Courtesy of Rooster & Owl

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Within a span of 10 days, some of D.C.’s most popular restaurants have completely overhauled their business models to focus on carry-out and delivery. Selling food and drink for Washingtonians to consume at home is restaurants’ only way of doing business after local leaders closed restaurants to sit-down service in order to manage the spread of the coronavirus. But will this new style of operation make a difference to restaurants’ bottom lines?

“We need to do everything we possibly can to make sure we have the ability to reopen when this is over,” says Rooster & Owl general manager and partner Carey Tang. “We’re doing whatever we can to help our employees make sure they can weather this time.”

The 14th Street NW restaurant began offering carry-out last week. The restaurant determined the margins would be too slim to partner with a third-party delivery service. “Pick up allows a bit more of a guarantee of what’s going to be handed over to the customers,” Tang says. 

While their first day was slow, the numbers have since picked up, with Rooster & Owl selling out of their allotted carry-out options daily. The menu changes depending on what suppliers can provide. “The entire supply chain has been impacted,” Tang says.

Most purchases are coming from their immediate neighborhood, personal friends, and regular patrons of the restaurant. “We’ve had nothing but positive reactions,” Tang continues. “To see some of our regulars and the warmth and support [means] a lot.”  

While their hourly staff isn’t currently employed, revenue from carry-out orders is keeping salaried workers supported for the time being. Tang and her husband, Executive Chef Yuan Tang, are working without pay for as long as they can.

“It’s dismal times,” Tang says. “All we can do is work as hard as we can to help our hourly employees who can’t be here with us, to continue to pay our salaried team in full, to make sure everyone’s insurance stays current, and advocate [for] as much help from the powers that be.”

When Rooster & Owl was open for dine-in service, at least half of their revenue was dependent on the beverage and wine pairings offered alongside their menu. Despite emergency legislation that allows restaurants to sell alcohol to-go or via delivery, the restaurant is losing more than half of their daily revenue (before tips) on a good day of carry-out sales.

While Tang has no expectation of people tipping on carry-out orders, all tips immediately go towards supporting their hourly employees even though they’re no longer on payroll. “It’s not going to make a difference between making rent or not, but maybe dinner or diapers or childcare. A drop in the bucket is at least a drop,” she says.

Rooster & Owl has no plans to stop providing carry-out service. “We’re enjoying the moment to be creative and help out our suppliers as much as we can,” she says. One day was particularly heart-warming. “We had one time slot for pick-up where every single party was celebrating a milestone anniversary,” Carey recalls with a laugh.

Other restaurants have been surprised by the demand. Maydan and 2 Amys Neapolitan Pizza both drew such crowds for carry-out that they were forced to update their online ordering system almost immediately. Now, customers receive alerts to pick-up their food at a specific time, preventing large numbers of people from gathering within or outside their restaurants. 

On Capitol Hill, Chef Kevin Tien and his team at Emilie’s are getting creative to keep some money flowing in. They’re selling the pickles and spreads such as Sichuan honey butter, carrot kimchi, and sweet cherry jam that would normally reach diners on the restaurant’s signature roving carts. The pantry-like set-up also includes house-made bread and fresh pasta.

Pastry chefs Willa Peliniand Claire Miller have created a rotating lineup of ice creams in flavors like “fancy milk” and “rainbow sherbet,” which go for $7 a pint. The team is also offering a take-out menu that includes Thai-inspired savory items as well as Tien’s famous Hot Lola’s fried chicken sandwich. An additional array of desserts is also offered. 

One of the biggest challenges is ingredient inventory because of disruptions in the supply chain. “A lot of purveyors are still out there [but] there’s a reduced schedule, which makes it hard because we’re having a hard time predicting business,” Tien says. “It’s scary because we want to order more of something to have enough of a dish but what if tomorrow doesn’t come? Everything is uncertain.”

Emilie’s is easily seeing roughly an 80 percent drop in sales compared to a normal day of dine-in service, according to Tien. “Food is at a lower price point so our checkpoint is a lot lower,” he says. “We’re doing 2.5 times the normal amount of work for a quarter amount of original sales.”

Tien is focusing less on utilities and other bills and more on paying what employees he has left.  Over the past week, Tien says he has had to lay off 90 percent of his staff. Those who remain have taken significant pay cuts. 

The team carries on with support from their neighbors. “For the most part, everyone is very encouraging,” Tien says. “They’re telling us to hang in there and that they’ll come as many times as they need. Everybody who comes in asks what [they] can do to help.” Tien recommends spreading the love by ordering from as many restaurants that are offering carry-out as possible, instead of picking one place repeatedly. 

Tien plans to start offering limited delivery. Instead of partnering with a third party delivery company, Tien will be making the deliveries himself. “Every day, we’re making the best of it and trying to be creative in the solutions we’re offering,” he says. “If there’s even a 1 percent chance for us to make it or survive, we’re going to go after that 1 percent.”

That same fight for survival is keeping Chef Amy Brandwein fired up at Centrolina and Piccolina  in CityCenter DC. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” she says. While her supply chain seems to be less affected than others’, Brandwein is seeing a similar drop in sales. She estimates that her restaurants are bringing in about 20 percent of what they usually do through dine-in sales.  And yet, she isn’t too put-off. “It’s been good,” she says. “I hate to say it considering the situation.”

Centrolina is offering an extensive menu for carry-out and limited delivery to CityCenter DC residents. Piccolina is also available for carry-out, but their delivery reaches a wider range through Caviar. Brandwein says she’s made efforts to include vegetarian options and the restaurants are accommodating dietary restrictions on a case-by-case basis. The same is true for Tien and the Tangs.

The Mercato at Centrolina is also in full swing. “We have a complete supply of everything. Everybody can come in and get anything they want,” Brandwein says. “I want customers to patronize the little shops and grocery stores to keep them going.”

Other restaurant owners in the D.C. area toyed with the idea of pivoting to delivery and take-out, but eventually decided to close entirely. 

Columbia Heights Filipino restaurant Bad Saint went through four operational phases before Mayor Muriel Bowser closed restaurants and bars to on-premise dining on March 16. “Initially, we decided not to seat any walk-in guests,” says co-owner Genevieve Villamora. “Our intent was to create a space in what is already a very crowded and cozy dining room.”

Next, they tried a hybrid model of dine-in with a carry-out option. While many cancelled their reservations, those same reservations were snapped up almost immediately by other diners. One or two days before the mandated shutdown, Bad Saint decided to transition to carry-out only.

After the shutdown, Bad Saint staff expressed fear of contracting COVID-19 on their commute or at work itself. That was when Villamora made the decision to cease operations for the time being. 

“As an industry and as a society, we have to come to terms with the fact that the only thing that is going to meaningfully slow the spread of this virus is if we go on lockdown,” Villamora says. “The longer we pretend we can have our lives as usual, the longer we are extending this problem by an exponential degree.”

Disclosure: The author of this story was previously contracted by Chef Kevin Tien. 

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