You are here

THE BROAD VIEW

To stay afloat, the restaurant business in US clings to 'contactless delivery'

For thousands of eateries, ordered to close their dining rooms to slow the spread of the coronavirus, this may be their only chance to stay open and avoid wholesale layoffs

BT_20200321_MLRESTO2176RJ_4066625.jpg
Amelie Kang of the MáLà Project restaurants in Manhattan, New York, loading packages of her new "quarantine food" on March 15.

BT_20200321_MLRESTO2176RJ_4066625.jpg
A server preparing a to-go order at Sugarfish in Beverly Hills, California on March 18.

BT_20200321_MLRESTO2176RJ_4066625.jpg
Jeff Schroeder, the general manager of the Publican in Chicago, taking an order for a packaged dinner on March 18.

LIKE workers in most other fields, restaurant people speak their own language. They talk about covers when they mean customers, sourcing instead of shopping, and cocktail programmes, which civilians would just call cocktails. This week, an eerie new term has rippled through the business: contactless delivery.

The concept is simple. The kitchen prepares food that is then boxed up and sent out to an address where a gloved messenger quietly deposits it at the door. The hungry customer and the person making the delivery keep a safe distance between them. It's not the kind of service with a smile that the hospitality industry prides itself on. But for thousands of restaurants across the United States, ordered to close their dining rooms to slow the spread of the coronavirus, contactless delivery may be their only chance to stay open and avoid wholesale layoffs.

From corner diners to world-class restaurants, operations focused on delivery and pickup have been adopted at a speed that shows how precarious their survival has become.

A new piece of equipment

Servers, hosts and other front-of-house employees at Sugarfish, a chain of 13 sushi restaurants in New York City and Los Angeles, have no tables to seat or water glasses to fill. So all Sugarfish employees who are not involved in food preparation have been reassigned as contactless delivery workers. Jerry Greenberg, the chief executive of Sugarfish's parent company, said he had made the change in order to keep all of his more than 600 employees on the payroll.

Some workers will be leaving packages of tuna, salmon and yellowtail nigiri at doorsteps across those two cities. Others have been learning to operate a piece of equipment that is new to most Sugarfish locations: a telephone.

"We're now taking phone orders," Mr Greenberg pointed out. "We haven't answered phones in our restaurants in quite some time," he went on, explaining that Sugarfish doesn't accept reservations and that all delivery orders were placed online until this week.

For restaurants, contactless delivery and its sibling, contactless curbside pick-up, are components of a new hygiene protocol that has been adopted alongside old routines, on the fly and despite advice from health departments that can be unclear, contradictory or nonexistent. Kitchens accustomed to worrying about the temperature of the walk-in refrigerator now check all employees for fevers. Gloves, once disdained by serious cooks, are suddenly a necessity.

Borough Provisions, a delivery service in Manhattan and Brooklyn started this week by Bien Cuit, a string of bakeries and cafes, and Joe Coffee, a roaster that also runs several cafes, has announced a detailed safety protocol. According to Kate Wheatcroft, the bakery's chief executive, it requires packers and drivers to wear masks, gloves and nonporous windbreakers that are sprayed with disinfectant each night.

Contactless delivery and pickup is "a very safe alternative, especially for those who are in high-risk groups for Covid-19, the older people with weak immune systems", said Benjamin Chapman, a professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University.

A greater challenge is protecting the cooks. "Practising social distancing in a kitchen is extremely difficult," Dr Chapman noted. He added that smaller staffs would help, and so would staggered shifts. Strictly monitoring the health of each person allowed into the kitchen is also vital, he stressed.

The telephone has come back in vogue at the Publican in Chicago, too. Employees there are taking phone orders for packaged takeout meals, along with boxes of provisions like cookies made by the corporate pastry chef, bread from the corporate baker and cuts of meat carved by the butcher shop upstairs. "We're trying to drive a lot of sales through the website and trying to get out the word to pick up the phone," said Paul Kahan, the chef and restaurateur whose One Off Hospitality company owns the Publican. "The old-fashioned method. As long as we're going to be quarantined, why not pick up the phone and talk to a butcher?"

There are reasons for restaurants to embrace the telephone that go beyond nostalgia. The device doesn't take a cut of each sale, unlike the big delivery services like GrubHub, Seamless and Uber Eats. Those fees, which can run from 15-30 per cent, rankled owners even when times were good. Now many restaurants would like to see them go away for a while.

And some of them have. DoorDash is waiving fees on pickups and for restaurants that are new to the service, while offering some reduced commissions to restaurants that already use it. Uber Eats has reduced fees to customers but not the commission it charges restaurants. Restaurants that choose to take a new offer from GrubHub can wait to pay their fees until the company decides the crisis is over.

"It's not really beneficial for us, because later on when we get back to normal business we would have to pay it back," said Amelie Kang, who owns two Sichuan restaurants in Manhattan with the name MáLà Project. They use Seamless and a host of other delivery services, and Ms Kang revealed that orders this month have been "a little bit overwhelming".

Starting on Sunday, Ms Kang and a manager began making certain deliveries themselves, ferrying what she calls "quarantine food" in their own cars to several neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn that are normally far outside MáLà Project's delivery range. Through a new website, homebound customers can order 12-ounce containers of beef or mushroom sauce spiced with bird's-eye chilies and Sichuan peppercorns, or containers of two milder sauces based on oyster mushrooms.

Demand has been brisk for a new product unsupported by any marketing other than a national state of emergency. More than 300 orders had come in by Wednesday morning. The sauces can be kept in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, Ms Kang said, and each will season about five portions of noodles, which she also sells and delivers herself. So far, she added, she has not laid off any employees.

Truncated menus

Forced to empty their dining rooms, many restaurants chose to go dark. Some have been selling off their inventory in events that strongly resemble fire sales.

Restaurants that are trying to stay open for to-go orders have had to scramble their entire routines. Menus have been truncated, simplified or torn up. Whole meals are easier for some kitchens to assemble than a la carte orders.

Prices have to adjust, too. The Publican is boxing up enough food for four people in meals drawn from what its website terms "greatest hits", like piri-piri chicken, summer sausage, fries, salad, barbecued carrots and cookies, all for US$16.95 a person. "Depression-era pricing," Mr Kahan said. "We just want to keep some cash flow going. Survival." NYTIMES