Small Restaurants Forced to Innovate Takeout, Create New Revenue Streams to Survive the Pandemic
Independent restaurants are dying. Every time I go to the grocery store, I drive by our now permanently shuttered British pub, Temperley's. It was the first place we adopted as locals when we moved to Panama City Beach, Florida. Sitting at the tables covered with red-checked vinyl tablecloths surrounded by quotes from famous Brits, smelling the beefy pot pie baking, and seeing Mr. and Mrs. Temperley working side-by-side in the kitchen is an experience I will never have again. They are just one restaurant to fall to COVID-19, but they are not the only one.
Small, locally-owned restaurants are in danger across the country, but especially vulnerable in a Gulf Coast town ravaged by Hurricane Michael just two years ago. Back Beach Barbecue (BBB) is a family-owned and operated spot off of Highway 98 between Panama City Beach and Destin. Locals know this is the place to get BBQ. As the pandemic widened and regulations tightened, BBB went to curbside pickup only, hoping to weather yet another storm.
Locals pulled together to support the restaurant. The parking lot is often full of patrons in their cars, waiting for their orders to be ready. Their barbeque is the stuff of legend in this area. The owners spent time in Austin, Texas studying barbeque culture, soaking up all the smokey secrets. The takeout is fantastic — vinegary collards with a hint of heat, potato salad with just the right amount of mayo, brisket you can smell roasting from a mile away, chicken smoked so slow the meat falls off the bone. It is good.
Reinventing Required for Small Restaurants
But, takeout is not the most interesting thing happening at BBB. Locals have started a pseudo recipe club. They buy their proteins from BBB, and then transform them into something definitely not barbeque. One man buys smoked brisket for his homemade ramen, another gets pulled chicken for her enchiladas, another uses their pulled pork in her mu shu pork, but maybe the tastiest riff uses their signature collard greens.
Pitmaster and dear friend of owner Danny Cosenzi, Shane Kirkland cooks up his grandmother's family recipe for spicy collard greens which involves "...cooking down some bacon and garlic until crispy, really crispy, a lot of crushed red pepper and some secret ingredients."
For Cosenzi, who made it through Hurricane Michael and is faring well in the pandemic, it is about giving back.
"The idea of helping people for me is awesome. I love to do it, but I never know the right approach. It was easy with the hurricane," Cosenzi said. "We were able to use hot boxes and bring meals to those areas that were devastated. But, I keep thinking there's gotta be ways to create partnerships with the community. Dropping off food to the police department is important, but there's something more we can do."
This attitude and the outrageous food have made BBB a part of the fabric of the community. There is a feeling of family as you enter the screen door of Back Beach Barbeque. Like generations of cooks, BBB customers are sharing and passing on their family recipes that incorporate BBB's signature dishes.
The Global Restaurant Response to COVID
Across the country, and really across the globe, we are seeing innovations in takeout as owners and loyal customers work to save their independent restaurants. There is a restaurant in Tel Aviv, Ha'Achim, that added a grocery marketplace filled with amazing produce, grocery items, and ready-to-serve or heat-up meals, as well as recipe cards for some of the dishes paired with ingredient kits.
Closer to home in Woodstock, Georgia, Rootstock and Vine is serving up "Mommy and Daddy Survival Kits" to help customers navigate family meals at home when the question, "What's for dinner?" plays on repeat a little too often.
A little further north in Boston, Clover Food Lab changed their model, and the transformation is here to stay. Clover Meal Boxes started as a response to COVID-19, but after some reflection, the owner, MIT grad and environmentalist Ayr Muir, decided he will keep the meal boxes even as restaurants begin to reopen and resume regular hours. There is also a very cool surprise in each Clover Meal Box — a little something from an area farmer, producer, or chef Clover loves, to help bring attention to the independents out there trying to survive. They call it a colab.
From Clover Food Labs: "What comes in a box? There are 6 year-round meal boxes plus 1 seasonal meal box; each one includes everything you need to put together 3-5 full meals, 1 hearty snack, and 2 desserts. Most items are heat-and-serve; some require a bit of prep work (like slicing a tomato or heating up some bread). Each box comes with clear recipes for how to create the meals and how to store the ingredients."
Clover Food Labs distributes boxes three times a week, contactless, and all ordering happens via their app. They are merging the lines between ordering takeout and subscribing to a grocery service, and customers are liking it.
Out west, Restaurant Olivia in Denver, Colorado has also flipped their takeout options. Known for handmade, locally-sourced Italian fare, they have implemented a "Take and Bake" menu so customers can still enjoy a bit of Italy at home. You can order anything from a simple pan of lasagna or as complete as a full meal including a pasta kit, salad, bottle of wine, and cookie dough you pop in the oven.
'Too Small to Fail'
Independent businesses are the backbone of our neighborhoods, many family-owned, passed from one generation to the next. They are part of our extended family. They are the places we celebrate birthdays, get engaged, celebrate a new job and live life. And, clearly they are in a battle for survival, but don't count them out.
As these restaurants, and countless others across the globe have shown, they are fighters and we as their patrons must support their battle to survive. Order takeout, try a new cuisine, develop an innovation that keeps people talking about your favorite place, find a way to show your love because as David Chang said, "Restaurants are too small to fail."