Components of a Feast meal kit from Nina May Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The COVID-19 pandemic has been an exercise in throwing ideas against the walls of empty dining rooms and seeing what sticks. Restaurant owners morphed into makeshift grocers when supermarket shelves were sparsely stocked, figured out how to deliver margaritas by the quart, and cheekily seated stuffed animals at tables left vacant to comply with capacity limits on indoor dining. To borrow a phrase from Billy Beane in Moneyball, these businesses must “adapt or die.”

Nearly one in six U.S. restaurants have closed permanently or indefinitely six months into a public health crisis people initially hoped would only last weeks. That’s approximately 100,000 closures, according to the National Restaurant Association. The trade group’s survey-based report, released in mid-September, also found 40 percent of restaurant owners don’t think they’ll be in business in another six months without additional relief from the federal government.

Restaurant owners and workers say their anxiety is at its highest level since March. Fall’s first cold snap hearkens the coming of winter and its challenges. There could be a second spike in cases that throws D.C.’s phased reopening process into reverse. Outdoor spaces, which have emerged as the safest and most desirable places to sit, are expensive to winterize, even with a new $4 million grant program from the city. Demand for heaters is already wiping out the supply.

Some local operators are capitulating, including Ian and Eric Hilton. On Halloween, they will close seven of their bars and restaurants for the foreseeable future. “With colder weather a few weeks away and no prospects for relief in sight, we think it makes sense to ramp things down and give potentially displaced members of the team time to look at other employment opportunities,” Ian told City Paper on Sept. 15. Those employees won’t find jobs at Capitol Lounge, Rebellion, BBQ Bus Smokehouse, Poca Madre, Taco Bamba on I Street NW, or Matchbox on 14th Street NW, which all closed in September.

While any attempt to innovate amid uncertainty is worthwhile, the time to distinguish between half-baked pivots and fully executed pirouettes is now. Several strategies restaurants and bars have utilized have proven to be more successful than others, especially if success is measured in new and different ways.

That could mean finding a way to sustain operations long enough to see the other side of the pandemic, bringing in enough money to employ as many people as possible, or finding ways to keep staff and customers healthy. The following approaches, which focus on takeout and delivery instead of dine-in business, aim to achieve one or more of these goals. The restaurants that test them provide diners with plenty of fun, unexpected, and interactive meals.

Ghost Stories

Ghostburger’s Philly cheesesteak / Credit: Darrow Montgomery

A Shaw Mexican restaurant known for its mezcal cocktails and mole negro tried its hand at hawking burgers and cheesesteaks to bolster sales and couldn’t believe the immediate and sustained results. “We thought we were going to do maybe $5,000 in Ghostburger sales per week,” says Espita managing partner Josh Phillips. “The first week we did $25,000.”

Ghostburger is the name of Espita’s “virtual” or “ghost” restaurant that debuted in August. These kinds of enterprises operate out of and alongside existing licensed eateries and use the same labor and equipment. The offerings are available for takeout or delivery. Some operators use these restaurants to try out new cuisines, while others repackage their current menu under new names.

An increasing number of establishments are experimenting with virtual restaurants because a fresh brand has the potential to attract new customers and drive revenue without significant overhead costs. Launching one requires testing recipes, sourcing new ingredients, training staff, and marketing a nascent brand. The elbow grease has paid off for Espita, which only needed two weeks to birth Ghostburger.

Espita had been averaging $40,000 in weekly sales in Phase Two of D.C.’s reopening. Once Ghostburger was part of the equation, that figure climbed to $62,000. In strong months, when there’s not a global pandemic, Espita typically pulls in $61,000 in sales; slower summer months land closer to $48,000. The addition of the ghost restaurant helped Espita exceed its pre-pandemic average weekly sales and allowed the restaurant to hire back five employees.

Ghostburger is also Espita’s cold weather insurance policy. “What happens if we’re just left with takeaway when cases spike in the winter?” Phillips asks. He recalls the tough months early in the pandemic when restaurants were limited to takeout and delivery, and Espita was only bringing in $8,000 per week. “That’s about 12 percent of what we normally do,” he says. “If we go to a takeaway-only scenario in the winter, how are we going to live on that?”

Building a following for Ghostburger before winter was crucial. Its launch coincided with the return of Espita’s star chef Robert Aikens, who had been cooking in New York at Verōnika and Pastis. Earlier in his career, he set out to have the best cheeseburger in Philadelphia at The Dandelion and developed a relationship with meat master Pat LaFrieda, experiences he’s utilizing with Ghostburger.

Chef de Cuisine Ben Tenner also cooked in Philadelphia, where he estimates he cranked out 20,000 cheesesteaks. Together, Tenner and Aikens are making cheffy casual food. As Ghostburger’s popularity has grown, they’ve been able to source higher quality ingredients. Soon, they’ll have rolls from Sarcone’s Bakery in South Philadelphia.

Phillips says restaurants should play to their strengths when creating a new virtual brand. He encourages others to tap their chefs and cooks for ideas. “Everybody cooks what they cook for a living,” he says. “Then they cook what they love on their own. People on your team might have a passion for something they can do very well. Explore that.”

That’s what I’m Eddie Cano in Forest Hills aimed to do with its virtual restaurant, which specializes in two styles of lobster rolls and clam chowder. Owners Carolyn Papetti, Massimo Papetti, and James Gee launched Nantucket Clam Shack in July after seeing their sales drop 60 percent from the previous year. When restaurants were limited to takeout and delivery in the first three months of the pandemic, the Italian restaurant was only down 40 percent.

Gee, the chef, lived on Nantucket, off the coast of Massachusetts, for five seasons, and Carolyn Papetti is from East Hampton, New York. Northeastern seafood is what they know and love, and what some Washingtonians missed out on when they canceled their vacations because of COVID-19.

“If we didn’t do something, we were going to have to lay off more staff, not to mention deal with possibly closing our restaurant for good,” Carolyn Papetti says. The virtual restaurant boosted the team’s confidence and promised temporary work.

But it wasn’t profitable. I’m Eddie Cano handicapped its earning potential by selecting a ghost concept with pricey ingredients like lobster. Virtual restaurants often skew more casual than their host restaurants to ease execution, lower food costs, and reach stressed-out diners craving comfort food.

The Oval Room, for example, introduced a virtual sandwich shop dubbed On a Roll this month. The fine dining restaurant near the White House typically serves fancier items like bouillabaisse-poached bay scallops.

Nantucket Clam Shack’s last day is Sept. 27, but I’m Eddie Cano has already teed up its next virtual restaurant—Jimmy’s Philly Steaks. (Gee hails from Philadelphia.) “It’s another aspect of his culinary repertoire that we know he can deliver on,” Carolyn Papetti says.

Close to Home

Shouk’s veggie burger / Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The rhythm of the downtown lunch rush stopped when law firms, government agencies, hotels, museums, and newsrooms cleared out after the District issued a stay-at-home on March 30. According to a DowntownDC report, 95 percent of office workers had been working remotely for more than four months as of July.

Restaurants like Shouk, which has locations in NoMa and Mount Vernon Triangle, sought out alternative ways to get food back in the bellies of Washingtonians who used to commute downtown and eat out during the day. Utilizing large, third-party delivery apps like DoorDash has drawbacks like a limited delivery radius, commission fees, and a lack of quality control. But in March, Shouk founder Ran Nussbacher came up with a new delivery system that would allow the restaurant to reach new customers without the steep commission fees that delivery services charge.

Nussbacher, who lives in Bethesda, says his neighbors asked if he would consider doing a group delivery of the Israeli fast-casual cuisine they missed, and he obliged. “People were sheltering at home, the shock was big, no one could go out,” he says. “Having access to good food from downtown, delivered to the neighborhood, was a welcome distraction.”

The next day, Shouk posted about “neighborhood drops” on social media to gauge if other parts of the region would be interested in partaking. “Be the person your neighbors think you are,” Nussbacher nudged. “Be the neighborhood hero!” He messaged listservs and Facebook groups, and after a week of grassroots advertising, Shouk formalized the program.

Nearly 20 neighborhoods now rotate on a schedule displayed on the “Hood Drops” tab on Shouk’s website. The restaurant typically completes two or three drops per night, which can include as many as 80 orders. They utilize their own drivers and vehicles and pull up in places like public library parking lots. Customers line up in their cars, and Shouk employees place meals securely in the trunk.

The legwork required to make neighborhood drops work has helped Shouk recover. Nussbacher says sales have returned to 90 to 100 percent of what they were before the pandemic. “It’s allowed us to go back to our normal levels, which is huge in these times.” The drops account for 35 percent of Shouk’s sales and positioned Nussbacher to bring back staff.

Nussbacher targeted neighborhoods where people might seek out Shouk’s plant-based and certified Kosher menu. “It’s not just about getting great food from downtown, it’s about not having that where they live,” he says. “Think about what you do that’s unique and where people are yearning for that, and go meet that need.”

Lebanese Taverna has the capability to reach farther-flung locations because of resources like the refrigerated trucks they typically use for the catering arm of their 41-year-old family business. Five full-service Lebanese Tavernas, six LebTav fast-casual restaurants, a cafe, and a retail shop are spread across the D.C. region.

Grace Abi-Najm Shea, Lebanese Taverna Group’s senior vice president, reports that sales are currently down 40 to 50 percent companywide. Shea’s comfortable with that percentage for now. Catering, however, took the biggest hit when Washingtonians canceled weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and other large gatherings due to COVID-19.

The restaurant group’s response was to convert its catering kitchen in Fairfax into a pop-up LebTav, which allowed them to reach a new audience. Encouraged, they explored neighborhood drops, starting in Ashburn, Virginia. Like Shouk, Lebanese Taverna relied on word-of-mouth to get the program off the ground. “The good thing about being around so long and growing up here is we have a lot of long-term customers everywhere,” Shea says.

Soon, Lebanese Taverna was boxing up meals and bringing them as far as the Delaware beaches, Richmond and Williamsburg in Virginia, and Maryland’s Deep Creek Lake. The drops are posted on the neighborhood deliveries tab on the company’s website. Shea and her relatives do a majority of the drops themselves. They consider 20 orders for closer locations and 40 orders for farther destinations worthwhile, and zero in on areas that lack Middle Eastern food options. There’s a $50 minimum per order and a $5 delivery fee.

“Without this, catering would not be open,” Shea says. “We’re still only at 10 percent of our full catering business, but 50 percent of that 10 percent is coming from neighborhood deliveries.” The company is seeing tangential benefits too. “There’s just so much satisfaction in doing this. People get a taste of their past or of home or something different,” Shea says. “Talk about an ego boost at a time when you are really worried. If you’re in the food business, you’re in it because you love it, and you’ll always find a way.”

Chef for a Day

Feast box from Nina May / Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Some restaurants have helped District residents find the sweet spot between cooking dinner and ordering takeout by selling meal kits that require about 10 minutes of reheating and finishing once they’re picked up or delivered. Establishing such a service requires careful planning and new kinds of customer service skills, but the payoff is an interactive experience that may have home cooks feeling like sous chefs at their favorite eateries.

Logan Circle farm-to-table newcomer Nina May was just hitting its stride when the pandemic hit. Sales spiraled down to 10 to 20 percent of what they were previously averaging. Co-owners Colin McClimans and Danilo Simic rallied to start a meal kit service, Feast, on April 1. The venture lifted sales by 25 to 30 percent and allowed Nina May to rehire 50 percent of its employees.

“We wanted to be a neighborhood restaurant. Now is the time to prove that,” McClimans says. He didn’t want to “take the easy way out” and close. Simic says they’re back to 80 percent of pre-pandemic sales, which they believe can sustain the restaurant through winter.

Each meal kit includes a three-course dinner for two, chosen from four specialized menus that change monthly: meat, fish, gluten free, and vegetarian. Breakfast and lunch boxes are also available. McClimans, who is Nina May’s executive chef, includes reheating instructions, plating suggestions, and notes about ingredient sourcing and inspiration. The goal is to provide hospitality outside the four walls of a restaurant.

September’s meat menu for two costs $50 and features grilled Maryland peach and arugula salad; Old Bay-spiced beer can chicken with mac and cheese and squash caponata; and chocolate whoopie pies. Customers are expected to toss the salad, reheat the chicken in the oven after brushing it with barbecue sauce, warm the sides, and pipe raspberry pastry cream between the cookies to make sweet sandwiches. All equipment and heating containers are provided. “Ideally, there should be no more than 10 minutes of prep time for any menu, not including cook time,” McClimans says.

While Feast is modeled after companies like Blue Apron, it’s far less labor intensive. McClimans doesn’t want to expose people to the time suck of chopping ingredients. Nailing the messaging so that diners’ expectations are met is tricky, as is building a new website. Then there’s the matter of boxing up the meals, carefully labeling containers, and getting them out to customers.

Nina May tapped a bartender and salad cook to deliver Feast meals within 25 miles of the restaurant four days a week. There’s a $10 delivery fee and a $60 minimum per order. Tacking on Simic’s bottled cocktails can close the gap.

Feast dinner components / Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Republic Cantina had more experience with in-house delivery, positioning the Truxton Circle Tex-Mex restaurant to quickly roll out Cantina Family Feasts in April. Owner Chris Svetlik co-founded Republic Kolache, and through that “cycled through all the ways you can get products out to customers absent of a brick-and-mortar,” he says. Most applicably, Svetlik’s team delivered kolaches throughout the District on Fridays. Republic Cantina also uses its own drivers and Republic Kolache vans to bring fajita kits for two, priced from $32 to $35, to Washingtonians’ doorsteps.

Home cooks have to heat up a mixture of onions, peppers, and their protein of choice. Then comes the fun part. Republic Cantina sends par-cooked flour tortillas that need to be finished off in a skillet before serving. Customers get a kick out of watching them puff up. “It pulls back the curtain a little bit,” Svetlik says, noting his restaurant doesn’t have an open kitchen. The kit comes with rice, beans, and a set of condiments.

“One thing we got acquainted with through feedback from customers was a broad range of cooking aptitudes that exist,” Svetlik says. At first, they assumed anyone capable of reheating leftovers would get the gist of what the kits require. “The calls we’d get from folks were polite, but they wanted to make sure they were doing it right,” Svetlik says. “It was both endearing and underlined the value that restaurants play for some folks who aren’t home chefs.”

The Cantina Family Feasts, which can be ordered through Tock, were most in demand during the first weeks of the pandemic and accounted for 40 to 60 percent of Republic Cantina’s revenue Thursdays through Saturdays. Orders died down once patios reopened, but Svetlik is banking on another peak in the winter.

Both Nina May and Republic Cantina discovered that themed kits for holidays are the most lucrative. Republic Cantina filled $16,000 worth of meal kit orders for Cinco de Mayo, besting the restaurant’s previous single-day sales record by $6,000. Nina May swam in orders on Mother’s Day.

“To find this alternate tactic that was providing, most days, half of our sales was mechanically helpful in that we could pay staff and bills, but it helped psychologically, too,” Svetlik says. “It illuminated that there’s a way through this, if we think creatively.”

The Take

Pizza ready and waiting at 2Amys / Credit: Darrow Montgomery

D.C. restaurants got the green light from the city to welcome back customers when the District entered Phase One of reopening on May 29. Outdoor dining was permitted first, followed by indoor dining at 50 percent capacity when Phase Two began on June 22. But not everyone was ready to flip the switch. Some cited staff and employee safety. Others, particularly those that did not receive a Paycheck Protection Program loan, weren’t in a position to rehire employees.

Sushi Taro, Cane, The Red Hen, 2Amys Neapolitan Pizzeria, Ellē, Frankly…Pizza!, Thompson Italian, Little Serow, Habesha, Fancy Radish, and Federalist Pig are among those who have limited their operations to takeout and, in some cases, delivery.

Establishments that built loyal customer bases before the pandemic are poised to succeed at takeout. Customers are familiar with the menu and might crave their favorite dishes. They’re also emotionally invested in seeing their beloved haunts survive, and may be more forgiving when the to-go experience doesn’t live up to the magic of a night out.

The owners of 2Amys, which has enjoyed a near-religious following since debuting in 2001 near the National Cathedral, are so committed to being a takeout restaurant through 2020 that they used a forklift and pallet jack to place a pizza oven in the dining room. The move entailed installing a flue and erecting a support wall in the basement to prevent the oven from falling through the floor.

The installation of the oven resolved chef and owner Peter Pastan’s chief concern. “There’s no social distancing in kitchens,” he says. “Boxing in seven people standing next to each other in a small space all day long trying to cook? Clearly that’s a bad idea.” Three cooks can work in the prep kitchen downstairs while five can crank away at orders upstairs in the satellite kitchen. “It just seemed like the only sensible solution for me to alleviate that stress,” Pastan says.

2Amys is pulling in 60 percent of its average pre-pandemic sales with takeout. They do not offer delivery because of the commission fees third-party delivery apps charge. “We’re not profitable, but we don’t lose a ton of money, which is sustainable for a while,” he says. “Hopefully the numbers will stay fairly solid. If I sink $100,000 into the business, it’s not a big deal if we still have a restaurant at the end. It’s cheaper than opening a new one.”

Pastan acknowledges that 2Amys serves America’s original takeout food. Pizza is an easier sell than a boxed-up tasting menu from a fine dining restaurant. He counsels other restaurants to rethink what they serve. “If you have a kitchen and a staff, you can do whatever you want to do,” he says.

2Amys / Credit: Darrow Montgomery
2Amys / Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Komi, which typically serves a Greek tasting menu in Dupont Circle, switched to a more casual, takeout-only concept—Happy Gyro—at the start of the pandemic. Beuchert’s Saloon on Capitol Hill reopened as Fight Club in August with a menu of sandwiches and half smoke-stuffed hushpuppies.

Like 2Amys, Thompson Italian in Falls Church and Ellē in Mount Pleasant aren’t planning to let diners inside anytime soon. “Our main concern is the safety of our staff and guests,” says Ellē executive chef and partner Brad Deboy. His restaurant is long and narrow, making social distancing nearly impossible. “We have nothing against others, but our set-up is too tight at this point.”

Clearing out the dining room and turning it into a takeout and delivery staging area was a tougher decision for Gabe and Katherine Thompson of Thompson Italian. “We’ve been wringing our hands about it since day one,” Katherine says. “Every day, I wonder if we made a mistake by not trying to open outside and possibly indoors.”

But a long staff meeting in July uncovered that most of the team wasn’t comfortable waiting on customers. “There was a pit in our stomach,” Katherine says. “The last thing we want is for someone who works for us to catch this virus.”

The Italian restaurant presented specialty to-go options including supper trays that feed up to six people, cook-at-home pastas, and holiday menus. Gabe is from Texas and has had some luck swapping in a Tex-Mex menu to provide regulars with variety. Being in a residential neighborhood instead of an abandoned downtown office hub has its perks, according to Katherine.

She also acknowledges that limiting interactions with patrons to takeout and delivery hand-offs has another benefit. “We didn’t want to take on being the mask police,” Katherine says. When customers and restaurants clash over COVID-19 guidelines, it can debilitate employees’ mental health. “To show up to find rules and regulations seems antithetical to hospitality.”