"Pivot" was such a lovely word. Pre-pandemic, it brought to mind an effortless, even graceful, move or shift. But after March 16, there are few in the restaurant industry who view the word in the same way. Now it is simply equated with survival.
For William Espiricueta, chef-owner of Smok, a two-year-old barbecue restaurant located in the Source Hotel, the switch from packing picnic tables with diners to piling takeout containers with smoked meats and sides was an easy decision. “I probably have a different perspective from most because I already thought the industry was evolving toward fast-casual,” he says, referring to his move out of upscale kitchens like Acorn and Oak at Fourteenth to open Smok. The restaurant never missed a beat.
Instead, Espiricueta limited the expansive menu to the 10 best-selling dishes and dug into the conundrum of delivery services. (He ultimately, and reluctantly, went with DoorDash because of the fee structure he was able to negotiate.) Business has been good enough to bring back the full menu (with the exception of the smoked salmon, which is too expensive to carry), along with daily specials. Now Espiricueta has turned his attention to perfecting walkup service and maybe even delivery via the staff itself.“People still want that hospitality touch,” he says. “That note on the bag, that little bit of conversation from a distance. I want to be known as one of the restaurants that took this seriously and did it right,” he says.
Tommy Lee of Uncle and Hop Alley has also found a sweet spot in takeout.“We were lucky that we’ve been doing takeout and delivery since we opened. This wasn’t a huge adjustment for us,” he says. Even so, business is down 40 to 50 percent. Lee’s telltale calm comes through in his balanced approach. “My goal is to keep as many people as employed as possible,” he says. “But every day is like walking on eggshells.
”That push and pull is a sentiment Ounjit Hardacre, chef-owner of daughter Thai in the Riverfront neighborhood, and Citizen Thai Bistro in Lakewood, knows all too well. When the shutdown first hit, Daughter Thai’s dinner business dropped from between $6,000 and $9,000 a night to just $600. Still, Hardacre insisted on keeping as many of her kitchen staff as possible. With some shuffling of hours and menu items (“I change strategy every day,” she says) sales now average $2,000 to $2,500 a night. Because of her location on Platte Street, with no designated parking, she is forced to use GrubHub, UberEats, and DoorDash. Those delivery fees, which can reach as high as 30 percent per order, impact her bottom line. But, says Hardacre, she looks at the services as marketing and they get her food out the door and into the hands of customers.
The truth is, most restaurants are struggling to find their footing. Chook, an Australian-style roast chicken shop seemingly well-positioned to weather the pandemic, is down 40 to 50 percent but climbing its way back, according to co-founder and James Beard-winning chef AlexSeidel. Likewise, chef and co-owner Max MacKissock says Bar Dough is 50% to normal.
But out of duress comes innovation.“We are chefs,” says Seidel, who also co-owns Fruition, Mercantile Dining & Provision, and Fruition Farms and Creamery. “We adapt, we figure it out. We’ve been programmed to get through this.” At Fruition the takeout menu has grown to include add-ons like quarts of soup, jars of pickles and jam, and containers of yogurt from the creamery. MacKissock, who is the culinary director for Culinary Creative restaurant group, has also seen success in offering pantry items, as well as being creative with real estate. “We’re looking at how we can best utilize our space and expand our audience. If that means treating our kitchens more like ghost kitchens and doing other concepts out of there, so be it.” One such pop-up, Jabroni & Sons and its Italian-style deli sandwiches out of Bar Dough, has done very well for MacKissock and his crew.
At Comida, Rayme Rossello launched a menu of take-and-bake items like chicken enchiladas and fajita dinners for two or four, along with batched margaritas. These family-friendly meals can be collected curbside, driven home, and slid into the oven. Rossello has even delivered meals to designated neighborhoods in her hot pink food truck. “People go to a link on the website, preorder, and prepay and the truck acts as a delivery vehicle,” she says.
Kelly Whitaker, chef and co-owner of Basta, The Wolf’s Tailor (which was named one of Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurants in 2019), Dry Storage, and Brutø, has let the pandemic guide him to a new way of conducting business. He now books carryout orders like a traditional restaurant reservation. “We slot five tickets per 15 minutes,” he says. “It’s like a reservation: You book your table. You pick up your order.” This means the kitchen is never overwhelmed and the quality of the food is pristine unless, of course, you’re late to pick up your food (aka“your reservation”). The first two weeks Whitaker employed this strategy at Basta, the restaurant shattered all previous sales records.
Success has always favored the agile. This fact has never been more relevant and more on display than for restaurants in the era of COVID-19. “We will never stop evolving,” says Whitaker. And while he is referring to his own businesses, Whitaker might as well be speaking for the industry as a whole.
BAR DOUGH Cacio e peppe, pollo al limon (half-roasted chicken with pan sauce, mustard fill, and grilled lemon), housemade pound cake, and a four-pack of Aperol spritzes. P.S. Look for the Jabroni & Sons pop-up and order immediately. The Italian deli-style sandwiches—don’t miss the Uncle Jimmy with Italian pulled pork, broccoli rabe, sharp provolone, and Calabrian chileaïoli—sell out every. single. time. bardoughdenver.com
BASTA Raw roots salad; chicken liver mousse, heirloom grain lasagna for two; Orange Daisey cocktail for two. bastaboulder.com
CHOOK Whole chicken with piri-piri, roasted street corn, smashed cucumbers, and a bottle of Attimo rosé. chookchicken.com
COMIDA Take-and-bake chicken enchiladas; jicama, cucumber, and watermelon salad; and margaritas for two. eatcomida.com
DAUGHTER THAI Date Night Dinner Set with Mae Sai Khoa Soi (Mae Sai-style noodles curry with slow-braised, bone-in beef short rib), four vegetarian crispy rolls, Land & Sea (stir-fried chicken and prawns with cashews and sweet roasted chile sauce), four gyoza, mango sticky rice, and a bottle of prosecco. daughterthaikitchenandbar.com
FRUITION Fruition farms porchetta with fennel and potato salad and tonnato sauce (serves two); lemon meringue pie; and double old-fashioned. fruitionrestaurant.com
HOP ALLEY Chilled tofu with sesame bang bang sauce, steamed eggplant with Sichuan fermented soybean sauce (trust us!), whatever special is running, a four-pack of gin and tonics. hopalleydenver.com
SMOK Brisket sandwich, mac and cheese, and a hand pie. And heck, why not throw in a six-pack of Bartles & Jaymes or Coors Banquet (yes, really)? denversmok.com
UNCLE Chicken ramen and pork buns, of course, and canned sake.uncleramen.com
THE WOLF’S TAILOR Sourdough bread; the Entrust, an omakase-style meal of seven to 10 bites as chosen by the chefs; any of pastry chef Jeb Breakell’screative desserts; bartender’s choice cocktail for two. wolfstailor.com
Colorado-based food writer Amanda M.Faison spent 20 years as the food editor of 5280, Denver’s city magazine. She has published stories in Food & Wine, Outside, Elle Decor and Travel & Leisure. She has also edited four cookbooks and has twice judged the James BeardFoundation's annual cookbook awards.
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