As COVID-19 continues to rock the restaurant industry – particularly the fine dining sector, where acclaimed restaurants like New York’s Mission Chinese and Gotham Bar & Grill have permanently closed — some restaurants like St. Louis-based, historic Ozark cuisine-focused Bulrush have tried creative options to boost sales. In August, Bulrush launched a “Park & Dine” tasting menu program for customers to experience while sitting in their cars.
Along with their other sales-boosting solutions like meal kits and a retail line of sauces and edible accoutrements, the Park & Dine experience was designed to appeal to customers looking for a safety-first fine dining experience.
“I had been joking about doing a drive-thru tasting menu for years,” Bulrush chef Rob Connoley said. “We modified our regular tasting menu to be durable for carryout and by keeping it in the car customers can relax in their own space and control their level of safety.”
The forage-forward menu, at $100 per person, remains mostly unchanged from their menu from before-COVID-times minus anything that would “wilt, die or collapse within 15 minutes” from the transportation or the summer heat. Dishes include a confit turkey thigh over hominy and foraged pawpaw on top of grits with foraged black mushrooms.
For the experience itself, customers arrive at or before the time of their reservation, check in and park in the parking lot. Customers can sit in cars, open their hatchbacks and many even bring their own tables and chairs. Using a colored flag system, the Bulrush staff can identify which cars need service: whether that’s to clear away dishes or bring out the next course. A staff member is also constantly walking up and down the rows of cars to see who has empty plates or needs anything.
But other than bringing out each course during the 60-90-minute meal, Connoley wanted to do more to improve the atmosphere and experience of sitting and eating in a car.
“Just carrying food through a window isn’t exciting so we upped the ‘fun-ness,’” Connoley added. “We gave them a link to our Spotify list and we added a live Zoom call so they can get the sights and sounds of the kitchen and ask me questions if they want, just like they would do if we were all in the restaurant together. […] You get that interactive relationship; we call it in-flight entertainment.”
They also provide each customer with a QR code to watch short videos of Connoley and their manager describing the history and foraging process behind the dishes and drinks that you can watch at your own pace and leisure.
This latest creative solution comes after Bulrush struggled for nearly six months of the pandemic. In March, they tried to stay open at first but soon closed and reopened for carryout in May.
After COVID numbers shot up in their area in June, they closed the dining room back down and relied only on meal kits and takeout, which worked well until revenues began to decline at the end of June. During the times they were closed, Connoley used his first-round PPP loan to pay his employees to do historic research on Ozark cuisine instead of having to resort to layoffs.
“That’s when we stepped back and looked at how to create a new experience that makes sense for these current times,” Connoley said. “We had some great up moments and we saw it go down to the point of scary and unsustainable.”
But now customers have multiple options to experience the creative historic Ozark cuisine from Bulrush. If the weather does not permit them to park and dine, the same menu can be ordered for carryout. Customers can also order pantry items that Bulrush uses in their dishes, like fermented hot sauce, a foraged barbecue rub, and strawberry vinegar.
Connoley said that each initiative has been rolled out with the goal of keeping their restaurant alive during one of the most difficult times the fine-dining restaurant industry has faced.
“So many fine-dining places have switched to sandwiches or pizza, which is okay but […] my customers want what I do otherwise Bulrush wouldn’t exist anymore,” Connoley said. “It’s about finding a way to make that work. COVID is not going away anytime soon and finding long-term solutions is important.”
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