In January, the idea of going through a restaurant drive-thru and picking up not just burgers and fries but also a gallon of milk and a bunch of bananas would have seemed ridiculous.
However, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, that might just be in our future.
“If grocery items become something that is resonating with our consumers, then we’ll continue to do it,” said Tony Darden, president of 83-unit Mooyah Burgers Fries and Shakes, based in Plano, Texas.
Mooyah franchisees saw that their customers were having trouble getting staples like bread, potatoes and ground beef in supermarkets, which suddenly saw a surge in demand they were struggling to meet. So like many restaurants, they started selling the ingredients that were being delivered by their suppliers, as well as the chain’s house-baked buns, as groceries to their guests. Darden said it generated enough sales that it was worth franchisees’ efforts to do it, and also fulfilled a need for their communities.
Grocery sales have been one of three main food innovations that restaurants turned to in the face of sudden declines in traffic and the closure of their dining rooms. The other two were family meals — packages of a large enough entrée and enough sides for between four and six people ready to take home and reheat — and meal kits, which required some assembly, reheating or light cooking once guests got them home.
Operators say all three of those new offerings are likely to remain fixtures at restaurants in the post-pandemic world, and other innovations are afoot as well.
Marc Falsetto, the founder and CEO of Handcrafted Hospitality, which operates six concepts in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has set up a sort of bodega next to a beachside location of his Tacocraft concept, through which he offers a takeout grab-and-go menu as well as well as groceries such as tomatoes, avocados and hot sauce, plus large-format cocktail and bottles of alcohol and beer. His Henry’s Sandwich Station started offering its meat and cheese by the pound, as well as tomatoes, avocados and onions, and he sees no reason why he’d stop offering those items.
“We’ve had tremendous success with that,” he said.
Meal kits have been everything from the At Home Taco Bar that Taco Bell introduced in early May — including enough flour tortillas, taco shells, chips, seasoned beef, shredded lettuce, nacho cheese sauce and hot sauce packets for six people, all packed and sealed for use at home — to California Pizza Kitchen’s more labor-intensive Spring Meal Kits, which feature a choice of raw beef, chicken or salmon for guests to cook at home and serve with spinach-and-artichoke dip, sourdough bread, Caesar salad, raw fingerling potatoes and oil to cook them in and, for dessert, butter cake and ice cream.
Kids’ pizza kits have also quickly become a favorite subset of the meal kit genre, and it is now an option at Mici Handcrafted Italian, a six-unit fast-casual pizza chain based in Denver, that CEO Elliot Schiffer wouldn’t think of getting rid of once dining rooms open again: They sold more than 2,000 of them, at $5.99 apiece plus $1 per topping, in the first three weeks that they were available.
“What we’re realizing is we probably should have had this all along,” he said.
In terms of family meals, Chicago-based multi-concept operator Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises has introduced a new service called Lettuce Take Care of You, for which customers can order three meals — each for a family of four — for the week and pick them up at curbside.
Executive partner Jerrod Melman said guests order them online and then call the restaurant as they’re driving up to the curb and describe the make of their car so they can be found easily.
“We can get almost 200 meals out in 20 minutes. It’s pretty amazing,” he said. They’re all packaged and bagged and contain reheating instructions.
Then there are the more out-of-the box innovations that likely never would have happened without a government-mandated lockdown, like the virtual cocktail classes being conducted live on Instagram by Alex Fletcher, the beverage director of Jaxon Beer Garden, which had the unfortunate timing of opening in early March.
Owner Kevin Lillis sees them as a way of keeping his guests engaged — something that’s a good idea whether your dining room is open or not. So are virtual cooking classes, which he’s planning to introduce.
Everyone would get the same meal kit, “and then the chef comes on and we all make it together,” he said. “That’s absolutely something that we’re going to be doing.”
Photo: Henry’s Sandwich Station started offering its meat and cheese by the pound, as well as tomatoes, avocados and onions.
Lillis also has a food hall in the works adjacent to Jaxon, the opening of which obviously has been delayed, but next to the food hall they’re planning to have guest chefs in residence, and Lillis is now planning to introduce virtual cooking classes to build excitement before their residencies — something that wouldn’t have occurred to him without the innovation that the pandemic has made necessary.
“Social distancing has been the opposite of what my focus has been my whole career, and what our company is focused on doing, which is bringing people together,” he said. “[But] it’s helped everyone get more creative as to what it is to spend time together.”
The structures of menus are likely to change a bit going forward. Delivery menus will likely include family meals that may or may not be a dining room option, but will include less fried food, which with the exception of fried chicken tends not to travel well. Adam Hegsted, chef-owner of the Eat Good Group, which has 11 restaurants in eastern Washington and northern Idaho, said dishes like risotto and paella also are bad ideas for delivery, and beautiful plated dishes like seared pork belly are reworked into sliders for takeout.
You might also expect less beef on the menu for a while as pandemic-related processing plant closures have disrupted supply.
Similar disruptions in the pork and chicken are likely to be short-lived because chickens can be produced in as few as five weeks and hogs from insemination to harvest take just under nine months; current bacon shortages are related to supply-chain bottlenecks, not actual shortages, according to the National Pork Board.
But it takes around three years to make beef, and the fact that processing plants aren’t currently buying cattle has resulted in fewer of them being placed on feedlots for fattening, which could result in rising prices in the medium term.
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