charcoal, Maestro Dobel tequila, Aperol, lemon, grapefruit and black rose. Elsewhere limits its hours of operation. During the week it’s open from 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, noon until midnight.
“We need to focus on day periods that yield the highest results,” Mr. Galati said. “This is a proof of concept for us, so we have to mitigate any areas where loss would be the greatest like payroll during dayparts that may not yield high sales. We don’t want to lose money in such a temperamental situation that our industry is dealing with.”
The situation is extremely challenging for many, according to the NRA survey, which showed most restaurants are still struggling to survive and don’t expect their position to improve over the next six months. Consumer spending in restaurants remained well below normal levels in August, with overall sales down 34% on average. Sixty percent of operators said their restaurant’s total operational costs, as a percent of sales, are higher than they were prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. And, on average, restaurant operators say their current staffing levels are only 71% of what they would typically be in the absence of COVID-19.
“For an industry built on service and hospitality, the last six months have challenged the core understanding of our business,” said Tom Bené, president and CEO of NRA. “Our survival for this comes down to the creativity and entrepreneurship of owners, operators and employees.”
For Mr. Galati and co-owner Chireal Jordan, that meant creating Elsewhere. Permits and regulations prevented the popup from opening sooner, but the two are confident the next few months will be worth the effort.
“It was a very lengthy process,” Mr. Galati said. “We had to submit our plan for the ‘expanded patio’ permit. The city worked with us, and we are thankful for their approval on our project. It took a while, but we are extremely happy to be open.
“We thought of the idea later in the season, but we hope to get it open earlier next year. We have signature blankets that we had made for people, heaters, hot drinks and other ideas to help keep people warm. Like any other outdoor activity in the cooler months, we hope people will dress the part and come bundled up.”
The two built on their learnings from the outdoor space at Machine, which focuses on “engineered dining and drink.” The menu is all about providing an experience, and Elsewhere is designed to be a limited extension of that encounter.
“We were very surgical with our selections to keep costs and labor down but offer extremely unique items,” Mr. Galati said. “It was important that our team could execute items quickly, but equally as important that the offerings were creative and top quality. It was a delicate dance to produce this menu full of impactful and unique items that hopefully keep the guests coming back but could also be executed quickly and most importantly profitably.”
The menu includes Machine’s signature layered Caesar salad featuring Hook’s parmesan cheese and sourdough crumble. There are varied proteins that may be added for a complete meal. There is also a Belgian endive salad with goat cheese, sesame pecan praline crunch, guava dressing and mint garnish. The engineered cheeseburger features bone marrow, griddled onions, pickles, lettuce and miso thousand island dressing, served with salt and vinegar fries.
For more adventurous palates, there are hurricane fries, which are topped with Japanese-style mayonnaise, sweet and sour sauce, bonito flakes, nori and sesame seeds. Crispy chicken tacos — beef may be substituted — include cabbage apple slaw, sake pickled peppers, togarashi, ginger soy gastrique, cilantro and a drizzle of lime aioli.
There are two desserts options. The pistachio crunch panna cotta is made with Mexican chile-spiced pistachios, caramel, coconut milk, brown sugar and cayenne. The blueberry bourbon crisp features a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream in a toasted brown sugar cornflake crumble saturated with Elijah Craig bourbon and a balsamic blueberry ginger reduction.
Restaurateurs across the country are getting imaginative to stay in business. Many are converting operations to ghost kitchens for takeout and delivery. Others are creating home delivery kits with online programming with the chef to prepare the entrée.
Greenville, SC-based Table 301, for example, created a program featuring chefs from its restaurants hosting national virtual cook-alongs for people who receive a delivery of ingredients at home. The Zoom and Facebook live classes accommodate up to 200 people. Some corporate clients are using the virtual dinners as a team building exercise for employees.
Prior to the pandemic, Our Kitchen, Port Jervis, NJ, was a farm-to-table Chinese restaurant, right on the owners’ farm. The creative minds at the company changed the business model and are now a farm-to-table meal delivery service that brings healthy and authentic Chinese dishes to New York City and the Hamptons’ consumers, with plans to expand across the country. The meal kits include farm-fresh vegetables, frozen dishes as well as heat-and-serve selections.