Pirani: The Restaurant Industry is Resilient, But It Needs You Right Now

A week ago the restaurant industry fell apart. It wasn’t long ago that we were making plans for spring menus, promotions and press. Dining rooms were bustling and the thought that we could be closed so abruptly hadn’t yet entered anyone’s mind. Today many restaurants in America, from small mom and pop shops to famed restauranteur Danny Meyer’s Union Hospitality Group, find themselves shuttered with their staffs laid off so they can claim unemployment benefits during this time of crisis.

I planned on celebrating my own 5-year-business anniversary this month to some degree; instead I too had to cut my staff, not knowing if my restaurants would be open next month. Currently some of them are not, and I don’t know when they will be coming back depending on how all of this continues to unfold. Those that are had to navigate a surge of terrible emotions, emotional layoffs and the entire reconfigurations of their businesses within days.

This pandemic will not only take lives, but livelihoods as well. I say this not to downplay the health crisis, but to bring attention to the ways I can at least contribute things I’ve seen happening in my world.

First, some recent facts from CNBC:

-The National Restaurant Association is forecasting sales declines of $225 billion over the next three months due to the coronavirus outbreak.

-The industry group is asking the federal government for financial relief for restaurants and their employees.

-The National Restaurant Association asked for a $145 billion recovery fund from the Treasury Department for the restaurant and foodservice industry.

(Tell Congress to Support Restaurants and Employees through Recovery, here.)

Restaurants also need rent/mortgage relief, staffs need paid-medical leave and free COVID-19 testing (but that’s just a start for longtime industrial change).

On the ground, the view is different. Restauranteurs don’t have time to wait for Congress and are doing everything they can to survive.

Delivery is happening, but I think it’s actually starting slower than it will become since the majority of people (at least in Orange County, Calif.) seem to have stocked up on things, based on how empty store shelves have been. When those supplies become depleted (or they get tired of the food), restaurants will hopefully (depending on distancing and shelter-in-place rules) still be allowed to open for takeout and delivery. That is when we will start to strive.

And, if the pandemic worsens, or it happens in waves as the Center for Disease Control says it might, more people will eventually begin to take this even more seriously, resulting in less trips to the store where people gather.

WHAT RESTAURANTS CAN DO:

1) Family Meals, Meal Kits & Quarantine Kits

 

If you have a handful of signature dishes on the menu that carry well, turn them into family style portions to-go. I’ve also seen great taco kits (with up to 20 tacos per package), pasta kits, build-your-own burgers and more from restauranteurs looking to provide the same excellent food quality to customers at home.

Another thing that’s working great is Chef Amy Lebrun’s Quarantine Kit at Lido Bottle Works in Newport Beach. She’s packaging a gallon of milk, a pound of butter and an ever-changing mix of proteins, farmer’s market fruits and veggies and more into $45 packages. The community response has been incredible.

One thing to avoid, I would recommend however, is getting too pricey with the offerings if you can help it. I know there are inherent costs to running the show and more importantly, surviving, but I can’t stress enough how important it is right now to get ahead of the curve in having the mindset that we cannot run as restaurants the way we knew them to be anymore, at least for now.

If we can push quantity in any and every way we can, let’s focus on getting people what they need in their time of need, especially if we head into recession (in an election year, during a pandemic) and spending becomes tighter. I don’t know the particulars of your business, but strive to find a balance in this regard if you can.

2) Restaurants as Grocery Stores

I’ve seen smart pivots from restaurants of all types, selling their sauces, components and even staples including fruits and vegetables, breads, pastas, rice, toilet paper and more for slight markups over cost but less than you’d pay in most stores. Again, it’s not optimal, but this is the kind of creativity we need in this moment.

3) Curbside To-Go

Touchless curbside to-go is here to stay for now. If you can accommodate for this, set up a web store or phone ordering system that will ensure people are able to get what they need from you without having to leave their cars. Craft House in Dana Point upped the comfort food quotient on their lengthy to-go menu even more, and they throw in a roll of toilet paper with each order, telling guests “You’ve Got Our Back, So We’ve Got Your Backside.” LOL.

4) Cocktails/Beers To-Go

In California, liquor laws were temporarily changed to allow restaurants to send out cocktails to-go if they’re sold in closed containers. I suggest batching out some classic cocktails and signature drinks that care well and pour over ice. Let’s also take a moment to throw the word Gallon-rita into the mix, because people wanna drink while they’re social distancing. If we can upsell in quantity (responsibly), let’s.

Some people are even starting to drink and dine in groups over video chat like they’re out for the night. The more we can provide comfort in the form of affordable, accessible, delicious food and drink during this time, the more they’ll turn to us.

5) Recipe Shares

People are going to be stuck at home for awhile and the best way to keep your restaurant on the top of their mind while they can’t eat out as often is to share one of your favorite recipes with them. It may not taste exactly the same, but when we’re able to go out again, bet they’ll be craving exactly what you’ve been giving them a taste of.

BONUS POINTS for walking them through the cooking on video. DOUBLE BONUS POINTS if you’re a legend like Orange County’s Father of French Cuisine Pascal Olhats, who has been sharing a ton of classic recipes on his personal Facebook page.

6) Take Care of Each Other

Over the weekend, a group of Orange County Chefs, led by Pitmaster Daniel Castillo of Heritage Barbecue and Chef Blake Mellgren of Craft House in Dana Point worked to feed 1,500 people who have been economically impacted by COVID-19. EATER LA and FOX 11 were some of the regional media to take notice of their effort. Remaining sandwiches were donated to Bracken’s Kitchen, an Orange County nonprofit kitchen and food truck that feeds those with food insecurity in their own neighborhoods.

At Angelina’s Pizzeria in Irvine, employees who are impacted by this can eat for free, and all service industry members will enjoy 50% OFF their takeout orders.

These efforts go a long way. The look on people’s face as they got free beer and sandwiches made the effort so very worth it.

WHAT CAN YOU, AS A MEMBER OF THE DINING PUBLIC, DO TO HELP?

Check in on your local restaurants.

It’s been suggested you buy gift cards for when things return to normal, but who knows when that will be? I would suggest making a list of your favorite local spots and visiting their websites, social media or making a call to see what they are offering during this time.

If you can patronize them for meals, or for components and supplies, please do as frequently as possible. They need you now more than ever.

With that in mind, a coalition of restaurants have created the GREAT AMERICAN TAKEOUT, Tuesday, March 24 with goal of having everyone who can do so to patronize a local restaurant in a show of support for the industry nationwide. We hope you choose your local favorite and show them you care!

Niyaz Pirani is the owner of Knife & Spork Public Relations, a restaurant social media and public relations firm in Orange County. He was a former food and entertainment writer, among beats, at the OC Register and OC Weekly.

Opinions expressed in community opinion pieces belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please email opinions@voiceofoc.org.