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Elizabeth Blau, founder and CEO of Blau + Associates, a restaurant consulting firm that helped put Las Vegas on the culinary map spoke with Bret Thorn about menu innovation during a pandemic.

Restaurants Rise leadership discussion with Elizabeth Blau focuses on a return to innovation

Blau and NRN’s Bret Thorn discuss ways restaurateurs can tap into creativity, resilience and inspiration to stay afloat during unprecedented times.

Before Elizabeth Blau arrived in Las Vegas in the 1990s, the city’s culinary claim to fame may have been $3 shrimp cocktails. It’s been a while since those limp shrimp days, but Vegas certainly wouldn’t be where it is without Blau, founder and CEO of Blau + Associates.

At the beginning of Restaurant Rise’s second round of sessions this summer, NRN Senior Food & Beverage Editor Bret Thorn made mention of Blau’s impressive work for the industry, and then got right into the conversation: the current “fight for survival for restaurants,” as Blau called it, drawing from her experience with her own farm-to-table restaurant, Honey Salt.

“The landscape that we’re in now is just really catastrophic, so what you can do is focus on your community and focus on your business,” Blau said. “We’ve had to be adaptable. Fortunately, we haven’t had to close Honey Salt. We’ve converted to more takeout, delivery and home meal kits; we set up a marketplace selling toilet paper and flour when those things were scarce. This [pandemic] is something I’ve never encountered in my career, and I hope to never confront it again.”

Making guests feel safe and secure has taken on a role in hospitality also never seen before, Blau pointed out: “I never thought I’d have to market my cleanliness, but that’s important for people to see.”

Thorn asked Blau about safety measures implemented at Honey Salt, and Blau mentioned temperature testing every day at building entrances, and extensive manuals from Vegas hotels outlining even more safety measures.

Also, Blau has a creative seating solution involving stuffed teddy bears.

“But we try to make Honey Salt warm and cozy,” she explained. “Our son is 16 and long past the teddy bear phase, but I reached out to my girlfriends and now we have a treasure trove of bears seated at the bar and in between seats for social distancing.”

On seeing the absurdity of it all: “You have to make it light,” Blau said. “The situation is dire. Natural crises…what happened in Beirut…we just try to provide a little good news within our walls.”

Speaking of within the walls, Blau said her heart goes out to her restaurant industry peers in cities where dining rooms are currently closed for COVID concerns. Patios can only go so far in keeping a restaurant healthy, she said.

“Patios are nice, and it’s nice weather now in New York, but winter will be here soon,” Blau said. “And in Vegas, it’s 104 degrees so you can’t eat outside then.”

Innovative at-home dining experiences are a way for restaurants to serve families with hospitality, just in a different way, Blau emphasized, pointing out her Secret Burger program, in which a mixed box of prepared ingredients and easy DIY menu items arrives as a whole dinner from the comfort of the customer’s home. This program is happening at about 20 restaurants Blau consults for.

Revamping menus so they can make the journey from kitchen to delivery at home is another area of focus in the restaurant survival game. Blau said she hopes sustainability isn’t lost in the packaging.

“We’re removing dishes from takeout menus that don’t travel well; as operators, we have to get creative,” Blau said. “We learned that if you put a steak at a certain temperature into a sealed container, it’ll continue to cook. Simple things like that. And we have to work with packaging [companies] so this pandemic doesn’t fill our landfills with the garbage of to-go packaging.”

On Honey Salt’s delivered meals “early on in the pandemic, we included a personal note on each delivery bag, letting customers know we appreciate them,” Blau said. “Around Easter we included a box of Peeps…something as simple and silly as that.”

“It’s basically extending the hospitality you’d give them in the restaurant through delivery, extending your warmth that way,” Thorn said.

Blau also spoke about serving the community by teaming up with organizations like food banks to feed those in the community who need it. Delivery with Dignity is Blau’s partnership with publicly and privately funded, volunteer powered “army of food heroes” that has delivered 125,000 meals to those in need to date.

“Being able to do good in the community also keeps our restaurants alive [by producing the community meals],” Blau said. “I’m incredibly proud of the team for that. These are meals cooked by our restaurant chefs. They’re not ‘emergency meals.’ When we deliver, you have masks and gloves, and you leave the food and then knock and stand back to make sure someone’s there. When you see the smiles on elderly faces and kids’ faces…it’s incredibly powerful.”

This is part of special coverage of the Restaurants Rise digital summit taking place online Aug. 11-13 and Aug. 18-20, powered by Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality. Register for live sessions or on-demand replays at RestaurantsRise.com

Title sponsors for Restaurants Rise include Campbell’s Foodservice, GrubHub, Idaho Potato, ShiftPixy, Wisely and Impossible.

Contact Tara at Tara.Fitzpatr[email protected]

Follow her on Twitter @Tara_Fitzie

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