How local restaurants are being resilient during COVID-19

COVID-19 has uprooted the restaurant industry, with many short- and long-term implications for business. Each decision restauranteurs must make carries much weight, and yet tough calls continue to be necessary — often without precedent and even prior to formal regulatory guidance — as the weeks pass by and new developments unfold. 

As an industry disrupted, many fear the change that’s ahead. Yet while closures — temporary and permanent — have been cause for distress by loyal customers, staff and economists alike, the stories of resilience in the restaurant community have delivered hope alongside new offerings.

From menu changes and new takeout services to burgeoning partnerships and new concept launches, restaurants have pivoted to reflect the times. I spoke with a couple of restaurant owners who have made major changes to their business to get their take on challenges, hidden opportunities, and what to expect next.

Seizing an opportunity

For many restaurant owners, the shutdown has served as a catalyst for making delivery and takeout ordering available. Curbside pick-up is a popular option that gives owners the most control over the experience and profit; third-party vendors such as DoorDash, GrubHub and Uber Eats have been controversial at the local and national level for their fees, but have been in some cases viable options to extend restaurant reach to new customers and meet volume despite reduced margins.

Restaurant owner/operator and media aficionado Vince McIntosh of Irie Kitchen, co-host of the Irie Lemon podcast, saw another way. Having been one of the first to pilot Uber Eats when it launched in Grand Rapids last spring, he found the fees unsustainable for his fast-casual restaurant. His decision to swiftly initiate Irie Delivery in March showed ingenuity — announced the day after restaurants closed in Michigan, a week before the formal shelter-in-place order was announced — allowing him to employ more staff than before and to closely monitor operations: factoring in how to balance variable carryout orders and delivery order volume without sacrificing quality, for example, in a kitchen efficiently run with as few as three staff in normal conditions.

Irie Delivery logo; an Irie Kitchen concept

But it’s not for the faint of heart, nor a business model that will be easily replicable. “It wasn’t easy,” McIntosh noted. “Our business was uniquely set up for it at the time. We were already planning for delivery and accustomed to curbside orders. But if you can swing it — manage the influx of orders, decide on food that can travel well, and find trusted delivery people — you should try it. At minimum [whether creating your own service or trying out third-party vendors], you see what your customer is willing to pay and are reminded of the value of what you offer.”

Food delivery is a sign of changing preferences, according to those I spoke with. “We’ve been watching the prominence of delivery, to-go and drive-thru trend across the country, as an indication of how the next generation prefers to eat,” said Anthony Tangorra, owner of Mertens Hospitality/New Hotel Mertens. “All of this can be done in a chef-driven, elevated manner. That’s part of the reason why our bakery was set up the way it was, and the reason for exploring new concepts.”

In addition to 9th Street Steaks (Chef Jason Kaleta), which served its first cheesesteak on March 29, Mertens Hospitality will be launching Pronto Pasta, with meals two ways: ready to eat or ready to cook. The new concept is set to launch in the coming week.

9th Street Steaks available via online delivery (GrubHub)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the new offerings now in-market were at least in the concept stage prior to COVID-19, including Irie Delivery and 9th Street Steaks — which is one reason why they were able to pilot them so quickly, despite situational uncertainty. New restaurants and food services such as Root Functional Medicine’s Root Farmacy (Executive Chef Jenn Fillenworth) and Essence Restaurant Group’s Jimmy Berger’s Gourmet Chicken (Head Chef Mike Borraccio) are additional examples where vision had been laid in the months — and even years — prior to March 2020, yet the pandemic was an accelerator for decision-making and execution.

Root Farmacy ready-to-go meals

Burgeoning partnerships

Partnerships have cropped up as a boon to business, offsetting lost dine-in revenue through new methods of promotion and channels for product access. SpartanNash stores have begun offering restaurant “heat and eat” meals to go from the following eateries: Anna’s House, Big O’s, Cedar Springs Brewing Company, City Built Brewery, Donkey Taqueria, The Friesian Gastro Pub, Osteria Rossa and Westside Social. With 100 percent of the proceeds going back into the hands of these businesses, this partnership creates price-sensitive options for customers to support local restaurants while already on essential grocery runs, highlighting the importance of location and convenience in a different way than once considered before.

Community outreach

Some partnerships have been made through altruistic shared purpose. Garage Bar & Grill’s initiative, Garage Bar Cares, began March 20 and has been extended until May 28. One of the first and longest-running local projects created to support the unemployed in response to COVID-19, 6,000 meals will have been made possible upon completion through the generosity of Garage Bar owners as well as local sponsors: Mercantile Bank, Pioneer Construction, Car City, Custer Office, Century Flooring, EatGR, InsureIt, Anderson Neitzel Investment Group of Wells Fargo Advisors, an anonymous family and private donations.

One of the most notable advocates for community outreach to feed essential workers has been Jenna Arcidiacono of Amore Trattoria Italiana in Comstock Park. Her big heart and even bigger personality caught the attention of celebrity Mike Rowe, bringing in a $10,000 donation from his Facebook series, “Returning the Favor”, to keep the efforts going to serve local hospitals and dispatches.

Embracing comfort food

From family-friendly meal bundles to rotating menus with mac ‘n’ cheese, cheesesteaks, biscuits, and fried chicken, comfort food is having a moment — and not necessarily in the Southern kitchen-inspired kind of sense. Look no further than Jimmy Berger’s Gourmet Chicken, 9th Street Steaks, the pop-up menus at Terra, Hancock GR’s convenient curbside set-up, or the fried chicken sandwich at Linear’s return as Ghost Kitchen To Go to jumpstart cravings with nostalgia in mind.

Jimmy Berger’s Gourmet Chicken

For leadership such as James Berg, owner of Essence Restaurant Group, the embrace of comfort food is an understandable business strategy to diversify selection. The difficult decision to transition its restaurant, Grove, into Jimmy Berger’s Gourmet Chicken in preparation for immediate takeout and long-term fast-casual dining was announced in late April. Fueling creativity through new menu selection while working within current constraints — as seen through The Green Well’s takeout as well as Jimmy Berger’s genesis —  is a welcome long-term play to give customers what they want, generate immediate demand, and keep the oils burning for a day when menus better suited for intimate dining with more eclectic, sophisticated cuisine can return. Comfort food itself may be evolving in definition, embodying convenience culture with a bit of a modern spin to appeal to Millennials. As an act of simplification — back to basics — there could be more where that came from. This trend may have staying power beyond the intuitive forces of reaching for what’s familiar during a pandemic: “Before, there were ‘white linen’ establishments and fast food and nothing in between,” said Berg. “Then came the chains. Now we’re seeing ‘white linen’ coming back with a casual tint, focused on both the process and hospitality. The question still stands: Who’s willing to take the time to do it right?” Berg plans to share a comprehensive reopening plan this week, aiming to open Bistro Bella Vita for carryout in “early June.”

Expanding offerings

Family-style and Date Night meal packages aren’t the only product being bundled for the public, though they show resilient thinking through novelty and by understanding the unique pressures customers have had piled on by the pandemic, whether financial strain or new living and working situations — or all of the above. From fresh-made pasta available for purchase at Osteria Rossa to the aspiring amateur mixologist’s dream of at-home cocktail kits via local bars and distilleries like Eastern Kille and Sidebar, businesses are being resourceful to engage and make #stayhome a bit more interactive. Be on the lookout to welcome Irie Kitchen’s custom blend of spices into your home, available soon (stay tuned for more).

Eastern Kille Distillery’s Cinco de Mayo cocktail kits

Exposing needed industry change

In addition to expanding delivery and takeout options, the pandemic has forced along important innovation such as point of sale (POS) technology system advancement, integrated online ordering and improved social media presence for many local spots. The extent to which technology — albeit less sexy than other topics — had been modernized before shelter-in-place orders took effect has had a large impact on businesses’ ability to quickly pivot to new order types and fulfillment. “Technology can serve as a bottleneck between the kitchen and the customer: if it’s difficult to measure unique orders, they get messed up. The more menu options there are, the worse it gets. This falls apart easily when takeout and delivery ramps up,” said McIntosh.

Much of the innovation discussed here comes back to preparation and foresight: “[COVID] brought tomorrow into today really fast,” said Berg. Though no one can truly predict what will happen as a result of COVID-19 (or what already has transpired), what was predictable has offset some of the worst ramifications of the pandemic. Essence Restaurant Group, for example, was preparing for an increase in online ordering and takeout, pandemic or not: with POS updates and a plan in place — including a rewards-based, cross-brand app slated to be available in July — they sought to grow to-go orders from 4 percent to 10-15 percent of their revenue. Their efforts have translated into increased year-over-year sales despite the shutdown, boding well for these restaurants the community holds dear.

New levels of transparency

Being proactive and open has been an important value for Berg throughout this crisis: with team members, industry peers, and the public alike. In a post that has performed better than any other in recent comparison for the brands, he addressed The Green Well’s audience on Facebook with much-appreciated information during a confusing and chaotic time. While less active on social media before COVID, he felt compelled to “set the record straight” and infuse a positive message into the public record. “We want to do things on our own terms right now, and our guests have reminded us why we do what we do,” he said. “Their support for the essential services we are providing — as an alternative to crowded groceries and with the utmost cleanliness as the backbone of restaurant hospitality — has kept us going.”

Tangorra also noted the importance of being transparent, publicly sharing and implementing a comprehensive five-point COVID plan early on — March 11 — trying to stay a step ahead. “Our posture has been to be as open and honest as possible, from the get-go. Even before we received more formal guidance from the government, we wanted to be an open book.”

Chefs — like Chris Perkey of Osteria Rossa and Jenn Fillenworth (@jennywiththegoodeats) — who have stepped into the limelight to share recipes online or even to speak out in solidarity to the greater community, have given voice to the zeitgeist of the time and demonstrated that a chef’s presence as the face of an establishment is more important than ever, creating connection that addresses the desire to bring the dining experience home in adaptive ways for many loyal customers and food enthusiasts.

Chef-owner of Osteria Rossa, Chris Perkey, filming with Jeff Hage of Green Frog Photography; Photo courtesy of Dinner Club GR

The importance of brand

“In the restaurant business, too often the restaurant comes first and the product second. In reality, the brand needs to come first,” said McIntosh. “Think of it this way: What’s your one thing? That insight is crucial. What do people come to you for? Build upon that.” This mantra has helped define his business goals, including media production and product extensions, while facilitating collaborations and promotions that he hopes will lift others in the community, as well.

His decision to shut down operations during shelter-in-place was a deeply personal one, communicated with candor and conviction directly to his online following via Instagram. Ultimately, he hopes to use this time to focus on longer-term goalsetting and brand, product development for future payoff while keeping the health and vitality of his staff in mind. He plans to reopen “in mid June, depending on suppliers” with an updated menu. Complex supply chain interdependencies and shortages have been at the heart of many challenges causing concern for owner/operators across the board, on a relational and practical level.

Standout quality

No matter the order format, setting or selection, quality is still as important as ever. As the ways in which restaurants distinguish themselves shifts, the details will matter just as much — if not more. And while finding the optimal mix of menu options and ingredients to suit margins that make sense for business will continue to be a major undertaking, unprecedented conditions are at minimum demanding more trial and error. McIntosh adds, “[We’re experiencing] a huge opportunity to try to something different, even if the audience was comfortable with what existed before.”

Space Considerations

As restaurants prepare to reopen in June, we’ll see many new scenarios play out: the application of industry expertise and bespoke knowledge of restaurant conditions unique to each location.

The six-feet-of-separation standard alone reminds us that space will play a major role in reopening — and other necessary adjustments. For example, reworking physical space was a central decision for converting Grove into Jimmy Berger’s Gourmet Chicken: carryout friendly, with the ability to economically sustain reduced capacity seating. Outdoor space, in particular, will help navigate the complex transition as summer weather plays in our favor and reopening occurs in stages. Food trucks are well positioned to provide service in open areas suitable for social distancing: Noco Provisions has opened its own with these conditions in mind. Whether working with the city to approve or renew outdoor seating or even considering nonconventional seating with dividers or other modular options, spatial arrangements will require agility. “Having the technology and the relationships to innovate is a gap that restauranteurs need to bridge to be agile,” said Tangorra. “Those contemplating ideas now may have some difficulty changing things quickly.” He hopes to bring back New Hotel Mertens’ Haute rooftop “as soon as possible, trying to beat my financial models forecasting opening July 1.”

Noco Provisions food truck; Samantha Ruth Photography

Sensitivity to expenses are a looming threat if new mandates are too much, too soon. “We may need to look to larger markets [for spatial innovation] because of the designers and architects available,” said Berg. “Will it get to that point? Restaurants may not make it there. Eventually we will get to a tipping point where people want or need to get out. We need to think about that.” Tangorra adds, “We’ll need resources to meet new standards. We’ll be sure to meet and exceed them. We may not be able to afford to implement plastic shields and other equipment, in which case curbside would continue to be the way to go. Regulators aren’t going to want to overburden the industry — that’s my hope — as we’re all working together to prevent further crisis.”

No matter the speed of change adopted, there’s a perceptible shift toward “new norm” acceptance — however temporary or permanent these changes are viewed — as attempts toward readiness are made in earnest to realistically navigate foot traffic, train staff and comply with government guidelines. Dare I say there may even be cautious optimism for new restaurant experiences, as the dust settles, signaling a return “home” — as so many restaurants feel — if not a return to normal: And the most resilient businesses have been laying a foundation behind the scenes to use the lessons from the last three months as guidance to fuel the instinct and grit needed to forge onward.


Marissa Fellows is a food and culture writer for GRNow. A lover of oysters, negronis, and all things mid-century modern, she works as a writer, brand consultant, and experience designer. Founder, Goodfellows Creative & Dinner Club GR (@dinnerclubgr).
Connect: Twitter and IG @mcallief | LinkedIn
email: marissa.c.fellows@gmail.com