One of the most important lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic that has rocked the restaurant industry for more than two months is that off-premise is the key to survival. But if you’re not a delivery-focused concept and your restaurants are more about in-store experience than filling takeout bags, how do you pivot?
In day one of Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality’s Restaurants Rise webinar series, Bob Okura, vice president of culinary development and executive chef at The Cheesecake Factory, and Kaffee Hopkins, director of marketing at Georgia-based casual dining chain Marlow’s Tavern, spoke about how their brands pivoted to a 100% to-go business structure during the pandemic. Previously, to-go orders represented under 10% of sales for both brands, so changing on a dime over the past couple of months has been challenging for The Cheesecake Factory and Marlow’s Tavern during and after coronavirus recovery.
Here’s what we learned from the Menu Solutions for To-Go Meals webinar session on June 2, sponsored by General Mills and moderated by menu analyst and Nation’s Restaurant News contributor, Nancy Kruse.
Not every menu item translates well to takeout
Both The Cheesecake Factory and Marlow’s Tavern removed some dishes from their takeout menu over the past couple of months, as they pared down their offerings for a more off-premise friendly experience. Some items were removed because they did not sell well, or they had a short shelf life, but others simply did not travel well.
“A lot of foods don’t travel well so we’ll revisit some foods and if they’re not where we want them to be, we may not offer it,” Okura said, noting that The Cheesecake Factory ended up removing some 40 items from their menu, which they plan to bring back as dining rooms start to reopen. “We thought as we were preparing food to go, that it didn’t matter as much [as dining room orders], but it matters even more. When you’re preparing food now always make sure it’s the best it can be because it will be hard to get back to normal.”
Events are still possible in an off-premise world
Just because customers aren’t renting out back rooms for parties, doesn’t mean that events are completely defunct for a delivery-focused restaurant business.
“We started [our events offerings] with Easter because Easter was 30 days into shutdown,” Hopkins said. “We decided to do an Easter brunch and dinner and it was hugely successful with 830+ orders systemwide.”
Hopkins added that they later offered Mother’s Day brunch and Cinco de Mayo events during the lockdown.
It’s all hands on-deck in the kitchen
One of the toughest (and oft-overlooked) adjustments for a restaurant pivoting to off-premise business is how kitchen staff is affected. Both The Cheesecake Factory and Marlow’s Tavern had to make staffing adjustments to keep up with delivery demand and the constantly shifting pantry needs, since many vendors had run out of ingredients.
“We couldn’t afford to have someone on the fry station and someone on the sauté station, it became important to have a great cook that can do everything,” Hopkins said.
At The Cheesecake Factory, with lower staffing, their kitchens looked completely different.
“We had to completely adjust our labor grid just to stay alive,” Okura said. “We definitely had to multitask. Our managers went through rigorous training programs to learn cooking and more, and a lot of them had to step up in the kitchen when to-go business spiked. We usually have 12-20 live cooks on the line but under these conditions we were down to four to six.”
Don’t overlook alcohol sales
For most brands, one of the most popular menu trends (and bottom-line saving graces) during the pandemic was to-go alcohol sales. With many states lifting restrictions on alcohol delivery, operators were able to take advantage, and will likely keep alcohol on the menu as long as local law allows it.
At Marlow’s Tavern, although off-premise liquor sale bans were not lifted in Georgia during the pandemic, they were able to offer wine specials to their customers in Florida.
The Cheesecake Factory launched a happy hour to-go menu for pickup and curbside orders earlier in May, featuring beer, wine, and happy hour deals on appetizers.
“It was a spectacular success,” Okura said. “I don’t know how we will do it when we reopen our restaurants again, but this was a good move on our part.”
Experience is just as important outside the dining room
Even though the in-store dining experience is lost with an off-premise order, that doesn’t mean that customer experience goes completely out the window. Both operators agree that brands can represent themselves just as well with a takeout bag as they can in their restaurants.
“We strive to have world class hospitality [in all places] and you can still have that in the way you speak to customers on the phone or in how you do the curbside and how you greet them,” Hopkins said. “Those values translate when you do [off-premise].”
Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]
Follow her on Twitter: @joannafantozzi
This is part of special coverage of the Restaurants Rise digital summit taking place online June 2-5, powered by Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality. Register for live sessions or on-demand replays at RestaurantsRise.com.
Title sponsors for Restaurants Rise include DoorDash, National Pork Board and True Aussie Beef & Lamb. A portion of proceeds from this event will help support the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund from the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.