Food Worth Writing For

Restaurant Creativity in time of COVID-19

Restaurants have had to become creative with COVID-19 preventing them from offering sit-down meals. While many states are opening back up and restaurants are allowed to serve sit-down meals at a limited capacity, some restaurants have stuck with take-out and delivery services until they can determine their plans to reopen safely. There are other factors as well that have made it more difficult for restaurants, from shortage of specific types of ingredients due to disruption in supply chains and a decrease of staff in the kitchen to adhere to social distancing health guidelines.

Many restaurants and cafes have looked for other ways to generate revenue such as selling groceries, produce kits, and family meal kits. Some restaurants had to quickly change up their take-out menu as well to a more streamlined one to minimize delays (from washing less dishes to sourcing less ingredients). COVID-19 has definitely pressured many companies and individuals to think of new ideas very quickly and execute just as quickly.

It is also interesting to see how COVID-19 will affect consumer habits – many people are realizing how much money they save cooking at home and how much money they used to spend on restaurants and bars. I wonder if this new profound epiphany will cause some long-term changes such as a decrease in restaurant spending in the long run. Many agencies that support and enforce permits and regulations have also had to release temporary guidelines to make it easier for businesses to survive. For example, the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) eased its regulations and let restaurants and bars sell alcoholic beverages to-go, as long as they were in sealed containers and purchased with a meal. Bars, wineries, distilleries, and breweries that do not have their own kitchens partnered up with restaurants to sell their drinks. Another example is L.A Al Fresco, which is a program launched by Mayor Garcetti’s team to allow restaurants to provide outdoor dining on sidewalks and private parking lots to allow customers and employees to safely social distance and help with reopening. There have been many different groups from government agencies to restaurants to cafes that have had to evaluate current circumstances and propose/implement new ideas.

I wanted to highlight some of the creativity in the form of bake-it-yourself kits and family meal kits that I’ve seen during my time quarantining at home. While some of these most likely will disappear from businesses once they can provide sit-down dining, I can see some becoming new permanent additions to the revenue stream of some of these businesses.

Ricebox (https://www.ricebox.net/)

Delivery from Ricebox, a Cantonese restaurant in Downtown LA. Photo by Author

When many states ordered a shut-down, I wanted to help out by ordering takeout from many restaurants to help them stay afloat. One of the earlier restaurants I ordered from was Ricebox (https://www.ricebox.net/), a Cantonese restaurant in Downtown LA. Ricebox is run by husband and wife duo, Leo and Lydia Lee. The duo is one of the hardest working couples that I have come across in the restaurant industry. The restaurant industry is already cutthroat with extremely long hours. Besides working 6 days a week, Leo wakes up extremely early to prepare dishes such their well-known almond milk baos, barbeque meats, and other dishes as these items have to be prepared ahead of time prior to opening. Cantonese dishes tend to be time-consuming and labor-intensive in the preparation of the ingredients, and less time cooking up the food. Besides keeping Ricebox open for take-out and delivery, Leo and Lydia personally set up days where they went to specific cities in Los Angeles to make deliveries door to door as an additional revenue stream. Some individuals who may have wanted Ricebox or something similar may not have been willing to drive all the way to downtown LA get a meal or go out, so Leo and Lydia took orders and went to them! I ordered their meats in bulk and some of their rice bowls and they were all delicious.

Golden Deli (https://www.thegoldendeli.com/)

Golden Deli in Temple City of San Gabriel Valley back in March. For safety, the restaurant set up a plastic covering to process take-out orders. Photo by Author.

For one lunch, I was craving Vietnamese food, so I decided to get some take-out from Golden Deli, a well known restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley area. Its menu features a wide variety of Vietnamese dishes ranging from broken rice dishes with grilled meats to pho to curry. And they are all extremely good and flavorful. In fact, this restaurant is so popular that Jonathan Gold talked about it in one of his LA time articles in 1992 (https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1992-03-12-fo-4984-story.html)

An order of Nem nướng (grilled pork sausage) spring roll and broken rice plate with grilled meats. Photo by author.

Mr. Holmes Bakehouse (https://www.mrholmesbakehouse.com/)

Mr.Holmes Bakehouse is known for its delectable pastries, such as their cruffins, a hybrid of a croissant and a donut. Photo by Jesserocks007.

Mr. Holmes Bakehouse is a bakery that was started in San Francisco by 28-year-old Aaron Caddel. He opened the bakery because he wanted to offer high-quality, artisan style pastries and sweets to have with beverages as an option to coffee shops with low quality pastries. Mr. Holmes Bakehouse has become a popular go-to destination for tasty treats and is well known for its pink neon signs “I got Baked”. When COVID-19 shut down its bakeries, the operations team put their thinking caps together to think of new ideas. They quickly put together DIY baking kits to sell; due to their well-thought out marketing and packaging, these kits have actually been very popular and Mr. Holmes has been shipping hundreds of kits nationwide. They currently have 5 DIY baking kits from making brioche bread to chocolate chip cookies to scones. The baking kits are extremely well-thought out and easy to use. They come with premeasured bags of different ingredients from salt to flour to sugar. They also labeled the bags by numbers and have easy to follow instructions. It is such a great idea, especially for those who want to pass the time and bake something with family or friends, but might not necessarily want to go buy a few pounds of sugar and flour.

Inside of one of the Mr Holmes Bakehouse DIY baking kits. The bags of flour, salt, sugar, and chocolate are all premeasured and packaged with numbered labels. Photos by Author.

I bought 3 of their kits (chocolate chip cookie kit, scones and dump cake kit, and their brioche and bagel kit). The great thing about the scones/dump cake kit is that you can bake two things. It sounds like you’re getting a great deal, but if you think about it, these ingredients are actually really cheap! So it’s definitely a great revenue stream for Mr. Holmes Bakehouse. Their pink boxes are also on point with their branding and marketing, and I’m sure these DIY baking kits are generating more revenue than expected. Plus, the ROI from selling DIY baking kits is probably way higher than selling pastries at their bakery!

If you think about it, flour, sugar, salt, chocolate, and other ingredients for baking are super cheap, and the most expensive thing about the kit is probably the pink box. A Mr. Holmes Bakehouse would need to bake croissants, cruffins, and other pastries fresh every day and running a bakery is generally more labor-intensive. While Mr. Holmes Bakehouse sells out of their pastries in a day, if anything was unsold, it would have to be tossed. These DIY baking kits are selling for $25/box and the ingredients in the box probably amount to less than $5 (excluding labor costs of the employee who put together), and the box which probably costs $1. I worked in cost accounting at a consumer product company valuing cost of goods sold as well costs of new products under development, so I have an eye for these things.

Dump Cake Recipe from Mr. Holmes Bakehouse DIY Baking Kit. Photos by Author.

Anyhow, I used the scones and dump cake DIY kit and had a fun time making the dump cake; it was extremely easy. So easy that the recipe mentioned that if we couldn’t figure it out, that we should probably find a new hobby. I really enjoyed the sassiness of whoever wrote out these recipes and instructions. The dump cake (as unappealing as it sounds) also tasted really good, almost like a brownie. I’m a bit surprised they just didn’t call it a brownie, but I guess there are minor differences. Definitely a good option if you want to do something fun with friends and family. You also get a yummy treat out of it!

Bone Kettle (https://www.bonekettle.com/)

The Mother’s Day special from Bone Kettle, a restaurant in Pasadena. Photo by Author.

Bone Kettle, a Indonesian restaurant in Pasadena, is popular for its slow-cooked bone broth and rice bowls. For Mother’s day, Bone Kettle offered a bundle that included a crab fried rice bowl per person, lobster noodles, papaya salad, bone marrow, and shrimp chips. Bone Kettle has been able to serve its usual menu during the shutdown without the need to change up their menu. The restaurant also sold its famous bone broth by the gallon. Many restaurants decided to sell in bulk for families and people who did not want to go out too much to get food.

The Brothers (https://www.brothersproducts.com/)

The Brothers is a food product supplies run by brothers of a family selling middle eastern products such as lebneh, hummus, pita bread, and more. Photo by Author.

The Brothers is a Middle Eastern food product supplier run by brothers. They set up shop at the Hidden Hills’ Farmer market and other ones. Located in Garden Grove, they work very hard to sell and deliver their products. Their lebnehs, which is very similar to Greek yogurt except the texture is a bit thicker, are amazing and fresh as well as their many hummus dips and pita bread. I ordered through their site and I expected the delivery to take place via USPS or Fedex with some ice packs. It turns out the Brothers drove from Garden Grove to my place (40 minutes – no traffic mind you), so they could deliver online orders throughout Los Angeles. I got texts from them letting me know that they had dropped off my order right outside my door. That’s some real hustle.

Spago @ Beverly Hills (https://wolfgangpuck.com/dining/spago-2/)

Smoked salmon pizza came packaged separately with instructions on how to put it together. Photo by Author.

Quarantine time is also a great time to get take-out from high-end restaurants as a lot of these restaurants realized that they would have to adjust their menus for the take-out and delivery experience. These restaurants are used to serving multi-course menus, but it doesn’t work in the era of coronavirus. Spago kept up some of its core dishes that it normally served but had Wednesday night become fried chicken night (which was apparently the most profitable per Wolfgang Puck in his discussion with Boris Groysberg, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School) and Thursday night was Burger night (which eventually was not very popular and Spago stopped it). After Los Angeles opened back up for dining, Spago has reverted to more of a a la carte menu for take-out vs a set fixed menu.

I ordered a two-person menu (which consisted of 4-5 items) as well as the famous smoked salmon pizza a la carte. Spago typically serves a 8-course tasting menu at its restaurant, but for take-out/delivery, restricted it to a set menu for each day. Spago also added take-out cocktails and wine bottles for ordering as well.

Spago’s two-person meal consisting of a burrata salad, pasta, focaccia bread, entrée (Alaskan halibut on the left and Snake River Farm wagyu steak on the right), soup, and rum babas for dessert. Salmon pizza ordered a la carte. Photo by Author.

The food was very good and high-quality – I ordered for me and someone else, and we ended up having leftovers the next day. Smoked salmon pizza was great and it was fun putting it together! Definitely a great experience.

Cheeesemongers of Sherman Oaks (http://www.cheesemongersofshermanoaks.com/)

Cheeses and cured meats were delicately wrapped and labelled. Contactless pickup from Cheesemongers of Sherman Oaks. Photo by Author.

This is also an important time to support your local businesses as COVID-19 has made it very hard for businesses all around. I decided to buy some cheese and cured meats for a charcuterie board for a special occasion. Cheesemongers of Sherman Oaks is run by husband and wife duo, Tyler and Kia. It is a small cute cheese shop on Ventura Blvd that offers a wide range of cheeses and meats such as normal, popular ones like gouda and pate, but also very unique and rare items such as Jamon Iberico de Bellota to mole salami! They currently offer contactless pickup and delivery via phone. While this makes things a bit slower as you need to be able to reach them and place an order, Tyler and Kia work to make sure you are satisfied with your orders and provide very personable service.

Tender Greens (https://www.tendergreens.com/)

Indoor picnic kit (cheese and wine) on the left and morning box kit on the right. Photo by Tender Greens.

Tender Greens, a restaurant that focuses on high-quality, seasonal, and responsibly-sourced ingredients, released a bunch of grocery kits in order to entice customers who may have been struggling to find specific ingredients or just want a prepared kit for an occasion.

There were many more kits and items that I didn’t get to try! n/naka, a two-star Michelin restaurant in Los Angeles known for its Japanese kaiseki (tasting menu) offered $30 bento boxes. This restaurant typically serves a high-end tasting menu course that costs about $250 excluding tip and tax. Dear John, a steakhouse that was once frequented by Frank Sinatra, offered heat-and-eat TV dinners.

Some restaurants and cafes turned to Goldbelly (www.goldbelly.com), a online marketplace for regional and artisanal foods sold throughout the United States. Katz’s Delicatessen, the famous New York City Jewish deli known for its gigantic pastrami sandwiches, shipped its pastrami nationally. Even Shake Shack offered burger kits on Goldbelly, so that customers could cook their burgers at home using the same-quality burger patty, potato buns, and sauces Shake Shack uses. The great invention of today’s era is that shipping packages typically only takes a few days; I was on the Goldbelly site when there was a notification alert that “Someone just Goldbelly’d Shake Shack from New York to Tuscon, Arizona”. I can imagine many people who miss certain foods or crave something from a resturant they had on vacation can now order it shipped to their house.

Since restaurants and cafes and other places are opening back up for sit-down service, some of these kits and other bundles will probably disappear as the economies open back up. However, some are probably going to stay, such as the Mr.Holmes DIY baking kits. I want to give kudos to the people who manage the operations of these restaurants and cafes and food businesses as they have had to figure out new creative ways to sell products in the shortest amount time possible.

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