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filet_and_lobster.jpg Fleming's
Fleming's bets on curbside pickup to stay afloat during COVID-19 crisis while other upscale chains are closing temporarily.

Casual dining chains face difficult choices: temporarily close and layoff hundreds or bet on curbside pickup to survive

Bankrupt CraftWorks furloughs employees and temporarily closes nearly 340 restaurants; other casual dining chains hang-on to off-premise operations

As the COVID-19 pandemic escalates across the U.S., full-service restaurant chains have had to decide whether to close entirely until the crisis is over, or pivot to delivery and curbside carryout to survive , as well as provide meals to shelter in place communities.

On Monday, the Cheesecake Factory said its transition to an off-premise operating model during the coronavirus pandemic “is enabling the company’s restaurants to operate sustainably.”

Countless other casual dining chains are also leveraging their off-premise operations during the novel coronavirus pandemic, including Olive Garden, El Torito, Outback Steakhouse, Carraba's Italian Grill and Bonefish Grill,  Fogo de Chao, BJ's Restaurants and Lazy Dog.

Most are doing it with limited staffing, including Lazy Dog, which had to furlough some staffers. On Monday, owner Chris Simms launched Lazy Dog Pantry, a package of home essentials that can be purchased for curbside pick up. The $40 bundle of assorted grocery items includes chicken breasts, milk, eggs, onions, and toilet paper. 

Even fine dining venues are finding ways to make curbside carryout work for social distancing customers. More than 70 Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar locations nationwide are offering curbside pickup on everything from bone-in rib eye to filet mignon sandwiches. The chain’s parent company is Bloomin’ Brands

A location in Newport Beach, Calif is selling a three course filet-lobster dinner with 50% of select wines by the bottle.  (Note: California’s Alcoholic Beverage Control agency has loosened the rules so venues with beer, wine and spirits can sell inventories as carryout.)

BJ's Restaurants Greg Trojan said the chain's "off premise sales through takeout and delivery channels have increased as our guests are shifting how they enjoy our food."

However, he reminded investors in a Monday regulatory filing that the current environment is ever-changing. "Our focus is on continuing to drive growth in our off premise business while prudently managing costs. The number of restaurants remaining open may change due to the fluidity of the situation and changing ordinances."

Over the past week, jurisdictions around the U.S. have ordered residents to stay at home and not dine out at restaurants to contain the spread of the highly contagious novel coronavirus. While some chains have pivoted to curbside pickup, others have opted to temporarily close operations, resulting in thousands of job losses.

Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, which includes famed venues such as Gramercy Tavern and The Modern, chose to temporarily close his restaurants. That resulted in 2,000 layoffs.

Nashville, Tenn.-based CraftWorks Holdings also made the decision late last week to temporarily shutter 338 restaurants in 39 states. The company's portfolio includes Logan's Roadhouse, Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery and Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant.

CraftWorks, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this month, said taking care of its guests and employees is top priority. 

CEO Marc Buehler said: “Our hope is to reopen at a later date to be determined, and we hope to bring back as many of our team members as possible, We sincerely thank our millions of guests for their loyalty and are committed to treating our valued employees with compassion and respect – providing them as much support as we are able – during this uncertain time for us all.”

Industry watchers say many chains might not reopen if the government doesn’t step in to bailout the hospitality industry, which employs about 15 million service workers.

On March 18, the National Restaurant Association asked the Trump administration and congressional leaders for a $145 billion bailout. The “Restaurant and Foodservice Industry Recovery Fund” would provide targeted relief to the industry, whose sales are projected to decline by $225 billion during the next three months. 

Independent restaurant groups are also asking for monetary relief as the NRA expects 7 million jobs will be lost tied to the coronavirus crisis.

Contact Nancy Luna at [email protected] 

Follow her on Twitter: @fastfoodmaven

For our most up-to-date coverage, visit the coronavirus homepage.

Updated: This story has been upated with new casual dining curbside pickup details.

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