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Dine-in restaurants see takeout success as a recipe for the future

Sara Hossaini Aug 3, 2020
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Many restaurants, like this one in Washington, D.C., are relying on takeout only during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

Dine-in restaurants see takeout success as a recipe for the future

Sara Hossaini Aug 3, 2020
Heard on:
Many restaurants, like this one in Washington, D.C., are relying on takeout only during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images
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Restaurants around the country have had to change their business models because of COVID-19. The pandemic has forced some out of business; but others are trying to adapt with different models.

The owners of one high-end restaurant in Berkeley, California, called Comal, have opened a new restaurant in Oakland during the pandemic as a takeout operation. 

Restaurant workers at the new operation, Comal Next Door, in Oakland’s Grand Lake neighborhood, shuttled brown-bagged orders from the kitchen to several rows of holding racks on the eatery’s first Friday night. The bags were destined for pickup customers waiting outside and a stream of double-parked delivery drivers.

Co-owner John Paluska is upbeat. But that wasn’t the case just a few months ago, when the Bay Area began its COVID-19-related shutdown.

“When this whole thing hit, we were just about ready to open as a regular, old restaurant. … The initial response was, ‘Oh, my God, this is a disaster,'” Paluska said.

Paluska already owned two side-by-side restaurants in Berkeley: the more upscale, dine-in Comal, which offered plates for two to three people to share for up to $56, and a more casual cantina offering takeout. And those less-expensive takeout offerings — burritos, bowls and tacos, and a few dine-in favorites — started flying out the door. In fact, the cantina, also called Comal Next Door, recently had its best day ever.

“We’re actually over 100% of our historical high-water marks,” Paluska said.

Paluska is using the same approach for the new restaurant in Oakland and can’t see changing it anytime soon, even once indoor eating is allowed. Now, refrigerators and shelving racks have taken over the original Comal’s former dining rooms.

“And we’re having enough success with this where we feel like we were just looking at this, like, we just want to ride this out until we’re on the other side of the pandemic. And I think it’s gonna be a long time,” he said.

As the pandemic continues, he wants to protect the health of his staff. After having laid off all of his employees early on, Paluska’s been able to hire about half back, thanks to a Paycheck Protection Program loan. 

Jot Condie, president of the California Restaurant Association, said pickup is the new dine in, “where you have talented chefs creating what used to be food served on a white tablecloth putting out quality food in a sort of grab-and-go type of setting and are sort of meeting the demand of the customers as they’re evolving.”

Condie estimates that about a third of California eateries won’t survive the pandemic, and he predicts the overall restaurant failure rate will be even worse, up to 50%, in urban areas that rely on tourists, like San Francisco.

So the city is looking at other models for the future.

“We have an economic recovery playbook that we built,” said Jay Cheng, with San Francisco’s Chamber of Commerce. “And commissary kitchens, like shared kitchens, and helping restaurants pivot to takeout and delivery is our top priority. It’s like what we think is the future of the restaurant industry. It has to be.”

Cheng said restaurants that can shift their operations won’t necessarily be raking in the cash, as takeout margins can be thin, but they might be able to survive.

Back in Oakland, longtime Comal customer Dave Collins is picking up his takeout order from the newest spinoff restaurant. 

“I got a veggie bowl and a carnitas bowl. We’re going to share it. And a giant cocktail,” he said.

That’s right, a giant cocktail — to go.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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