Considering the nature of the restaurant business, the ability to adapt has always been a key asset for successful restaurateurs. Right now, though, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages around the world, restaurants have been given a unique challenge: Adapt to delivery and takeout, or go under.
Last week, city of Dallas officials closed the city’s restaurant dining rooms abruptly, leaving Dallas restaurateurs little time to figure out how to stay alive during this crisis. The closures have meant reconfiguring menus, developing systems to deliver food hot and fresh in takeout containers, and trying to find new roles for front-of-house staffers who would otherwise be out of a job.
It’s been a particular challenge for restaurants whose offerings don’t lend themselves to takeout; not every restaurant can neatly tuck their offerings into Styrofoam boxes. At Niwa Japanese BBQ in Deep Ellum, diners grill top-notch meats at their tables yakinuku-style, making it difficult for owner Jimmy Niwa to replicate the experience for at-home dining. “I know it won’t be the same,” Niwa says. “I knew we could do bento boxes, but I didn’t want to. We wanted people to be able to bring a piece of this experience home.”
So Niwa’s restaurant is packaging its beef, sausages, veggies, and more into vacuum-sealed bags that keep the ingredients fresh until diners can grill them at home. Niwa was forced to lay off most of his staff so that they could apply for unemployment benefits, thanks to the government-mandated closure; but his restaurant’s running thanks to a skeleton crew focused on packing a limited number of to-go orders, ensuring that their version of at-home yakinuku still feels a little special.
It’s a problem facing restaurants across the country. In Los Angeles, even the most avant-garde and high-end restaurants are tucking everything from mushroom-topped toasts to congee in takeout containers; in NYC, restaurateurs are adapting with new menus and delivery vendors. At Khao Noodle Shop in East Dallas, owner Donny Sirisavath had to confront the takeout challenge creatively. Diners normally sit elbow-to-elbow at Khao, filling up the tiny dining room while slurping down bowls of boat noodles and sharing orders of Lao sausage.
Unfortunately, says Sirisavath, many of the dishes that helped put Khao on the map don’t exactly lend themselves to a takeout model. “We still have the hits on the menu, but some of them, we can’t deliver,” Sirisavath says. “They just don’t travel well.”
Before the novel coronavirus hit, Sirisavath didn’t even have takeout containers in his restaurant, and he had to scramble to find them once it became clear he’d have to shift his model. Part of his challenge was finding containers that would work well: They had to be sized correctly to ensure that the food didn’t have much room to jostle around in a delivery vehicle, and most importantly needed to retain enough heat so that dishes would arrive hot and fresh.
Instead of contracting with a third-party delivery apps like UberEats or Postmates, Sirisavath is keeping Khao’s staff employed by putting them to work delivering orders. Occasionally, Sirisavath himself serves on delivery duty. “When customers see the regular servers bring the food to them, I think customers recognize that. That’s why we have servers, to educate them about the food,” Sirisavath says. “I think that’s where the broken language happens in the food delivery field, delivery drivers from apps, they don’t work here, they don’t know about the food.”
Even though they’re making it work for now, both Niwa and Sirisavath are both looking forward to the day that they don’t have to offer takeout anymore. “Customers might have to readjust, again,” Sirisavath says. “We already know people are going to be like, ‘Oh, you got delivery now, huh? Why can’t I get this all the time?’ To-go is a good thing, but it might not work long term for our situation.”
And despite all the doom and gloom that inevitably accompanies a global pandemic, both Niwa and Sirisavath can already see a silver lining forming in Dallas’s restaurant industry. “I think a lot of people are going to have a lot more appreciation, especially for what the service industry does,” Niwa says. Sirisavath is already seeing that from the diners who stop by for curbside pickup and delivery orders.
“Everyone is scared, but a lot of customers have genuinely thanked us,” Sirisavath says. “It’s been heartwarming for me. That’s the kind of customer I want in my shop, the kind of people that care about everybody.”