To say that Houstonians loved to eat out before novel coronavirus COVID-19 began impacting the city’s food and beverage scene would be a wild understatement. Our embarrassment of riches in dining choices attracts visitors who solely want to eat and drink at one of our many churches of cocktails, meat, and merriment.
When Houston-area restaurants were told to pivot to takeout, drive-thru, and delivery only in an effort to “flatten the curve” and limit human interaction, it put many of them in a precarious position. Along with how to keep staff employed and how to keep afloat when loss is bound to outweigh profit, there are other questions to ponder. How do you translate a dine-in menu into a take-home menu? How do you package something that normally would be lovingly laid out on a plate like edible art? Is a styrofoam/plastic dish gourmet our new normal?
Let's start with that last question. Our new reality is that a spectacular dinner normally meant to be shared with friends and loved ones now, for the most part, comes in a single-use container. So one challenge is how to offer a product that’s representative of the restaurant’s lauded fare.
“There’s a lot of things that don’t translate well when they aren’t served in the restaurant,” says Ryan Penn, corporate manager with Killen’s Restaurants (Killen’s Barbecue, Killen’s STQ among others). “It's been difficult everywhere.”
Along with that, there’s the matter of exactly what should go on the new menu. The demand for gourmet items like caviar and crab legs is low at the moment, as most to-go orders are focusing on meat and sides that travel well to the home dinner table.
“You want to make things that are easier for smaller crews of employees to make and that also get to the guest’s house in a manner that is close to what it would be like served in-house,” says Penn.
Like the Killen’s restaurants, Cherry Block Craft Butcher inside Bravery Chef Hall has also pared down its menu to cross-utilize as many ingredients as possible. It’s also offering something other restaurants have started to feature: the family meal. Here, all the entrees and sides are made for four, sometimes six or eight people.
“We take into consideration what travels best,” Cherry Block chef/partner Jess DeSham Timmons says. “We have family meals for four available, which seems to be what is selling most based on discussions with other restaurant owners.”
Giving new customers a chance to finally try signature offerings with ease isn’t a bad idea, either. Of course, the experience of pizza and pasta from say, Coltivare, on your couch with your own wine doesn’t hold a candle to the expert service at its White Oak location.
The good news is many restaurants can now deliver beer, wine, and cocktails with food purchases, after Gov Greg Abbott announced a waiver easing past regulations on alcohol distribution. Some spots, like El Big Bad, are even delivering buckets of beer for thirsty folks at home. Craft breweries 8th Wonder and Eureka Heights have tents outside where you can drive up and buy beer, spirits, and brewery merch to support them while they are closed off to patrons. Saint Arnold is also offering drive-thru services, serving up their beloved brewery hall fare and six-packs of its beer.
Then there’s the issue of telling Houstonians what you’re doing. Jake Rainey at Montrose Tex-Mex hideout La Grange says the biggest hurdle is actually letting people know that his restaurant is offering take-out and curbside ordering. Every establishment in Houston is struggling to be noticed.
“Getting awareness out is tough,” Rainey says. “Every single person like me is trying to convert their business model overnight. It’s an incredibly crowded pool and it is hard to steer people toward us when there are so many choices.”
On Wednesday evening Rainey and a skeleton crew were at La Grange watching local TV news and listening to live Grateful Dead shows on the house stereo system.
“I had one to-go order on Tuesday,” he says. “I know most businesses have some similar stories.”
Some restaurateurs miss their customers like crazy, and not just for the revenue. Out in Pearland, Chris Gonzalez’s Nacho Nachos is a quiet place. It’s usually a go-to spot for lunch and dinner for local families. This week and for the foreseeable future, Gonzalez’s concept is going back to its roots as a food truck, albeit parked in front of his brick-and-mortar location.
“We don’t just provide nachos, people enjoy the entire experience. The atmosphere, the music, the staff, the freedom to watch us create your plate,” Gonzalez says. “It’s human interaction, it’s feeding people. I miss that tremendously.”