During Covid-19 lockdowns, small businesses around the world had to pivot their operations to survive. Building an online presence, resorting to delivery apps, selling in bulk and ready-to-cook meal kits were some ways restaurants stayed afloat. For diners, ordering a meal kit from a favorite restaurant was a way to stay connected to it and support local businesses. The extra time at home allowed some people to learn to cook, or expand their culinary repertoire to different foods.
We talked to a number of these restaurants who say their new delivery, meal kits, and catering operations have changed the way they will do business even after customers return to indoor dining.
In 2016, The Hood Paris opened its doors as a small coffee shop and Asian canteen serving Singaporean and Vietnamese cuisine. For years, the restaurant relied on tourists. They made up 40% of its clientele. Only 10% of The Hood’s revenue came from takeout, mostly the result of customers picking up a coffee. “Parisians, in general, were never really into the idea of takeout,” explained its owner, Pearlyn Lee. “They want to be able to sit down and have their meal.” But when Paris went into lockdown in March 2020, French culture was altered and The Hood had to expand its base of customers.
Despite that, the food at The Hood was already takeaway friendly. Looking at a menu of noodle soups and banh mi sandwiches, the idea of pivoting to meal kit deliveries set in. “Families are stuck at home with kids. They have to cook every day. People who are working from home want to be doing something with their time outside work,” said Lee. “Why not put together something fun for them to do at home, while still feeling like they’re actually participating in the creation of an Asian dish that they would not have otherwise done on their own.” The kits were advertised as taking 10 minutes to make in three steps, in order to make the recipes accessible.
Lee and her team built up the restaurant’s online presence: filming and posting on social media what was happening at the restaurant, starting a blog, and a digital loyalty program. They then promoted it to an existing email list of customers who had attended events at the restaurant before the pandemic. Bahn mi meal kits sent to local news outlets received positive reviews and increased the restaurant’s exposure to French customers. With the loss of tourists, advertising also had to be done in French. “We realized we had to speak French on social media in order to reach the people who remained in Paris,” said Lee.
Deliveries would be followed by an email and playlist for customers to set the mood of the restaurant in their home. “It was almost like extending the service you would have if you were in a restaurant,” said Lee. “We had to utilize as many technological tools as possible.”
Not all gestures were digital. During the hardest time of the lockdown, deliveries included handwritten notes, smiley face bags, and sometimes a small gift to cheer up customers. “The handwritten notes on the bags really touched clients the most,” said Lee. “We wanted the offline part to help them feel more human again.”
While The Hood tries to deliver as many meals as they can directly, delivery apps like Uber Eats ended up becoming a way for new customers to discover the menu.
Along with the meal kits, The Hood sells their house sauces and pantry essentials. “The French love garlic and they buy our garlic sauce which is not traditional in their cooking,” said Lee. “Some of them buy it once every week because they use it to cook their rice, pasta, fish. We’ve introduced relatively unknown Asian sauces and flavors into their daily lives.”
Takeout and delivery rose from 10% to 50% of the restaurant’s revenue during the pandemic and remains at that level. Lee believes most of this clientele is in the neighborhood. “We now have pretty much everyone within walking distance. French [people] just walking up to us, ordering exactly what they want, they don’t even look at a menu,” said Lee.
Lee is hopeful that restaurants in Paris will reopen in June, and the meal kits will become a side business of frozen and pantry foods. “For a restaurant, it’s harder to keep up with because your price point needs to be kept low. You can’t really mass package things unless you find a system to do it,” Lee explained. “The low-hanging fruit is the sauce condiments. We’ll keep the laksa meal kit, maybe the bahn mi kit, it’s part of what we’ve built.”
When Dario Monni and Jill Gray started Tortello, they looked to recreate the feeling of an Italian shop with homemade food in Chicago’s Wicker Park. Tortello is a speciality shop combined with a restaurant. A passerby can watch pasta being made fresh in the window, stop in to try it, get cooking advice from the chef, and purchase products to take home. The idea was to create a dining and shopping experience of the pastificio and corner stores common on the neighborhood streets where Monni’s family is from in Italy.
The restaurant’s motto, “Eat Now, Cook Later,” has worked in the restaurant’s favor during the pandemic. “I think at the time when we opened it people were a little bit confused because we were intentionally trying to do something a bit different,” said Gray. “The pandemic just really accelerated business. Our sights have always been in wholesale, that’s always been a path that we saw ahead.”
Monni laboriously searches for high-quality ingredients. Many are sourced from local farms and some specialty goods imported from Italy. When Tortello was closed for two months during lockdowns, Monni and Gray focused on defining their restaurant as a local point of connection. “A large percentage of our business is from neighbors, just locals. Wicker Park was so good to us during all of this,” Gray said.
Throughout the pandemic, Tortello’s meal kits offerings have expanded. First there was pomodoro and ragu. Now the meal kit menu grew to include cacio e pepe, pesto, and Sardinian gallurese—a saffron, sausage, onion, and creme sauce that’s one of Tortello’s more popular items. The meal kits followed demand and will continue post-pandemic.
Reopened for indoor dining a few weeks ago, Tortello has a constant stream of customers. “We’re going to get to where we expected to be in five years, just way faster,” said Gray.
Teo Diaz and Jennifer Feltham started a small taqueria in downtown Los Angeles in 2016. The two called it Sonoratown, which pays homage to the Mexican state of Sonora where Diaz is from, and the area that was once called Sonora Town in 1850s Los Angeles. “We wanted to be the kind of restaurant where people from all walks of life could hang out in the same space,” said Feltham. But when COVID-19 hit, Sonoratown was not a place to be. It was too small, cramped, and indoors. “People got really nervous and we saw a huge dip in sales,” said Feltham.
When it became clear that the crisis was not going to be over quickly, Feltham and Diaz decided to pivot quickly. “We decided to do meal kits that people could take and eat over the week or share with their family,” explained Feltham. Selling $2.50 tacos over and over again was no longer profitable. “Catering trays really helped us because we didn’t have to make the same amount of sales to hit our numbers,” said Feltham. “We started doing trays because people were asking for that option.”
The trays are filled with enough ingredients to make a dozen tacos. Trays of small burritos are also sold. “In the beginning of the pandemic, people were coming and picking up a tray of little burritos and freezing them to eat through out the week,” Feltham said. With all the bulk orders, Sonoratown ran out of tortillas. It now rents additional space for tortilla production. “As soon as things slowed down, it gave us an opportunity to do things a different way,” said Feltham.
Sonoratown tried to do direct deliveries, but ended up using Door Dash and Caviar to deliver their meal kits. With third-party delivery, the relationship and dynamic with customers has changed. “If something is not to a customer’s liking, it’s a little harder to find out when you don’t have that person in front of you telling you. You have to do a lot more checking in.” Feltham said.
Catering trays brought Sonoratown out of loss-making at the beginning of the pandemic. It’s now exceeding its pre-pandemic expected profit. With more money, and additional space Sonoratown isn’t sure if going back to individual sales will be worth it. “That’s a question I ask myself every day,” said Feltham. “I’m a little nervous because I do definitely want to go back to seeing people face-to-face again, and having that intimate feeling. But now knowing that we can do better if we serve in bulk using these more impersonal ways—I’m crushed between these two realities and not sure which step to take.”