Restaurants Cling to Delivery During Coronavirus Crisis – The New York Times

Restaurant News

Like workers in most other fields, restaurant people speak their own language. They talk about covers when they mean customers, sourcing instead of shopping, and cocktail programs, which civilians would just call cocktails. This week, an eerie new term has rippled through the business: contactless delivery.

The concept is simple. The kitchen prepares food that is then boxed up and sent out to an address where a gloved messenger quietly deposits it at the door. The hungry customer and the person making the delivery keep a safe distance between them.

It’s not the kind of service with a smile that the hospitality industry prides itself on. But for thousands of restaurants across the country, ordered to close their dining rooms to slow the spread of the coronavirus, contactless delivery may be their only chance to stay open and avoid wholesale layoffs.

From corner diners to such world-class restaurants as Alinea in Chicago (which by last night had made $5,600 on sales of margarita kits alone), operations focused on delivery and pickup have been adopted at a speed that shows how precarious their survival has become.

Servers, hosts and other front-of-house employees at Sugarfish, a chain of 13 sushi restaurants in New York City and Los Angeles, have no tables to seat or water glasses to fill. So all Sugarfish employees who are not involved in food preparation have been reassigned as contactless delivery workers. Jerry Greenberg, the chief executive of Sugarfish’s parent company, said he had made the change in order to to keep all of his more than 600 employees on the payroll.

Some workers will be leaving packages of tuna, salmon and yellowtail nigiri at doorsteps across those two cities. Others have been learning to operate a piece of equipment that is new to most Sugarfish locations: a telephone.

“We’re now taking phone orders,” Mr. Greenberg said. “We haven’t answered phones in our restaurants in quite some time,” he went on, explaining that Sugarfish doesn’t accept reservations and that all delivery orders were placed online until this week.

For restaurants, contactless delivery and its sibling, contactless curbside pickup, are components of a new hygiene protocol that has been adopted alongside old routines, on the fly and despite advice from health departments that can be unclear, contradictory or nonexistent. Kitchens that are accustomed to worrying about the temperature of the walk-in refrigerator now check all employees for fevers. Gloves, once disdained by serious cooks, are suddenly a necessity.

Borough Provisions, a delivery service in Manhattan and Brooklyn started this week by Bien Cuit, a string of bakeries and cafes, and Joe Coffee, a roaster that also runs several cafes, has announced a detailed safety protocol. According to Kate Wheatcroft, the bakery’s chief executive, it requires packers and drivers to wear masks, gloves and nonporous windbreakers that are sprayed with disinfectant each night.

Contactless delivery and pickup is “a very safe alternative, especially for those who are in high-risk groups for COVID-19, the older people with weak immune systems,” said Dr. Benjamin Chapman, a professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University.

A greater challenge is protecting the cooks. “Practicing social distancing in a kitchen is extremely difficult,” Dr. Chapman said. He said that smaller staffs would help, and so would staggered shifts, with a pause of five minutes or so between the morning crew’s leaving and the arrival of the evening crew. Strictly monitoring the health of each person allowed into the kitchen is also vital, he said.

The telephone has come back in vogue at the Publican in Chicago, too. Employees there are taking phone orders for packaged takeout meals, along with boxes of provisions like cookies made by the corporate pastry chef, bread from the corporate baker and cuts of meat carved by the butcher shop upstairs.

“We’re trying to drive a lot of sales through the website and trying to get out the word to pick up the phone,” said Paul Kahan, the chef and restaurateur whose One Off Hospitality company owns the Publican. “The old-fashioned method. As long as we’re going to be quarantined, why not pick up the phone and talk to a butcher?”

There are reasons for restaurants to embrace the telephone that go beyond nostalgia. The device doesn’t take a cut of each sale, unlike the big delivery services like GrubHub, Seamless and Uber Eats. Those fees, which can run from 15 to 30 percent, rankled owners even when times were good. Now many restaurants would like to see them go away for a while.

And some of them have. DoorDash is waiving fees on pickups and for restaurants that are new to the service, while offering some reduced commissions to restaurants that already use it. Uber Eats has reduced fees to customers but not the commission it charges restaurants. Restaurants that choose to take a new offer from GrubHub can wait to pay their fees until the company decides the crisis is over.

“It’s not really beneficial for us, because later on when we get back to normal business we would have to pay it back,” said Amelie Kang, who owns two Sichuan restaurants in Manhattan with the name MáLà Project. They use Seamless and a host of other delivery services, and Ms. Kang said that orders this month have been “a little bit overwhelming.”

Starting on Sunday, Ms. Kang and a manager began making certain deliveries themselves, ferrying what she calls “quarantine food” in their own cars to several neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn that are normally far outside MáLà Project’s delivery range. Through a new website, homebound customers can order 12-ounce containers of beef or mushroom sauce spiced with bird’s-eye chiles and Sichuan peppercorns, or containers of two milder sauces based on oyster mushrooms.

Demand has been brisk for a new product unsupported by any marketing other than a national state of emergency.


Credit…Emon Hassan for The New York Times

Credit…Emon Hassan for The New York Times

More than 300 orders had come in by Wednessday morning. The sauces can be kept in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, Ms. Kang said, and each will season about five portions of noodles, which she also sells and delivers herself. So far, she said, she has not laid off any employees, although none are working more than one day a week.

Forced to empty their dining rooms, many restaurants chose to go dark. Some have been selling off their inventory in events that strongly resemble fire sales.

On Tuesday, the West Village restaurant Anton’s offered a dollar menu, which was essentially the regular menu with prices for such items as chopped liver with house-baked crackers or aged duck breast with sour cherries marked down to $1. Another, much shorter dollar menu was offered on Wednesday.

Huertas, a Spanish restaurant in the East Village, sold imported cans of fish, Manchego, almonds, olive and beer as well as “hearty pints of beans and chorizo” on Monday before locking its doors for a period that will probably be counted in months, even by the most optimistic estimates.

Bags of supplies were sent by car service to customers who could not show up in person. The event raised “a couple of thousand dollars for our team,” said a post from the Huertas Instagram account.

Restaurants that are trying to stay open for to-go orders have had to scramble their entire routines. Menus have been truncated, simplified or torn up. Whole meals are easier for some kitchens to assemble than à la carte orders.


Credit…Joshua Lott for The New York Times

Prices have to adjust, too. The Publican is boxing up enough food for four people in meals drawn from what its website terms “greatest hits,” like piri-piri chicken, summer sausage, fries, salad, barbecued carrots and cookies, all for $16.95 a person.

“Depression-era pricing,” Mr. Kahan said. “We just want to keep some cash flow going. Survival.”

Publican’s greatest hits can be purchased through Tock, which was a reservations site until about a week ago. Then Nick Kokonas, its founder and chief executive, got a call from Brian Canlis, an owner of the restaurant Canlis in Seattle.

“He said, ‘Hey, we need to do a pickup meal and I’m not sure I can properly configure enough of them as ‘tables,’ ” Mr. Kokonas recalled in an email. “He was trying to ‘hack’ the existing system, which is very powerful for normal restaurants but was not geared to carryout inventory.”

Tock wrote some new software so restaurants could sell meals online and, crucially, process credit card payments, which requires an ability to encrypt data that most restaurants do not possess. About 40 restaurants in the United States and several in other countries have started using the new service, Tock to Go.

By Sunday, a competing reservations service, Resy, which like Tock was watching the numbers of bookings on its site crash in one city after another, had also repurposed its site for delivery and pickup orders. About 30 restaurants have signed on. (Resy has waived its fees to restaurants for at least 30 days. Tock is collecting its monthly fee.)

Restaurants are the main clients for many other businesses, from florists to linen services to farms, that have lost income as people have been ordered to stay home. Few of them are as nimble, though, as the technology-driven reservation services, and even they are uncertain how many of the to-go operations that were put together over the past few days will still be running next week.

“We’re in uncharted territory, and it’s evolving very, very fast,” said Ben Leventhal, the chief executive of Resy. “Faster than day to day. This is just really fluid, and restaurants are scrambling to figure out how they’re going to make money.

“Restaurants are thinking through how best to keep their staff employed — if that’s even possible. How to make sure they’re set up in one way or another to come out of this on the other side.”

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