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Vaughn Tan: The Smart Thinking That Could Save Restaurants

05 May, 2020
Vaughn Tan interview

Photo Courtesy of Vaughn Tan

“Creativity is more important for a restaurant right now than at any time in the last 15 to 20 years,“ he says. “In the past, thinking differently was difficult as there were so many established ways of doing things that were so much better at succeeding in the market. But now, nobody knows.”

This is a moment in which chefs and restaurateurs have carte blanche and, as Tan puts it, all bets are off. “It actually could be kind of exciting if you’re a chef right now,” he says. “There's a huge opportunity for people to think of new ways to provide what people want, which is food that makes them happy and - if we're lucky - also makes them healthy. Any idea could be good now if it makes sense, and so [restaurants] can try new things.”

We have already seen chefs mobilising into projects that they could never have imagined even a month ago. Indeed, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in his book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder: "Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder and stressors, and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.”

As such, chefs are rising to the challenge of keeping their customers happy and working with their suppliers in new and innovative ways. Enrico Cerea from Da Vittorio restaurant, located in one of the first declared red zones in Italy, admits to never having been so busy between volunteer cooking and turning the three-Michelin-star restaurant menu into delivery. Fine-dining restaurant Canlis, in Seattle, flipped to become a burger drive-thru; and in Slovenia, self-professed risk-taker Ana Roš is making ice cream in lockdown. Meanwhile, chef Hugo Brito of Boi-Cavalo restaurant, in Lisbon, is reviving an old Vietnamese pho pop-up project while renting out the rest of his redundant kitchen space. 

Tan draws on his time spent with humanitarian Spanish chef, Jose Andres, whose World Central Kitchen team arrives in disaster zones to feed the needy. In Andres’ operation, he saw the perfect example of a well-oiled machine, adept at adapting and evolving in the face of adversity. “The way to approach something like this, and hope to survive, is to keep on watching it,” Tan says. “To figure out what is happening to it, and constantly changing what you're doing as you learn more. And if restaurants don't do that, they simply will not live to tell the tale.”

This naturally leads to the question keeping chefs and restaurateurs awake right now: what can they do in order to survive the next 12- 18 months?

While many restaurants’ knee-jerk reaction was to put their existing dishes in a box and deliver them, Tan is cautious about the delivery model. “In this new dynamic, customers won’t want to spend more money on food that’s travelled an hour across London when they could get it from a restaurant close by for less money,” he says. Instead of using third-party companies, Tan advises that restaurants should look to use trained front-of-house staff to deliver, and eradicate the steep 30% delivery charges. Platforms such as Tock-to-Go could be the answer. The recently-launched US-based delivery and take-out service promises low fees and encourages restaurants to offer pick-up and delivery using their existing staff.

To tackle this crisis head-on, Tan outlines a three-pillar strategy, in which restaurants must align their customers, their staff, and their suppliers. They must ask themselves the following questions: Who is available to work, and is it responsible to make them come into work? Who are the suppliers, what is it that they will supply, and will they continue to supply it? And then, most importantly, who are the customers and what are they going to buy? When a chef or restaurateur is able to answer those questions, they’ll have a clearer idea of what they can do.

When restaurants are redesigning their business models, location will be a key factor. Global travel restrictions have grounded those big-spending jet-setters who fly around the world collecting high-end restaurant experiences. As a result, some of the world's best restaurants will have to adapt. “The playbook for the international fine-dining restaurant for the next is 24 months is no longer valid,” says Tan.

Where they can, restaurants should plug into their local neighbourhoods, service local residents and look after their suppliers. “The wise restaurateur who has the ability will double down in thinking and look to serve those customers who can simply walk in and pick up,” says Tan.

In order to make enough revenue to see out the next 18 to 24 months, a restaurant should have local people making multiple purchases each week. “They should aim to give customers food that’s not expensive and fancy, and more the type of food a chef would cook at home,” Tan advises.

Restaurants should consider whether their customers want groceries like milk and eggs, and prep boxes to keep them going for a week, or whether they want seven days of frozen meals for a family of four. “After all, people will always need to eat. The question is where are they going to get the ingredients they are going to eat?” says Tan.

This echoes a strategy recently announced by Greg Baxtrom’s Olmsted in Brooklyn, whose Olmsted Trading Post will operate out of its private dining room. Meanwhile, the duality of pick-up prep boxes and veg boxes is something already happening in many places, including New York, where over a dozen of the city’s Michelin-starred restaurants have pivoted to takeaway. Dan Barber is offering to-go boxes filled with produce, meat and fish from its partners at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and one-star newcomer Oxalis is selling fresh foods, natural wines, and other goods from its pantry for pickup and delivery.

Tan points out that neighbourhood restaurants also have the advantage of convenience and access over supermarkets, offering customers a welcome break from long queues and raided shelves. "Restaurants already have supply chains set up. They’re used to sourcing good product and selling it,“ he says. “They also have highly trained prep cooks, line cooks and sous chefs, and what many people don't want to do, or don't know how to do, is prep ingredients that they buy from supermarkets.”

“Restaurants that learn how to make home-cookable recipes, and sell veg boxes, especially in neighbourhoods, could be onto something. If people in turn think of their local restaurant like, ‘this is my food supply place for the next 18 months’, that’s robust.”

We have recently seen Massimo Bottura mobilise his Francheschetta 58 bistro into signature, part-prepped, part-cooked-at-home boxes, while Grant Achatz’s 'home-prepped' gourmet food flew out of three-Michelin-starred Alinea in densely populated Chicago.

Achatz, who says delivery, pick-up and other supplementary services are here to stay even after the lockdowns are lifted, was one of the first three-star chefs to embrace democratic-delivery. He offered multi-course meals for pick-up containing what he describes as 'French comfort food'. Their first offering was braised beef Wellingtons that were ready to bake at home, Robuchon mashed potatoes, separate gravy, horseradish crème fraîche, and a dessert of creme brûlée: it was offered at $35 and they sold 500 in the first night.

The chef says it has also been the best way of maintaining the team. “We were lucky, we furloughed everyone and then three days later we hired back 37 percent, then a couple of weeks later we were at 60 percent and now every employee that chooses to come back is back full time with the company.”

Tan warns this model won’t make sense for more remote places like Hiša Franko in the Slovenian mountains. “These restaurants will have to think more creatively about how to reach their customers. Use the products that they can get and then find a way to make them into products that people will still want to buy.”

He talks of building long-life storage into products by pickling or drying. This way restaurants can build up stock to sell once things get back to normal, or sell online during the lockdown. One such chef who has embraced online selling is Milan's Carlo Cracco, who has reported a huge surge in his e-commerce business, which now serves as a valuable revenue stream.

Staying online, Tan highlights social media as an important tool in which restaurants can connect with their audience. “Restaurants used to using social media should use it as an asset," he says. "People want to know that the food is safe to eat, and this can be conveyed on social media.”

There is no one-size-fits-all fix, and it’s the nimble restaurants with evolving solutions that respond to the needs of their loyal customer base that will survive. “Every restaurant will have to look at its own situation and figure out what to do. But the smart restaurant will be two steps ahead. There are so many things we can’t even imagine yet that someone will come up with that will work.”

With many restaurants forced into making extremely difficult financial and ethical decisions, Tan concedes the culinary landscape could look dramatically different after coronavirus. “There's going to be long-term consequences to whatever restaurant chains decide to do now, or their ability to come back as a great restaurant in the future. Restaurants that let their highly-trained team of staff go now are going to have to realise, they are going to be wanting them back in 18 months’ time. Will they want to return having been abandoned when they needed help most?”

Tan remains realistic that some people will always have money, and there will always be high-end restaurants to cater for them, perhaps just not so many. “Until now a lot of the wonderful dining scene has been driven by money. After this the economy will not be the same. People will want to spend less,” he explains.

Early reports on life after lockdown in China already indicate discretionary consumer spending on restaurants has fallen by 40% as people are weighed down by financial hardship and the fear of a second wave of Covid-19. Tan wonders whether the same level of theatrical dining that we are accustomed to will still exist in the future.

A slowdown in the high-end sector might herald the return of the independent restaurant, after being slowly been squeezed out over the past 20 years. Strength in individuality is something restaurateur Camilla Marcus is petitioning for in NYC, and Tan agrees. “These new dynamics may make them more competitively advantaged. And if it did do that, that would be incredible. That would be an amazing outcome of a terrible year or two,” he says.

He also hopes that high-end restaurants will start to think differently about their customers’ wants and needs. Instead of them pandering to critics, PRs and social media in order to attract big-spending customers, he suggests that instead, they will have to think about the repeat customer who can dine every week or month. “Restaurants will become more about ‘what should I be offering at what price’ and less about ‘how I can make my restaurant attractive to an influencer on Instagram,’” Tan explains.

Another positive might be that restaurateurs and chefs will attach more value to very close relationships with suppliers and distributors. He mentions Jeremy Chanat Ikoyi in London, helping sell meat directly to his customers from one of his small carefully sourced meat suppliers. “Where are they going to get that 48-day hung grass-fed beef when they reopen if they drop that supplier now?” he asks.

A dab hand in the kitchen himself, Tan jokes that he might open a pizzeria when all this is over. “But I would like it to be more democratic for sure, and for fine-dining restaurants to stop hiding behind unnecessary complexity. I want more people to have access to good food. That it's delicious. That is cooked with care and is made with high-quality ingredients.”

Tan’s message is clear: chefs and restaurateurs need to think outside of the box. Even if, for now, many of them are serving food inside one.

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