Restaurants Adapt Differently to Challenging Times Without Diners

Susannah Chen
Burma Superstar was one of many restaurants to adopt extra food safety precautions such as masks and gloves. [Photo: Burma Superstar/Instagram]

Bruce Hill was gearing up for an uptick in business. March had finally arrived, and as the longtime chef and owner of Zero Zero, a restaurant near San Francisco’s sprawling Moscone Center, Hill knew this was typically the month the restaurant’s traffic began to pick up steam for the year, thanks to the start of convention season.

Owner and chef of Zero Zero in San Francisco, Bruce Hill.

Instead, one by one, conventions began pulling out of San Francisco due to growing concerns over the spread of coronavirus. With no convention attendees, sales at Zero Zero started to  slow. By the time San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order had been issued, sales had reached a near standstill. 

Despite initial triage efforts like canceling weekend lunch service and reducing staffers’ hours, Hill was forced to make dramatic changes in order for the restaurant to survive. On March 16, when the city’s order limited all restaurants to takeout or delivery, he brought himself to do what he’d been dreading most: He laid off 49 employees. Then he sat down with his remaining skeleton crew and mapped out a new plan.

To advertise Zero Zero’s new menu and takeout options, chef Bruce Hill commissioned new door signage. “It’s been really great,” he says. “People are taking pictures of it.” [Photo: Bruce Hill/Instagram]

This new reality is one that restaurateurs have had to grapple with in many towns across the country. In the next three months, the National Restaurant Association predicts that the country’s restaurants could take a $225 billion sales hit. And according to the California Restaurant Association, as many as 30,000 of the state’s 90,000 restaurants could be forced to close for good as a result of the pandemic. Tough choices and difficult business decisions, starting with the issue of whether to open or close, have dominated the minds of restaurant operators during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Hill, who at last count had retained four managers, was determined to keep Zero Zero open for business. He and his team adjusted hours, whittled down the menu to fewer offerings to ensure ingredients stayed fresh, and made an effort to hone in on the restaurant’s most beloved dishes. “It was really important to keep a kitchen running, even if we had a trickle of sales,” he said, adding: “I want to do right by my people and myself.”

But as with so many challenges in life, there hasn’t been just one way to tackle the problem, and operators have reacted to the growing pandemic and shelter-in-place orders with a wide range of responses. Unlike Zero Zero, some establishments, such as seafood specialist Pacific Catch and the fast-casual Greek chain Souvla, have decided it’s simply better to close for the meantime rather than remain open for business. “If we’re serious about flattening the curve of infections, we need to allow restaurants, cafes, and other food businesses to do what governments have asked so many other industries to do: close to the public,” San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho argued in a widely-circulated editorial this week.

One primary motivation behind such closures is concern for employee safety. “We are not trained to keep a workspace protected from a deadly virus,” Andy Ricker, chef and owner of the popular Pok Pok restaurant group in Portland, Oregon, said in a statement. He added, “I simply cannot bear the thought of one of our team becoming ill for the sake of preparing some chicken wings.”

According to Andrew Rosenberg, who manages strategic partnerships at DoorDash for a number of family-owned restaurant groups, some closures have been preemptive as operators, fearing government restrictions might be imposed upon them, chose to close immediately. 

“Many restaurants are trying to get ahead of the possibility that things could get really bad. There was no guarantee that states were going to allow gig economy workers to keep working, or that they wouldn’t suspend Uber, Lyft, and delivery services,” he said. 

Others, particularly restaurant groups managing multiple locations, have sought out middle ground, closing some stores while keeping the lights on at others for the time being. Salad chain Mixt, for instance, has closed its Dallas, Oakland, and San Ramon locations, but has kept its four San Francisco stores open. Likewise, Cream, a chain of ice cream sandwich shops in California, Colorado, and Florida, has temporarily shuttered locations in areas such as Berkeley and Palo Alto, while others in San Jose, Napa, and San Francisco’s Mission District remain in business. 

Rosenberg believes that these business decisions have been dictated by the sudden changes in customers’ routines: With many commuters suddenly relieved of long work drives, there’s been more time for family cooking and less demand for online food ordering in suburban areas, and eateries have shifted operations strategies accordingly. “People’s daily lives have been materially impacted here. So for some merchants, even if they operate in historically high delivery volume areas, it might not make sense to stay open at this time because of access to these stores,” he said.

Then there are the restaurants that have embraced business more than ever. With dine-in no longer an option, businesses such as Little Star Pizza and Burma Superstar have leaned heavily on to-go and delivery orders, keeping all of their locations open. 

“We’re here, we’re cooking, and we’re really happy we have the ability to cook, because so many don’t. The cooking part really does function as therapy for us. When you order from us, we’re getting therapy.”

— Bruce Hill, Chef and owner of Zero Zero

In general, merchants on DoorDash are seeing an increase in sales. “The vast majority of merchants I work with have seen sales remain steady or increase which has been our goal since this happened, to maintain as much normalcy as possible” Rosenberg said. The platform has also seen a significant spike in the number of new merchants coming on board—and that includes some unexpected registrants. “Without naming specifics, we have seen merchants who have historically been against delivery come onto our platform,” he added.

Within the limited parameters of delivery and takeout, merchants have pushed the limits of what they can sell. Thanks to temporarily relaxed liquor laws, some have added alcohol and pre-made cocktails to their takeout and delivery menus; others have begun selling larger meal kits that are either designed to feed groups of people or to feed one person for several days. Berkeley’s Pasta Bene is offering a trio of family specials, with two entrees, a salad and a dessert; at Campbell’s Kyoto Palace, customers can order a fried rice tray that feeds one dozen—or even donate it to those still working during the current shelter in place. Restaurants who have expanded their business to include products are even finding opportunities to list food merchandise on their current takeout and delivery menus; Burma Superstar, for instance, offers its cookbook and Burma Love Tea Aioli as offerings on its menu page.

Caption: Burma Superstar was one of many restaurants to adopt extra food safety precautions such as masks and gloves. [Photo: Burma Superstar/Instagram]

“The merchants that can afford to stay open are leaning super heavily into delivery, and they’re also using this as an opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t,” Rosenberg said. 

Merchants are adjusting their operations on a daily basis to fit this strange new world, with some surprising tweaks. One change Zero Zero has made: increasing portion sizes for many items by 30 percent. “If a pasta serving used to be five ounces, now it’s seven and a half,” Hill said. “If people are getting our food to go, we want them to think, ‘That’s worth more than what I spent.’” 

Still, even a month in, the restaurant industry has yet to comprehend the full scope of the economic fallout of COVID-19, and as restaurants continue to implement changes on a daily basis, no one dares to look too far ahead. Hill, who would normally be in the throes of summer event planning right now, is simply taking things day by day. 

“We’re just really grateful for any orders we get right now,” he said. “We’re only pulling mozzarella every two days, but it sure makes us feel good. We’re here, we’re cooking, and we’re really happy we have the ability to cook, because so many don’t. The cooking part really does function as therapy for us. When you order from us, we’re getting therapy.”

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