Cover photo: The XXL buttermilk griddlecake from State Fare Kitchen & Bar stays pretty and fluffy in a pizza box. Image by Anthony Rathbun.

At State Fare Kitchen & Bar, a brunch ain’t a brunch if it doesn’t include the XXL buttermilk griddlecake, an eye-popping 14 inches in diameter. When ordered in the dining room this morning monster dwarfs its plate—you can’t see it underneath. Dusted with some fresh-fallen confectioner’s sugar and served with whipped butter and maple syrup, it’s as much a production as it is a menu item. It’s a celebratory acknowledgement of brunch as an event.

So what happened when Covid-19 ended brunch as an event at State Fare, during the one-and-a-half months Houston diners were restricted from eating inside their favorite restaurants and instead took to ordering out? Well, innovation.

“Originally we were taking (the griddlecake) and folding it in half, trying to fit it into one of our containers,” says Justin Yoakum, director of operations at State Fare, which is run by the hospitality group Culinary Khancepts. The container was a round, black, dishwasher-safe, and recyclable polypropylene “clamshell,” Yoakum says. “We were like, ‘What do we do to keep the essence of that griddlecake?’ ”

Justin Yoakum, director of operations for Culinary Khancepts, which runs State Fare Bar & Kitchen, has reconsidered how he packs takeout and delivery items during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Put it in a big, fun pizza box, naturally. Suddenly the gigantic pancake, and all its accoutrements (sealed in smaller plastic containers) were far more desirable to eat when they got to the house. Soon followed plain white buckets for State Fare’s fried chicken and fried seafood, à la KFC. And their burgers? Wrapped up in foil like Wendy’s.

“We looked at who does to-go food really well, and that led us to your drive-through places,” says Yoakum. “It was a matter of ‘How do we adapt?’ ”

Though the pandemic upended the Houston food and beverage industry substantially—2,000 Houston-area restaurants closed in 2020, according to the Greater Houston Restaurant Association—for restaurants lucky enough to continue to operate, one of the quieter changes has been the increasing reliance on takeout and delivery packaging, and with that, a little ingenuity.

Nationally, takeout and delivery saw a 76 percent weekly revenue gain by early May 2020 as Covid-19 raged, according to a UBS Evidence Lab study, and those gains stayed relatively high during the pandemic. Because takeout and delivery service increased, restaurants spent more on packaging—Houston’s Legacy Restaurants reports it spent 100 percent more on packaging at one point in 2020—and operators have quickly become more savvy. By investing in better packaging material and by branding everything, they’re seeing a bigger return on their take-out business.

On some level, the push for smarter packaging existed before the pandemic. Recyclable paper packaging can be found at numerous Houston restaurants, including newer spots like tropical hangout Toasted Coconut in Montrose, hand roll purveyor Hando in the Heights, and Vietnamese restaurant the Blind Goat at Downtown’s Bravery Chef Hall. And those black polypropylene containers, which can be reused at home? They’re common at the more upscale UB Preserv and State of Grace. CLICK Virtual Food Hall, which was founded in August 2019 to disrupt the Uber Eats-driven delivery industry, invested in expensive, insulated aluminum foil bags that keep ice from melting and hot food steaming—and resemble something you’d ship a fragile item in at the Post Office. They also realized early on the importance of deconstructing dishes to preserve freshness—order pho to go from just about any Vietnamese restaurant and you’ll see this in action, too, as separate containers are provided for broth, noodles, meats, and vegetables.

The insulated bag CLICK uses to hold much of its takeout food keeps a steady internal temperature.

Image: Jenn Duncan

“The aspect of presentation that’s really important in delivery is how you deconstruct it,” says CLICK co-founder Steven Salazar. “You put the breadcrumbs outside the pasta instead of on top. You put the egg separate so the customer pops the egg yolk himself. You gotta test every dish.”

El Patio in Briargrove* has been breaking up complicated and potentially messy orders for years too. Their nachos typically arrive in a Christmas-sized bounty—single-use plastic polypropylene containers that individually hold jalapenos, guacamole, and tomatoes, and aluminum foil pans that keep corn tortilla chips crispy, warm, and spread out. “[Customers] love the fact that we take the time to make things easy to enjoy, as if they were at the restaurant,” says general manager Zaira Wolff.

Rather, it’s a new focus on branding that’s set El Patio and others above the rest in Covid times. Wolff says the shift to more takeout and delivery has underscored the need to let people know who they are as a restaurant. El Patio never lost an employee during the pandemic as Wolff immediately transitioned hosts and servers to takeout and delivery jobs. The restaurant maintains its own delivery service, and has used branding to its advantage—employees wear black shirts with the El Patio logo and Wolff has stamped the El Patio logo on everything.

“Anything that has a label on it is prone to us being tagged on Instagram or Facebook,” says Wolff. “So, it’s a good thing to put your label out there, especially with our margaritas.”

For restaurateur Benjamin Berg of Berg Hospitality Group a shift in the pandemic has been just as much about branding as the quality of packaging itself. “Before all this it was doggie bags for leftovers. Not anymore,” Berg says. Though he furloughed 350 employees across his company’s six restaurants in two cities—like the casual B.B. Lemon, the red-sauce spot B.B. Italia, and fancier affairs B&B Butchers and Restaurant and the Annie Café and Bar—he’s since hired back about 75 percent of those workers. In December 2020, hoping to expand his brand, test future menu items and tap into the takeout and delivery business, he opened a ghost kitchen similar to CLICK called Fair Food Co. in Uptown.

Here Berg puts a premium on packaging: Thirty minutes after pick up from the kitchen, B.B. Italia’s mozzarella sticks remain crispy and warm thanks to its Crisp Food Technologies Fry Baby container. The Fry Baby has raised airflow channels and venting in its lid to prevent foods from getting overheated and soggy. All food is transported in a paper Berg Hospitality Group bag with its logo splashed all over it.

“It’s expensive,” Berg says. “But it’s our reputation and brand going out there.”

For restaurateurs, that may be more important than ever. The National Restaurant Association, in its 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry Report, found that around 65 percent to 70 percent of consumers are more likely to purchase takeout now than before the pandemic. Anecdotally, operators in Houston are continuing takeout and curbside pickup options, even as the rate of local Covid-19 incidences lessens and indoor dining resumes.  The good thing—for customers, at least—is that more and more restaurants in Houston are paying attention. 

Over in Memorial City, State Fare welcomes the competition.  “It just means more people are going to order to go,” says Yoakum.

*A previous version of this story misidentified the location of El Patio. This has been corrected.

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