COVID-19 hit the US restaurant industry like an unforgiving tsunami, and in the past three weeks alone, led to a loss of $25 billion and left more than 3 million workers unemployed, according to the National Restaurant Association. And while many restaurants have permanently closed, the NRA is also reporting that 54% of operators have temporarily changed their business models to off-premise.
Those who remain open, particularly those who have robust beverage programs, are finding that creativity, quick pivoting, a savvy use of technology and leaning into their local communities are essential tools that are keeping the lights on.
Sales of alcohol have skyrocketed over the last few weeks in the United States, and restaurants offering easy beverage options, sometimes on their own and sometimes, to go along with their food pickups, are seeing a dramatic response.
Many jurisdictions require restaurants to sell food along with alcohol.
“’Pivot’ used to be a basketball term, but now I've adopted it as my mantra,” said Joe Printz, owner of DVine Bar and DVine Pie in Sparkill, N.Y. “And as the information constantly changes, we've had to reinvent the dining experience to take away and curbside pickup.” Most of his staff have gone on unemployment, but he’s kept a core team on to continue operating.
At his fine-dining concept, DVine Bar, Printz quickly reduced his prices and upped the entrée portions to spark interest. Cocktails are now being sold in quart containers, yielding four drinks, for $30, and since he also owns the wine shop next door, guests can simply order bottles and pick them up along with their food.
Printz has also been making soup and meals for local health workers.
“My advice to anyone restructuring their restaurant is to give as much to your community as you possibly can, and it will come back to you — maybe not immediately, but it will,” Printz said.
In Seattle, Alexandra Stang, beverage director for the Hitchcock Restaurant Group, has seen a flourishing group of six restaurants quickly winnow down to two that remain open. “It’s been a scary and heartbreaking last few weeks, but with a meaningful punctuation of hope, inspiration, and gratitude,” she said.
Along with adjusting food operations to sell and deliver products from local farms and creating $100 8-week subscriptions for produce boxes, Stang and her team have developed new ways to make personal connections with their guests who are looking for interesting beverage explorations.
Stang created the “Pandemic Wine Club” which has had overwhelming interest. Customers contact her via email, or direct message on social media, and she gives them phone consultations to create customized wine packages. The wines are pulled from the restaurant group’s cellars and sold at retail pricing levels, as opposed to the traditional, much higher, restaurant markup.
“The beauty of the PWC is that it’s personalized,” Stang said. “I guide them to things they’ll love based on their desired price point and style preferences, and folks are clearly glad to connect and have a little interaction during this period of social distancing. It’s just nice to have a conversation about wine and give them something to look forward to.”
Restaurant and bar operators have also had to make unprecedented decisions about hours. In Tacoma, Wash., many restaurants were trying to stay open every day, which became untenable, leading many to close altogether. Instead, at The Table restaurant, general manager Trevor Hamilton and his partners decided to operate a 3-day per week schedule. On Wednesdays, they offer a to-go menu that guests sign up for the day before and pay via Venmo or Paypal. Thursdays are devoted to serving free meals to locals affected directly by COVID-19, and on Fridays, they operate a pop-up wine shop. All offerings are communicated solely through Instagram, and they are currently selling out their food offerings in about an hour. Additionally, they’ve been donating all gift card sales to their unemployed staff members.
“Limiting take-out to one day a week has been great for us,” Hamilton said. “We sell that out each week, keeping a steady cash flow, while not oversaturating the market. We as an industry have to get more creative in the coming weeks and months. We have to generate income without just selling a product. We still have to be hospitable, and doing that without guests in our restaurants will be a challenge, but something we will adapt to.”
Many customers are not only buying alcohol to accompany their to-go meals, but also to stock up their pantries.
“We’ve been selling a lot of wine by both the bottle, as well as the case,” said Sennen David, executive beverage director for Ethan Stowell Restaurants in Seattle. “It turns out that a stay-at-home order leads to a lot of people wanting to bolster their home supply. There have been many nights where people have picked up a case of wine with their food order, and nights where alcohol sales have outpaced food sales.”
At their restaurants, David ensures that pricing for take-away wine is done with the best interest of their guests in mind, as opposed to putting profits first.
“If we can save people some money while providing them with a worry-free experience, then that seems the correct form of hospitality for our community at this moment,” he said.
New York City has been hit extremely hard by COVID-19, to say the least. But creativity and resilience abounds. Sother Teague, beverage director at Amor y Amargo, has been running a boot-strap operation by himself to just stay relevant and sane. He’s also a partner in a number of other bars who have now combined offerings to open “a lemonade stand” three days a week. Teague is selling not only regular 750-milliliter and 1-liter bottles of spirits for pick-up and delivery, but also pre-making cocktails in 100-ml flasks for $15 and 200-ml flasks for $25.
“It’s been tumultuous, and I’m very anxiety-ridden,” Teague said. “But I’m trying to serve our neighborhood, and to keep our operations in people’s minds.”
Most guests buy at least four cocktails each, he said.
In Seattle, owners Chris Elford and Anu Apte have also gotten crafty by offering take-home cocktail kits at their tropical-themed bar, Navy Strength. Staying with “the narrative” of the operation, they’re currently serving spam sliders and making tiki-themed kits that contain a 750-ml bottle of spirits, a vacuum-sealed bag of pre-mixed sweetener and citrus, garnishes, and a printed recipe. The kits, yielding 10 drinks, are $36 and are sold online. Patrons pay in advance and select an exact pick-up time, allowing for quick 15-second hand-offs.
Navy Strength encourages guests to take pictures of their homemade drinks and post them on social media, tagging the bar. So far they’ve had nearly 70 people do so, leading to a sense of connection, and a little organic marketing.
While nowhere near normal sales levels, Navy Strength is making just enough to make ends meet by selling on Fridays and Saturdays from 3 pm to 6 pm. The first week, they did $1,500 in sales, and last weekend did just over $5,000, with no labor cost.
“For us, every bottle that’s in our inventory is money that we’ve already accounted for, so we’d rather liquidate our inventory and get the money in the bank. We love what we do here, and we’re just shooting from the hip to be as creative and positive for our guests as we can,” Elford said.
For our most up-to-date coverage, visit the coronavirus homepage.
Learn lessons in leadership during a crisis from our panel of experts on Friday, May 1.
David Flaherty has more than 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry. He is a certified specialist of wine, a certified cicerone and a former operations manager and beer and spirits director for Hearth restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in New York City. He is currently marketing director for the Washington State Wine Commission and writes about wine, beer and spirits in his blog, Grapes and Grains.