Driving through eerily quiet Seattle on Friday, I tuned into an NPR interview in which a Dallas taco shop owner summed up the outlook for the country's restaurants in the face of the coronavirus pandemic: "Bleak." It’s a widely-echoed sentiment. Making the rush-hour trip in a fraction of the time it normally takes to cross town, I was on my way to see one of the only chefs I know who's offering a bit of hope.
When the world is not under siege from a deadly virus, Eric Rivera runs Addo, a busy restaurant with constantly changing offerings, from inexpensive homestyle Puerto Rican to high-end, multi-course meals with wine pairings. Now, though, as despair has seized other restaurant owners making the pivot to delivery and takeout only, Addo’s sales for the first two weeks of March were double the amount for the same period last year. Rivera had also doubled his staff to 10 since the beginning of the month and was looking to hire more. I wanted to find out why, and if he had advice for other restaurateurs in these dire times.
Rivera was born in Olympia, Washington to Puerto Rican parents and went on to work as director of culinary research at Chicago's avant-garde restaurant, Alinea. He and his restaurant were riding a growing wave of popularity going into February, when the coronavirus turned the industry upside down.
Across the country, restaurant sales took a nosedive. Shifts were shortened, then cut. Then the layoffs and closings began, each day bringing a new disaster. Tom Douglas, one of Seattle's best-known chefs, temporarily shut 12 of his 13 restaurants in the city and laid off almost all his staff. New York restaurateur Danny Meyer laid off 80 percent of his workers at his Union Square Hospitality Group in New York. After a March 17 White House meeting with representatives of national chains like Domino's and McDonald's, which largely ignored independent restaurant owners, Momofuku chef David Chang tweeted "We are so fucked."
Two days later, while publicly chiding Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler for questionable stock trading, Athens, Georgia-based chef and author Hugh Acheson, who has been forced to lay off 100 employees, tweeted "We are about to see a lot of places go broke forever." He followed it up on March 19 with, "Update on restaurant world: still fucked."
As cities went quiet, chefs who could began converting their establishments from dine-in to takeout. A week ago, I started looking for ways restaurant tech was coming to the rescue and found surprisingly little. Delivery service Grubhub announced $100 million in fee deferment to specific restaurants, an offer that sounded good but got worse when you dug into the fine print. Not only was it a deferment (instead of a fee waiving) for only a month, it obliged restaurants to use Grubhub for a year after signing up for the program. Delivery services are double-edged swords for the restaurants that use them even in the best of times, because they scoop up much, if not all, of a restaurant's takeout profit. For restaurant owners, Grubhub's faux-largesse was a gut punch at the worst possible time.
Rivera made the transition, shifting everything to pickup and delivery and using his own staff to make drop-offs, rather than signing up with one of the profit-eating delivery services. He made the seemingly unusual decision to continue to mix up his menu with different offerings almost every day. Meals now range from nine-dollar “bowls of food” (stuff like pork, rice, and beans; or pasta and red sauce), and $15 ramen, to a $45 pasta for two with a bottle of wine and a $105 Hawaiian feast for two. A couple times a week, customers can order a pack of three different meals to heat and eat at home. A wine club offers five- and ten-packs. There are a couple of lingering fancier offerings, but Rivera has effectively lopped off the entire top end of his menu.
Customers can also “pay forward” nine-dollar bowls, which Team Addo delivers to a local homeless shelter about once a week. On March 17, they hit 1,000 donated bowls.
Now, a couple weeks into the thick of the pandemic, Addo is doing better than when the outbreak began.
For as big of a change as this was for Rivera and his staff, the tech savvy that is now helping him succeed has been in place since Addo opened in 2018. For chefs who are willing to put in the work and make some more big changes, Rivera is providing something of a roadmap.
Some history might be helpful here. There have always been several different kinds of meals at different price points at Addo, depending on the day and time. It’s a lot to wrap your head around when you’re used to going to restaurants with menus that don’t change much.
Rivera’s plan starts with social media, which may mean a steep learning curve for chefs and their teams, or just more screen time to keep it up to date.
"Get an Instagram account, take pictures of your point of view of things, and just share what you're going through," he says.
While his @AddoSeattle Instagram account is mostly tiles of upcoming meals, @EricRiveraCooks has videos of takeout cartons and bottles of wine ready for pickup and some noodles emerging from a pasta extruder, along with screenshots of news stories on the plight of restaurants, and boxes full of kraft-paper food containers stacked up in the unused dining room. The artsy shots he favored before the crisis have given way to these more matter-of-fact updates and offerings.
(Rivera has Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts, in some cases more than one on each platform, and also spends significant money on social media advertising, but, you know, poco a poco.)
He also advises chefs to start using a payment processing system where customers order everything ahead of time. Addo’s team uses the Tock platform, where diners can pre-purchase their meals online, then just show up to eat (or now pickup) at the time they've selected. Crisis or no, an ordering system like this is a huge help for restaurant owners. They don't need to guess how many diners will be in on a given night. Chefs know how much staff they need for every shift. Food waste shrinks; Tuesday's unsold roast chicken no longer needs to be flipped into Wednesday's blue-plate special. In an industry where margins are notoriously razor-thin, it’s a godsend.
"It allows chefs to treat their offerings like retail items," Rivera says. It also eliminates cash and on-site point-of-sale transactions (with touchscreens and pens), and facilitates contact-free handoffs, critical in the age of pandemics.
Restaurateurs can also make the purchase as easy as possible by linking the social media posts to the sales platform. This allows someone to click on a Facebook post about a meal and be sent straight to the purchase page on Tock.
Something unique that coronavirus is bringing about is a shift in the kind of food that customers want and how they get it.
"Focus less on what you're used to doing and more on what people need. Think of the things that would be nice if you are sitting on the couch or need a little pick me up. Don't get too wordy or descriptive," he says. If ever there was a good time to branch out or go off brand, this would be it. "Plan on underselling and over-delivering and people will be really happy with that."
With Addo’s customers being home all day, Rivera and his crew are adapting to a big shift in the restaurant's schedule.
"The dinner rush doesn't happen at seven-thirty anymore. People want to pick up early and eat [at home] at the same time they normally do." This means Addo is in the thick of deliveries in the late afternoon. In the early evening, they shift into restaurant pickups.
Rivera sends two people out in each delivery vehicle, essentially a driver and a runner who communicates with the guest. Everything is paid for in advance, including tips, which are built into the cost of each item, so there's no contact at delivery, no cash, no paper to sign.
Finally, he suggests following up with customers. "See if there's anything else you can do or a service you can provide. Ask those types of questions on social media. You'll find out all sorts of new things to offer," he says. This week, Addo is planning to start selling pantry items and even Quick-E-Mart staples like toilet paper. There's no browsing—everything is delivery or pickup, everything prepaid. "They probably don't want noodles and red sauce every day, so mix it up, keep it efficient, and send it."
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