Shirtless Delivery Drivers, a Maitre d' at Your Door, and Virtual Trivia Nights — Restaurants Find Ways to Offer Specialized Services to Appeal to Customers Amid COVID Concerns
The Homeplace in Catawba, Virginia served its last meals the weekend of October 17, and it leaves a large hole in my heart that I may never drive through the pastures and graceful oak trees lining the dirt drive to that restaurant again. It is an old farmhouse with a beautiful porch where you could sit in a swing while you waited for your table and maybe strike up a conversation with Appalachian Trail through-hikers, or couples on dates, or families with brand new babies.
I hold this restaurant close to my heart — a place where I shared dinner with my new mother-in-law years ago, a place where we celebrated my son's birthday, a place where I held my annual Yearbook Banquet, a place with the best fried chicken and blackberry cobbler served family-style with as many portions as you wanted — and it closed for the rest of 2020. It may reopen next year, but that remains uncertain.
This is just one place though, one restaurant, and there are so many more like it we will lose this year. Indeed, every day, news of more neighborhood restaurants closing permanently bubbles up. Still others are fighting on, trying to find ways to keep their doors open and their bills paid amid an uncertain future.
Dinner and a Show
Cassava in San Francisco is one of those trusted neighborhood eateries. Yuka Ioroi, owner and operator of Cassava, found a way to help her restaurant limp along through a suggestion from a regular customer looking for ways to make dinner easier while she was having to homeschool her kids.
Ioroi shifted to takeout and the DIY meal kits the day before San Francisco announced the lockdown with shelter-in-place mandates. But, the interesting thing was not the actual meal kits. It was the Zoom Trivia nights that came with them. Most people associate trivia with bars or certain larger, chain places, but Ioroi saw it as a way, "...to connect with people while not seeing them [in-person]."
Customers picking up the meal kits would also get a whiteboard, marker, and link to the zoom where Cassava staff ran interactive trivia. At first this was a fun activity that came with a meal kit purchase, but later Cassava offered them just for donations that went to help keep staff afloat while business was so reduced.
Protecting Employees, Protecting Business
As COVID-19 has persisted, Ioroi and her staff have innovated in other ways that align with health and safety standards. For example, Ioroi and staff test every 10 to 14 days for the virus, require health surveys for outdoor dining reservations, pay for Uber rides so staff do not have to take public transportation, and separate their tables outside more than the required six feet. They also did not open indoor dining, even though it was allowed in San Francisco earlier this fall. Above all, Ioroi does all this, "...to protect our staff."
Cassava has a roster of 17 employees, and together they speak over eight languages. This is the area Ioroi has started to really lean into as the pandemic stretches on.
"People want something that's comforting," and comfort food for one group may be different than comfort food for another, "My husband and our colleague from Yucatan have been exploring flavors and cooking techniques from Yucatan. Now we have tamales with heirloom corn and steak with spices from Yucatan in our meal kits. Also, my husband and our Filipino colleague were exploring pan de leche, which resulted in pan de leche hot dog buns and loaves for our ricotta jam toast."
By extending her menu selections to include some of the cultures present in her restaurant, and vicariously present in the surrounding neighborhoods, Ioroi is offering solace to isolated people who define comfort food as something more than pizza, hamburgers, or the usual takeout fare. They're also introducing these cultural dishes to an audience who may have never sampled them pre-pandemic.
Cassava is not alone in looking for ways to keep afloat as business lags. Just a couple states away, Canlis, a swanky Seattle restaurant, converted their parking lot to a drive-in theatre venue where customers can enjoy a film and gourmet meal in the safety of their cars.
And if you want something of an even more open-air experience, Luckey's Woodsmen in Bend, Oregon offers gourmet camping meals you can heat up over coals or on your camping stove. You order them online and then pick them up at select locations on the way out of town and enjoy a slice of in-restaurant dining in the great outdoors.
This is just a glimpse into how restaurants are transforming on U.S. soil. Across the Atlantic there are some pretty wild things going on.
A Different Kind of Delivery
Le Saint Sebastien in Paris, France is offering take-away meal kits with instructions and, wait for it, a Spotify playlist to recreate the atmosphere you would get in the restaurant. And if music is not enough, La Tour D'Argent, also in Paris, is offering something way out of the box — dinner delivered to your home by a brigade that covers every aspect of dining, including the ambience and maitre d'hotel, all sanitary and safe!
Imazushi, a restaurant in Anjo City, Japan takes the cake on innovation, in my opinion. Sushi chef and owner, Sugiura Masanori, set up a service he coined "Delivery Macho" where you can place an order and Japanese bodybuilders deliver your dinner, strip their shirts off — from a safe distance, of course — and pose for an eye-candy photograph. In Japan, no shoes, no shirt gets you service.
All of these ideas are fun to think about, but at the end of the day, they are all about independent restaurants going to crazy lengths just to survive. I hope bodybuilders, brigades, and zoom trivia nights save some of these vital neighborhood businesses, but I worry that even as restaurants reopen at partial capacity, it won't be enough.
Yuka Ioroi echoed this sentiment, "I also manage a merchant's association on my street, and the restaurant industry has been granted to at least partial business, but it's not covering the entire cost, and it may be five years before we can operate at full capacity again. I am not sure I can last another five years. But, there are other industries that have not been able to open for this entire time [in California] like the salons, massage places, and gyms. I feel like they don't have as strong a voice as restaurants." Artists, performers, musicians, and a slew of other creative industries are suffering, too.
We, the customers, are still the last line of defense for our beloved neighborhood business. Order takeout, buy gift cards, play some Zoom trivia, and keep supporting independent restaurants so we can look forward to a good meal there on the other end of the pandemic.