As dining rooms closed, ghost kitchens for delivery and takeout-only were the investment opportunities for the year, even for smaller independent restaurants. Through ghost kitchen conglomerates like Kitchen United and Reef, brands like casual-dining restaurant Shimogamo were able to provide their food in a virtual format for the first time. Others created entirely virtual brands that only existed through takeout apps, like southern California restaurant chain Norms, which opened up virtual brand Zombie Burger Co. last fall.
Shared ghost kitchen spaces
We saw new and creative ways to approach virtual restaurants throughout 2020, including Nimbus: a female-owned shared space in New York City that combined a ghost kitchen with a coworking events space for cooking demonstrations and more. Similarly, Cali Comfort BBQ was in the middle of transforming their Southern California restaurant in January into a commissary attached to eight smokers that will each serve ghost kitchens throughout San Diego County by 2022. The rest of the space will be reserved for events and as a place to record their podcasts and videos.
Groceries and meal kits
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We never thought we’d see our favorite burger spot offering rolls of toilet paper alongside takeout orders, but the pandemic blurred the line between groceries and restaurant delivery. In the early days of the pandemic, restaurants began offering these essentials, like the Washington, D.C.-based Farmers Restaurant Group, which opened a virtual bodega offering packaged chicken salad, toilet paper, paper towels, wine, and beer last March.
Other restaurants got creative with packaged meal kits like New York City restaurant Northern Tiger, which started selling dumpling kits (with frozen dumplings, condiments and sauces) for delivery last May and Los Angeles’ Café Ugo, which put together a cannoli-making kit in May, satisfying a need for dessert and safe activities all in one.
To boost sales in times of hardship, many restaurants turned to virtual events like online wine tastings and cooking classes. The effect is twofold: guaranteed income for a struggling restaurant and a way to keep customers engaged when they can’t visit in person. Commander’s Palace, the iconic New Orleans restaurant, invited customers starting last fall to join in Wednesday wine and cheese parties, where customers will be sent charcuterie and wine ahead of the weekly chat.
During the height of the pandemic, many restaurants took advantage of loosened state liquor laws, many of which now allowed (either temporarily or permanently) alcohol for delivery. Restaurants could boost delivery and takeout sales by offering cans of beer, mini bottles of wine or even cocktails in a jar or sealed container. Cohn Restaurant Group in San Diego, for example, offered mimosa and margarita kits for Mother’s Day 2020 (along with flower bouquets and desserts) for mom.
Virtual cocktail bars
Combining the activity of a meal kit and the ease of alcohol delivery, Lettuce Entertain You and Three Dots and a Dash opened a virtual cocktail bar in Chicago last November, offering batches of classic cocktail kits for home delivery that comes with instructions and enough ingredients to make six drinks.
Virtual food halls
Everything was going virtual in 2020, including the once-crowded food hall model. Virtual food halls like C3’s virtual food hall, CitizensGO, launched last fall in collaboration with Lunchbox, which puts all of the Citizens brands (like Umami Burger, Crispy Rice, and Plant Nation) all under one virtual roof, so customers can pick and choose different meals from different brands all for one takeout or delivery order.
Think that not every type of food is suitable for delivery? Think again. A former Four Seasons Hotel chef created The Finishing Gourmet during the pandemic: a Los Angeles-based virtual steakhouse that takes all details into account to not sacrifice quality. They include complimentary chef’s knives in each order and a chef’s torch to finish off the crème brûlée and use resealable glass jars for many of the dishes, including sides, sauces and seasonings, and uses a “a patent-pending hot-cold delivery system” to ensure that food arrives hot and fresh.
Subscription meal services
Taking a cue from meal kit delivery and other booming delivery subscription services, some restaurants have captured the largely- digital COVID-era audience by offering restaurant-quality meals by subscription. Iron Chef Marc Forgione began using CookUnity Kitchen in early 2021 out of Brooklyn to prepare chef-driven meals that customers can order on a weekly basis. Coolgreens recently started offering a similar service with their salad menu out of the company’s first virtual kitchen.
Yurts, igloos and more: outdoor dining creativity
Throughout the summer of 2020, casual and fine-dining restaurants relied on streetscape dining to make up for the still-closed dining rooms. Beyond just taking their tables and chairs outdoors, many restaurants got creative to attract nervous customers. Curio in San Francisco opened an urban garden with silent movies and live music performances.
But once the weather got cold, restaurants had to get creative with heated tents, individual igloos and yurts and socially distanced huts. Some eateries even turned their outdoor solution into an experience, with The Publican in Chicago transforming their outdoor space in December into an urban ski resort with covered domes and a themed menu.
Drive thru fine dining
Drive-thrus are not just for quick-service restaurants anymore. St. Louis Ozark-inspired fine-dining restaurant Bulrush opened a park and dine tasting menu in August to bring their tasting menu experience (complete with Spotify playlist and live Zoom call with the chef) to the parking lot.
Resy also tried to bring the fine-dining drive-thru experience to life with a limited-time 10-course drive-thru in October, featuring the “Best hits” of popular fine-dining chefs, including Nancy Silverton and Mei Lin.
Automats of the future
Remember automats? With social distancing and contactless culture in place, the automat of the 1950s and 60s came back in full force during the pandemic. These automats were revamped for the 2020 crowd with sophisticated online ordering systems. The new trend came back to life at Automat Kitchen in New Jersey, serving comfort food from behind text message code-activated doors and at Daniel Boulud-backed Spyce, which reopened in November with an automated kitchen handling orders, called the Infinite Kitchen.
The need for contactless experiences sped up the arrival of the robot customer service and hospitality “helpers.” While Flippy the robot has been employed by multiple chains to take on kitchen tasks, Servi the robot from Bear Robotics is an autonomous food runner is an autonomous “employee” whose demand has grown tenfold since the pandemic began.
Advanced sanitation technology
Speaking of helpful robots, AI has also been deployed to help sanitize restaurants during the pandemic. In 2020, Ava Robotics created a roaming disinfecting robot that can automatically cleanse spaces with UVC lights. Even restaurants that did not choose to go the autonomous route, have installed smart UVC lights and advanced cleaners to help make customers feel more at ease.
Charity partnerships and community initiatives
With dining rooms closed, many restaurants turned to unique operations structures to keep their teams on board and their doors open. Community partnerships and charity models were popular with restaurants like New Jersey’s Ani Ramen House, which opened up two pop-up community “pay what you want” restaurants in April 2020 and Alma Cocina Latina in Washington, D.C. which used their restaurant to help refugee chefs prepare menus for seniors and other community members in need.
Restaurants in trouble turned to their neighbors for help with survival, like New York City’s Otto’s Tacos, which shuttered during the pandemic but was able to come back to life thanks to a ghost kitchen partnership with their neighbor, Mighty Quinn’s BBQ.
Mobile on-site COVID testing
While touchless thermometers and contact tracing became more common during the pandemic, TJ’s Seafood in Dallas and Malibu Poke in Dallas and Austin took that sense of safety one step further by creating SafeWork: providing proactive, weekly COVID-19 testing onsite for restaurant employees through an online portal. The actual tests are administered on property by medical professionals.
Meals on Heels
When San Francisco drag bar Oasis had to shut down their performances during the pandemic, the bar got creative by taking their performers on the road last fall to provide food delivery and some curbside entertainment for customers.
Blow up dolls and mannequins
Empty dining rooms look depressing and remind us of the “before days” of bustling restaurants. So why not fill up the dining rooms with mannequins like the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia or partner with Madame Tussaud’s to stuff seats with waxen likeness of celebrities, like Peter Luger’s creative stunt this February?
If you want to eat out in a completely safe environment, the only way to do that is in total isolation. Ett is a solo restaurant in the woods outside of Atlanta that launched in September and offers five-course vegetarian meals for one that you can enjoy without seeing a single soul (apart from the woodland creatures).