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 pantry 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 restaurants 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.