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Xiquet DL’s paella classes are their own animal. That’s according to restaurant owner and chef Danny Lledó who says that, without them, his restaurants might not have survived past June. Lledó also operates Slate Wine Bar at the same address in Glover Park.
When the virtual classes began in May, Lledó joined a number of restless local chefs trying to make ends meet by giving patrons the chance to cook alongside them. Lledó focused on the dish he knows best—paella. To participate, customers purchase a $35 kit of paella ingredients and then tune in for a one-hour virtual class with Lledó. The classes are also recorded for people who can’t be there live.
Lledó says online take-out and delivery orders dropped between 60 and 80 percent at his restaurants once D.C. entered the first phase of reopening at the end of May, which allowed for outdoor dining. His restaurants do not have outside seating. And even in the second phase, which allows indoor dining at 50 percent capacity, Lledó says his restaurants have struggled. “We’re a small dining room,” he says. “Slate Wine Bar is probably the most affected since it’s a bar. From 45 seats we had planned back in March, we’ve brought it down to 20.”
While some Zoom events have faltered under “Zoom fatigue” as the pandemic stretches on, Lledó has yet to see a decline in popularity in his online cooking class. Others have also managed to keep up regular virtual classes, including Arlington’s Cookology Culinary School.
“It’s here to stay,” Lledó says. “I felt like I created a new business.”
In a way, the classes are an entire production. Lledó offers public classes, which regularly see up to 30 participants, as well as private classes with businesses and law firms. He’s been averaging about four classes per month. Lledó has a camera operator as well as a moderator who keeps the classes flowing. His restaurant staff helps deliver the ingredients.
Each class brings in between $600 and $800, which Lledó can put toward his restaurants’ bottom line. “It really helps me retain my employees,” he says. “It also seems to make people happy. People who are taking classes become customers.”
The potential to build a new customer base through virtual classes was a plus for Immigrant Food. As offices emptied in March, the relatively new downtown fast-casual eatery struggled because they hadn’t yet had the opportunity to develop a loyal customer base. Téa Ivanovic, director of communications and outreach, suggested that the restaurant try virtual events to engage bored people at home.
“We started this series called Friday Authentic Immigrant Dinners,” Ivanovic says. “Each Friday, we had one of our staff members, who are all immigrants from around the world, come up with their traditional dish from their home country and make that,” she says. It first began with a line cook making Salvadoran pupusas. The event sold out three weeks in a row.
Ivanovic wanted to take it a step further to engage new customers by offering cooking kits to accompany the live classes on Instagram. The kits tend to cost no more than $15, Ivanovic says, staying true to the restaurant’s regular prices. They also sold out quickly. They’ve held an Indian samosa class and a sangria class. “We couldn’t produce as much as there was demand,” says.
“Are we breaking even or not?” Ivanovic continues. “Restaurant margins are razor thin. We’re lowering our margins as much as possible to try and get more volume. We’re selling out, which is great, but it’s not like we’re rolling around in money. We’re able to pay our staff.”
When the restaurant isn’t doing events, Ivanovic estimates the restaurant is bringing in 20 percent of what it used to in revenue. Sales climb to about 40 percent of pre-pandemic levels on days with classes, but Ivanovic says the restaurant still isn’t turning a profit.
One goal is converting the new faces joining classes into customers. “The word is spreading, which is really great,” Ivanovic says. “I love it when people post pictures of what they’re doing and the end result. We get a lot of engagement.”
Jaimie Mertz, owner of the gluten-free Red Bandana Bakery in Bethesda also saw a bump in interest in the bakery. For her, it all started with cake decorating. The gluten-free bakery had been offering in-person cake decorating classes when COVID-19 forced them to close. They moved the classes online.
Mertz also offers DIY kits to customers to buy ahead of the classes, which have expanded to include tutorials on bagels, sugar cookies, and cake pops. In one weekend alone, the bakery made 70 cake kits for an online class. “That was the record for the most cakes we ever had one in weekend in the entire life of the bakery,” Mertz says.
Early on in the shutdown, Mertz says the bakery benefitted from neighbors racing to support local businesses, eventually reaching a new audience base that wasn’t just people seeking to purchase gluten-free, vegan, or dairy-free baked goods. A Facebook group that encourages its members to buy local helped drive traffic to the classes.
But, unlike Xiquet and Immigrant Food, Mertz says participation dropped as spring became summer. “I think a lot of people were getting the fatigue of Zoom classes,” she says. “Parents were saying it’s a lot of effort to get [kids] to do it.”
Since then, Mertz says the bakery has been on a hiatus with classes, although it continues to offer kits for people to pick up, since every class is recorded and posted either on the bakery’s Facebook page or website. “I think we’ll probably start it up again in the fall,” she says, adding that the classes were financially viable, but didn’t rake in that much additional revenue.
“It was surprisingly just as much effort as just, you know, baking the brownies,” Mertz admits. “Having to come up with all the packaging for a tablespoon of oil and a teaspoon of salt and everything.”
Red Bandana prices the kits at about the same dollar amount as fully baked goods. “It was similar profit margins, but maybe a little higher on the labor side of that,” she says. (A sugar cookie kit, which comes with a dozen plain cookies, four bags of colored frosting, and decorative sprinkles, will set you back $45.)
Lledó agrees, cautioning restaurants that want to do something similar to carefully plan ahead. He also recommends finding a star dish to showcase.
Immigrant Food, which says it hopes to continue its classes virtually and perhaps one day in-person, recommends a similar approach. “The important thing is thinking through [what] your strengths are, as a restaurant,” Ivanovic says.