Chef Chatter: 7 ways restaurants can survive COVID-19 – Fast Casual

Restaurant News

Chef Chatter:
By Chef Omar Torres, director of Food & Beverage and executive chef at The Hilton Pensacola Beach 

It’s no secret that the restaurant and catering industries have taken a huge hit due to the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic has forced widespread lockdowns and stay-at-home directives that have compelled countless foodservice business owners and chefs to get creative if they’re going to have any chance of protecting at least some of their revenue. Locally, the public’s empathy for our plight has been a saving grace. The community support has been extremely heartening, to say the least.

While many restaurants have chosen to close outright or pivot to delivery and takeout only, as time wears on it will take a bit of extra, out-of-the-box thinking to stay afloat and maintain some sort of an edge in the local market. 

Here are seven suggestions for adapting to these unprecedented times we’re living in. These are innovations that are already paying off at H2O Grill.

  1. Consider a Redesign
    As the grim reality of the coronavirus outbreak began to take hold, I realized we had to go above and beyond traditional takeout to survive. When the dining room at the restaurant was forced to shut down, we still had all this meat in our kitchen freezer. To make sure it didn’t go to waste, we did a quick conversion of the coffee shop called Butler’s Pantry that we’d been operating inside the Hilton Pensacola Beach. My team completely redesigned it, inserting a butcher shop with a meat display case into middle of the footprint.Just like that, we were offering all sorts of high-quality proteins “European style” at low takeout prices.
    These include all-American cuts of highly prized wagyu beef, such as New York steak, filet mignon and rib eye. You cannot find some of these restaurant cuts anywhere else in the area. The butcher shop also has veal chops and a variety of seafood – salmon, snapper, lobster tail, sushi and so on. Plus we stock an assortment of other high-end groceries and fresh-baked goods, so visitors can take home entire restaurant-quality meals that are ready to cook. The local response so far has been phenomenal. We immediately had to order more food to sell.
  2. Adapt Creatively
     The extraordinary situation we all now find ourselves in has provided new opportunities to utilize different pieces of kitchen equipment. At H2O, instead of using our grill or outside smoker, we are using atypical tools and methods like sous vide, which involves placing vacuum-sealed ingredients into a temperature-controlled water circulator. The sous vide cooking technique helps keep our meats tender and ready for faster service. We’re also using a Cryovac system to vacuum seal the butcher shop meats and some of the complete meals we’re now vending, such as our seafood boil.
  3. Engage Customers
    Our end goal during the dine-in shutdown is for guests to still enjoy fine restaurant dining, but at home. For instance, we’ve been challenging consumers who order from our new butcher shop to share images of the culinary creations they eventually come up with. They send us pictures of their homecooked meals via Instagram (@h2ogrill) and every week we pick a winner. The prize is an H2O dinner-for-two experience — once normal operations resume — at the chef’s table, that coveted VIP dining spot in the kitchen where you get special attention from the head chef and where the tastings are private and more select. It’s a fun way to get customers excited about ordering our products, and getting them engaged on social media helps spread the word about our latest offerings.
  4. Repackage holidays
    Easter brunch is traditionally one of our most-popular events at the Hilton. We were determined not to cancel this most-beloved activity just because of the restrictions, so we came up with a workaround for this April. To serve our many locals, we put a sophisticated twist on classic Easter baskets, filling them with delectable, locally sourced cuisine from our chefs. These to-go meals — we called them “Easter in a Basket” — were a really big hit! And while the adults were able to enjoy the fine dining selections we came up with, the kids ended up with free Easter meals of their own.
  5. Support other local businesses
    As part of our commitment to support our farmers and local business in general, we’ve made a commitment to buying only all-American products. All our wagyu beef is 100% purebred American. We use only local seafood. Our olive oil is sourced from Georgia and our cheeses and cured meats are from various parts of the South. In addition, all of our breads are freshly baked in a local Florida bakery.
  6. Sell gift cards
    One simple way to help hard-hit small businesses is to encourage people to purchase gift cards from those establishments. Our customers can purchase gift cards for future dining in the restaurant — including the chef’s table — once we get back to normal.
  7. Offer cooking lessons
    I noticed recently that some of the guests buying meats from our new butcher shop were concerned that they didn’t know how to properly cook a nice wagyu steak at home. So we decided, why not teach our customers how to cook? When patrons come by to pick up their meals, one of our chefs will show them a few cooking techniques and explain the best way to enjoy these products from how to prepare them to the best wine choices to pair the meal with. You also can easily share tips like this via social media, so your followers can learn while cooking at home.

Who knows when we will return to normalcy, and what normalcy will even look like then. It is our hope that everyone in this business emerges whole on the other side. We remain positive that the world is on hold for only a short, necessary period of time, after which the brighter days will come. As we on the restaurant team have been saying lately, we will dine together again, and the wine will be flowing.

Chef Omar Torres joined the team at Innisfree Hotels in 2019, becoming Director of Food and Beverage and Executive Chef at The Hilton Pensacola Beach. Since his arrival, he has transformed both the menu and the culture of the restaurant. “I love the culture of cooking, and traveling around the South is where you find the real food…the good stuff. Southern hospitality is amazing.”

Known for his creative dishes, Chef Omar harbors a personal and professional goal of uniting the community of farmers and artisans. One of the first things he did in his new role at H2O was to source local cheese, honey, and cured meats, as well as a local craft bakery. Even his extra-virgin olive oil comes from the South.

A native of Puerto Rico, Chef Omar has spent much of his adult life in Florida. He graduated early from high school and studied hotel restaurant management at Valencia College, in Orlando. During the first part of his culinary career, he served as a supervisor at the Hard Rock Cafe Orlando and as head chef in the Arena Club for the Orlando Magic. His subsequent assignments have included the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes, in Orlando, and the five-star Ritz-Carlton Naples, where he worked with Executive Chef George Fistrovich. At the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, Chef Omar studied under Master Pastry Chef Francis Metais. He also has served as food and beverage director for the Marriott Autograph Collection of upscale and luxury hotels.
A lover of aviation, Chef Omar once considered pursuing a career as a pilot. Now situated on the Florida Panhandle, he has a great appreciation for the beach lifestyle. “There is more culture here, more heart,” he said, “and less traffic.”

Source: Thanks