Independent restaurateurs have become smarter, more resourceful, more adaptable, and often humbler since the pandemic started. As we enter a new phase of challenges, they have new tools to adapt to the obstacles that they continue to face, with better marketing, more nimble operations, technological advances, a better understanding of their customers, and sometimes a new perspective on what they want from their restaurants and from their lives.
“I think we got out of our comfort zone,” said Michael DeGano, vice president of Denver-based Sage Restaurant Concepts, which operates mostly single-concept restaurants in 17 states. “We were able to sit back and reassess how we worked our restaurants.”
Here are five ways that independent restaurants have leveled up their operations in the past few years.
One of the most significant ways that indies have evolved is in how they reach their existing and potential customers.
“We’ve developed new ways of reaching people rather than waiting for them to come by,” said Sarah Cook, owner of Café Carmel in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif. She now sends regular emails to her customers announcing celebrations of bacon, National Sandwich Month, the restaurant’s new air purifier and whatever other news Cook can think of. The restaurant made its first Instagram post in December of 2019 and now has more than 450 of them.
“I think before it was very much people we knew and passing traffic” who came to the restaurant, she said.
Troy Bowen, owner of Noble Riot, a wine bar that opened in Denver in April 2019, reached out to customers during lockdown with virtual classes, for which customers picked up packaged food-and-wine pairings and then were walked through them via Zoom meetings.
Many restaurants stayed in touch with customers that way during lockdown, including the legendary Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, whose owners Ti Martin and Lally Brennan hosted virtual wine-and-cheese pairings during lockdown for people in New Orleans and surrounding parishes, with occasional nationwide tastings that required them to learn the complicated process of shipping wines to all 50 states (they got most of them, but not all). That process not only got the restaurant a new revenue stream, but also allowed them to stay in touch with their customer base across the country.
Because the “Zoom that saved Wednesdays” as they called it, was done via video, the Commander’s Palace team was able to loop wine, cheese and charcuterie producers from across the world to discuss their products during the tasting — something that wouldn’t have occurred to them before.
Other chefs continue to hold cooking classes via Zoom or their Instagram feeds.
Probably the biggest change in operations since the pandemic started is that restaurants that never would have thought of doing off-premises dining are doing it now.
DeGano of Sage Restaurant Concepts said chefs no longer insist that their food is intended to be eaten in a dining room.
“We don’t do our whole menu to go. In fact, we’ve been very purposeful about how we market and set up our to-go menus, which we were not doing before the pandemic,” he said. “It’s still a robust part of our revenue every month.”
And it’s also integrated into the restaurant; the host stands are now not only a place where guests are greeted, but also where guests and third-party delivery drivers get takeout orders.
“We’ve transformed the host stand to a multiuse function,” he said.
Hollis Silverman, founder of Eastern Point Collective, which runs two restaurants and a cocktail bar in Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, opened her first restaurant, an upscale new-American venue called The Duck and The Peach, in December 2020. Although intended to be a destination restaurant, it opened doing takeout only, “which was so nerve-wracking,” said Silverman, who is a veteran of José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup. “Because in a normal restaurant opening you plate the food the drink, you bring it to the table and you get to see the guest’s face, and you get to see the plates, so you know [what they ate and what they didn’t eat] or what the reaction was.”
With takeout, “you put it in a container and you send it out the door and then that is it.”
So she bought the most beautiful packaging she could — “Very expensive, but this was how people were going to get to know us,” she said. She included detailed instructions about how to reheat the food.
Menu development for takeout was also different.
“We would cook a dish, put it on the table, and let it sit for 30 minutes, and then we would taste it,” she said.
More fundamentally, all three of her concepts — The Duck and the Peach, an Italian osteria called La Collina, and a craft cocktail bar called The Wells — are all in one row and all operate from the same kitchen, with the main line, an open kitchen at The Duck and the Peach, cooking for both restaurants, although a back line makes La Collina’s pasta and does prep work.
The three venues also share one bathroom, a large walk-in fridge, an ice machine, and storage space, similar to a hotel, Silverman said.
“So you’re creating these different experiences for different people at different points in their week,” she said. Although the culinary staff is all the same, servers specialize in the space that suits them best, she added.
Lon Symensma, who operates ChoLon, Bistro LeRoux and YumCha, all in a row in Denver, also uses a shared kitchen, but he also cross-trains staff to work in the front and back of each restaurant, making them more valuable employees while also developing new skills.
At the beginning of lockdown Bowen of Noble Riot drilled a hole through the wall that the wine bar shares with Nocturne, a jazz-and-supper club operated by his business partner Scott Mattson.
“I ran an ethernet cable through there so I could connect our kitchens,” he said.
Soon his guests were ordering buckets of Nocturne’s fried chicken to take home with bottles of Noble Riot’s sparkling wine, “allowing us to give generous comfort food that stays hot and shows why pairing is important,” said Bowen, noting that bubbles and fried chicken are a great match.
He said that when the two concepts opened, they wanted to make very clear distinctions between them but soon they realized that their customers didn’t care.
“So we were actually a little more free to share food costs and share items that are on both menus, or elements that are on both menus,” he said.
An ethernet cable connecting kitchens is rather old technology, but independent operators have definitely upgraded their tech stacks in many ways.
DeGano said QR codes were a technology that appeared to have come and gone before the pandemic, but they were brought back to give guests contactless menus.
“Now they’re part of our everyday life,” he said, and customers, especially those in the younger generations, are on their phones anyway and don’t consider that kind of technology to be impersonal, especially since humans are still working the room and making sure everyone’s attended to.
At The Red Barber, Sage’s rooftop restaurant at the top of the Catbird Hotel in Denver, the team uses the Bbot software platform, which not only provides the menu, but also allows guests to pay without flagging down a server, improving customer satisfaction and cutting down on labor costs.
The platform also allows for easy menu updates and pop-up specials, which many customers, especially those aged under 40, find engaging and not impersonal at all.
“That’s a way that they connect,” he said. “For the guest that enjoys that, they are being interacted with [and] we don’t lose the branding or integrity of what’s going on in the restaurant.”
Veteran New York restaurateur Joe Isidori’s Arthur & Sons, which serves traditional red-sauce Italian-American food in the city’s West Village, points to three technologies that he said are game-changers. He uses Resy to take reservations, which allows staff to pay attention to who’s actually in the restaurant.
“We don’t even have a phone in the restaurant,” he said.
His point-of-sale system, Toast, allows servers to use hand-held devices to take orders, which go to a single monitor in the kitchen, eliminating lost tickets or other costly mistakes and expediting the customer experience because servers can process their payment as soon as they ask for the check.
“That also shaves minutes off the experience,” which in turn can add up to a whole table turn in a night, he said.
“Those two pieces of technology not only improve the customer experience, [but also] it helps our productivity model, which ultimately translates to a better bottom line for us,” he said.
And finally, third-party-delivery apps, which remain controversial in the industry, result in extra customers with relatively little hassle — certainly less than if Isidori and his team delivered the food.
“They saved us during COVID, and they help us interact now,” he said.
Arthur & Sons was founded because Isidori realized that his guests simply wanted tasty comfort food in a pleasant setting.
“Every time I became more and more creative, or every time I tried to tell a story through food that was very artistic, I really wasn’t giving people what they wanted. I was giving them what I wanted,” he said. A third-generation restaurateur, he said his restaurants have always been successful, but “not a restaurant for the people.”
“People were hungry for old New York, nostalgia, food that they loved done really, really well,” he said, and that’s what he’s providing at his newest restaurant.
Bowen of Noble Riot came to understand what his customers wanted during the pandemic, too.
“We recognized that the need to have social things with groups that were safe but also purposeful became high priority for guests,” he said.
So he introduced wine flight sessions that are led by a sommelier, but not walked through in the detail he might have done before.
“The sommeliers show you what the wines are about and then let people socialize and talk amongst themselves,” he said. “It’s kind of a self-empowered learning.”
That way if people wanted to talk about the wines they could, but if they just wanted to socialize over some wine they could do that too.
“They definitely wanted some safer, directed social situations,” he said.
The pandemic in general, and the period of lockdown in particular, has been hard for chefs and restaurateurs, many of whom had been so accustomed to working constantly that they didn’t know what to do when everything stopped
Ian Boden, chef and owner of The Shack in Staunton, Va., was one of those operators, and he, like many others in the restaurant business, has taken the time to rework his life.
Boden first opened The Staunton Grocery 17 years ago, when he moved to the town in central Virginia from New York City.
“I was a cocky 27-year-old asshole,” he said — an attitude that wasn’t particularly appreciated by the locals, some of whom continue not to support him, he said.
In fact, he closed The Staunton Grocery after five years and spent some time working in Charlottesville, Va., before eventually coming back to Staunton and opening The Shack in 2014, which saw success early on thanks to positive media.
“We were slammed constantly,” he said. “I was working 90-plus hours a week. Everything was insane.”
In fact, Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema had just given The Shack a glowing review as the pandemic struck and everything was shut down.
That shutdown turned out to be a good thing for Boden, and he recognized that.
“My parameters for reopening were: Everything needed to change,” he said.
“I mean, I started in kitchens when I was 13 and … I learned how to interact with people through the kitchen. I learned all my responsibilities. I learned work ethic, I learned how to communicate with other people … in the kitchen and I learned it in a time when the kitchen was super aggressive,” he said. “People wonder why I was such an asshole; you're a product of your environment 100%, and that was me. That was me,” he said.
Now the restaurant is open three days a week, Thursday through Saturday, and the kitchen staff also works for half of the day on Wednesday doing prep. They reduced capacity from 28 seats plus the patio to 24 seats with the option to sit outside if you want to. They serve 5-course prix-fixe menus with two turns per night, and Boden said their sales are about what they were when they were open six days a week.
The front-of-the-house still makes good money, “and my kitchen staff is getting paid like we’re open six days a week, but they’re working three-and-a-half days.”
Boden said the new situation is still weird to him.
“It’s nice to actually have a life. It’s probably saved my marriage,” he said. “It's [also] nice to be able to come to work and not have anxiety attacks, or not be freaked out about everything that's going on all the time and realizing that everything that goes wrong is going to be O.K. It was an awakening for all of us, I think.”
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]