Reservations at New York City’s Cote Korean Steakhouse are hard to come by and that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The concept’s only been around since 2017, yet it has already garnered a Michelin star and several accolades from the James Beard Foundation.
The brainchild of restaurateur Simon Kim, Cote opened as Americans’ demand for Korean cuisine began a sharp ascent. It was fortuitous timing, perhaps, but – like most concepts – that momentum came to a screeching halt in 2020 when the pandemic gripped the city.
Cote reignited its energy quickly, however, both by leveraging that demand and by translating some of its experiential features to off-premises occasions. In a recent interview, Amy Zhou, director of operations, said the pandemic made the concept stronger, and smarter, than before.
"We have so many ties to Asia and had been seeing what was happening in China and Korea in those early days of the pandemic, so we knew a shutdown was imminent and had been planning carefully for that," she said. “We have the highest quality steaks, and we grill them right in front of you tableside, so it’s kind of like dinner and a show. It’s very exciting. For us, if you can imagine a restaurant that does tableside grilling, we really had to think outside of the box.”
The first thing Cote did was offer takeout, including its signature wine list and cocktail program. Zhou said it was important that every takeout order come with some sort of service component like, for example, a handwritten tasting note for orders with drinks. Cote also built an outdoor dining area and made sure the space could enable tableside grilling. And, it partnered with Goldbelly to offer national shipping, with products like its Butcher’s Feast for four and dry-aged ribeye. Delivery with third-party aggregators was also added to the mix, and Zhou said the channel now generates over $1 million in annual revenue in its New York location.
“So, we have three additional revenue centers still. Coming out of the pandemic, after we figured out how to balance all of these additional revenue streams – and it was difficult in the beginning – but when we figured out how to get that capacity, we were quite easily doubling what we had done prior to the pandemic in terms of revenue,” Zhou said. “It’s a good problem to have.”
That “outside of the box” thinking also led to Cote’s wine club. Zhou said Cote’s wine club, however, is a bit unique in that it is focused on quality over quantity and the measure of its success is with its waiting list versus membership numbers. Membership includes three bottles of wine a month, curated by Cote’s award-winning sommeliers, priority access to events, pairing suggestions and other educational resources.
“We’re working with producers who may not have the capacity to send their wines to thousands of members and that is intentional. We wanted to partner with grower/producers that don’t just turn out bottle after bottle because we wanted to make sure that it was also an experience,” Zhou said. “It wasn’t just restaurants and food that people were missing, it was that interaction. So, the wine club isn’t just about the product; we wanted it to be a continuation of everything that we already do in the restaurants.”
Zhou said the club’s membership has tripled since its launch in 2020, and the waiting list “far outpaces” the membership list.
All told, Cote now has a solid playbook that includes successful case studies from its pandemic pivot, and the restaurant pulled pages from that playbook to open a second location in Miami in 2021. Meanwhile, the concept continues to add even more pages. For instance, Cote is currently working on ways to iterate its delivery program, including a reexamination of its packaging.
“Our delivery channel opens up our market beyond our restaurant walls and so it has become a priority. That first impression is everything. Steak is a very expensive product, and we want it to be delicious and hot when the customer receives it and we also want to make sure the experience of unpackaging it is delightful,” Zhou said. “But packaging is also extremely wasteful, and it can be difficult to get that balance between a compostable product that also looks and performs at a high level. So that’s what we’re focused on now.”
Cote is also focused on special events – which Zhou called its fastest-growing sector and “the biggest revenue center we are looking to invest in.” Cote’s events team has grown from one employee to three in the past few years.
And, it’s worth noting, Cote isn’t done growing. Cote’s New York and Miami locations have paved a solid path for several more openings and, though nothing is in ink at this time, Zhou said the goal is to have a presence in “pretty much every major city in the United States,” or about a dozen or so new locations.
“Over the years, we’ve seen other operators get into this segment and there are a lot of people interested in putting out this type of concept. We want to continue being the best and are focused on what we’re doing internally,” Zhou said. “Right now, it’s really about setting the foundation and sourcing the best product, working with the best vendors, having the best team, the best of everything. Then we’ll be able to continue expanding."
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]