Nick Kokonas is CEO of Tock as well as co-founder and co-owner of the Alinea Group, which includes Alinea, Next Restaurant and The Aviary. As part of Fine Dining Lovers’ Turing The Tables series of talks, the Chicago-based restaurateur shares how Alinea adapted to takeout, how his Tock to Go platform is helping restaurants around the world do the same, and what will and won’t work for the future of restaurants.
Kokonas and chef-partner Grant Achatz have withstood the coronavirus crisis better than most, using Tock’s reservation data as a weathervane to pivot early and fully to a takeout service in Chicago.
Tock is a global reservation service, so Kokonas witnessed the disappearance of reservations in China and Hong Kong from January, then in February as the crisis took hold in Europe. By March, restaurant reservations were falling off a cliff in the US, city by city. The pandemic was spreading to each city, in a sequence, and Kokonas was watching the situation unfold.
“The road back to normal business is at best unclear and it’s different everywhere. Not just Italy vs the US vs England, but it’s different city to city. Not just for the scope of the outbreak in each city, but also because of local governance. And of course different people, in different places, in different age groups, have very different attitudes to dining out,” says Kokonas.
Although people are still emotionally attached to restaurants, and they remain an integral part of our culture across the world, as many as 27% of people surveyed cannot see themselves returning to eat in one for the foreseeable future. So what are restaurants going to do?
“In the short term a lot of stupid stuff,” says Kokonas, who thinks restaurants will try a whole range of things to try to fill the revenue gap, but most of them won’t work.
One thing that can work, says Kokonas, is carry-out/to-go operations. Just before Chicago instituted its shelter-in-place restrictions, Kokonas called a meeting with Achatz and his team and explained that they would need a takeout menu. Achatz is a three-Michelin-star chef, so of course he began developing complicated Alinea-type offerings. Kokonas was insistent that they needed a simple $35 menu. Nobody was going to pay $250 for a takeout meal, no matter how much work went into it. They developed a short-rib beef Wellington.
They found that demand was incredibly high. Customers were hungry “both literally and metaphorically,” says Kokonas. “They were craving that cultural connection with the restaurant”.
Integral to their pivot was spinning out Tock to Go, which used the reservation platform’s data structure and applied it to a kitchen adapted for takeout, with kitchen pacing.
According to Kokonas, the key is to simplify and streamline your offering. If you just post your à la carte menu to Tock to Go, you’re going to be running your kitchen in exactly the same way as before. Of the 1200 Tock to Go restaurants around the world, the most successful diversify. “They create wonderful meal packages and then they sell add-ons like wine, cocktail kits, morning after pastries, CSA style farm boxes so people can eat later in the week.”
So how can you make your restaurant safe for diners? At Alinea, Kokonas has imposed a five-minute rule for reservation turn-ups. If your reservation is at 12pm, you mustn’t show up until 11.55am.
“We temp check every single employee and keep a log of it,” says Kokonas. “There are hourly, monitored hand washings for all staff, masks and gloves for front and back-of-house staff. Any time anyone travels outside the Chicago area or shows symptoms, they are immediately quarantined. All the safety and hygiene measures that you read about need to be in place.”
Tock to Go has seen as many as 50 to 60 restaurants come online per day in the current period, and Kokonas and his team work tirelessly to ensure they have the support they need to replace their revenue with takeout service.
Kokonas sows how success is achievable with a graph depicting the Tock to Go data with that of Tock. Tock went from processing a couple of million dollars’ worth of prepaid reservations on its platform to processing greater volume with Tock to Go takeout business. A bridge has been built and it can be replicated.
For Alinea, their success has been extraordinary. “After six weeks of doing comfort food, our 15th anniversary was coming up and Grant said ‘you know what? I’m done listening to you, I want to do the six course tasting menu’. So we did. I didn’t know if people wanted a six course $50 menu, but they overwhelmingly did,” says Kokonas.
Last Saturday they did 1292 carry out covers, over 400 bottles of wine, cocktail kits, morning after pastries, cookbooks. In the last 30 days, they have served 30,148 takeout covers. That’s twice the amount they would ordinarily serve in a year at Alinea.
Kokonas believes that things will get back on track. Looking at history, he cites how people reacted to the 1918-19 flu with a decade of partying in the ‘20s. He also impresses on us that governments can’t support restaurants forever, and that restaurants have to be proactive and creative to overcome the current situation. Because people wat that emotional connection with restaurants, they want them to succeed, they want them to be there when they emerge from the quarantine ready to party.