My father was right—damn him—when throughout my childhood he pounded into my head the tired old adage ‘success is a results business’. Of course, he was gently pointing out that all of my futile dreams; the fantasy of playing drums for Rush despite a lack of talent or a vacancy behind the kit, the almost suicidal move to New York City without friends or a job—or money, or the notion that I could write a bestseller without reading, were ill-conceived and therefore would be ill-achieved. All three endeavors, as he predicted, ended without fanfare or a single dime in renumeration.
One need only delve subcutaneously into my recent work history to realize that my father is a sage and that what I’m about to write about authoritatively should be taken with a grain of kosher salt. I have no Horatio Alger story on how to keep a restaurant open during a pandemic. The restaurant I was working in when COVID-19 hit, while doing heroic things until the doors closed, is still shuttered six months later and I am in another state looking for work. There’s a but in there though.
As co-founder of Feed the Frontlines, Memphis and The Restaurant Phoenix Project—both non-profit entities created, in part, to keep our Memphis restaurants open, I have been in close proximity to my brothers and sisters still fighting battles behind the stove and in the dining room. I’ve observed the gamut; from the noble chef sticking to his pre-COVID guns and not making a single tweak to his business model to the smarter chef who’s capable and willing to change his formula on a dime. Let’s look at both models and make predictions on who will still be around this time next year.
Case study: The chef/restaurateur who refuses to pivot.
Sticking to my guns has been the one tenet of my professional career that I’m proud of most. When the owners/general managers of my past demanded horrifying things of me such as: ‘put a catfish dish on the dinner menu’, ‘buy frozen fish, it’s cheaper’, ‘use margarine, butter is too expensive’, ‘smaller portion sizes’, ‘work barbeque into your offerings, ‘do a kid’s menu’, I’d ignore them or walk out. Or, in the case of margarine, I’d grab a few dollars out of the register, go around the corner to the Kroger, buy blocks of generic butter and have my dishwasher carefully re-wrap them when the owner wasn’t looking. Margarine, in particular, I find extremely offensive. Demanding that I switch from unsalted butter to margarine is like telling Eric Clapton to use a guitar purchased at Walmart. Wait, that came out wrong. I definitely don’t see myself as the Eric Clapton of cooking–maybe an opening act–but you get my drift. I’ve got standards that don’t include margarine.
But these are tough times. Musicians are playing virtual concerts from home. Eric Clapton is probably sitting around eating crumpets and clotted cream and getting fat. And restaurant customers are afraid of setting foot in a brick and mortar restaurant for fear of catching the virus. That fear is creating a disconnect between those chefs who refuse to change paradigms and those who want to eat that chef’s food. Unfortunately for those stubborn chefs who would rather draw an invisible line in the sand than sell anything less than a true representation of their culinary prowess, shutdown maybe be imminent. It’s time to reinvent integrity. Or at the very least, it’s time for chefs and restaurateurs to reassess their business models. Sticking to a stodgy, expensive menu larded with unfamiliar terminology or painfully coursed our prefix menus isn’t going to save your restaurant. I get it, though. That’s what you do, what you’ve become known for, but you, Mr. My Way or The Highway, are days or weeks away from being a hitchhiker on a highway of your own paving. You will have no one but yourself, with your high moral authority, to blame when you have to turn the front door keys over to the landlord.
I know one chef who simply refuses to do carry out business because his seafood-heavy menu “doesn’t translate well in to-go containers”. At first blush, I respect the hell out of the guy for maintaining high standards in a worldwide pandemic. But let’s follow this to its inevitable conclusion. What’s the solution to that icy grouper with congealed, broken butter sauce and unappetizing wilted escarole? Can you somehow jury rig a cost effective to go scenario that ensures hot, flaky flesh and a warm, emulsified sauce even after the dish has been transported untold miles and left unlovingly on someone’s counter until grandma can scale the basement stairs to the dining room? No, you probably cannot. That is, unless you’re going to buy some of those insulted Domino’s pizza carriers and deliver the fish yourself. Not to sound arrogant, but maybe, just maybe you take fish dishes off the to go menu and focus on sturdy items like lasagna, soups, salads (with dressings on the side) and partially cooked entrees that can be reheated or finished in someone’s oven. These items tend to translate well and, for the most part, have a much lower food cost. Again, I know…you’re the fish restaurant. People love you for your spit in their eye, food cost be damned devotion to the seafood stylings of the Catalan coast; the beautiful mini-octopi, the oily little fish, the sexy simplicity of a wood-grilled bronzino stuffed with fennel and orange but what’s the point of that line you’ve drawn in the sand if all of that Mediterranean amazingness tastes like Starkist tuna salad when the customer finally gets to eat it? I think it’s time to open your eyes up to little foil containers of lasagna and heat and serve casseroles, personally. Hell, make a fish lasagna. Or what about a cold fish salad with Romesco sauce? A good chef can do anything. Fish lasagna is easy. The name sound unappetizing? Call it lasana de pescado. I don’t know. What I do know is—from observing the scene these six months—the restaurants that are thinking outside the hot fish tasting menu, pivoting to carry out or simpler fare like burgers, lasagna and pizza are surviving the pandemic meatgrinder. You can go back to the fine dining stuff once we get the all clear. Until then, be glad you’re selling food.
Case in point, look what the Patrick and Deni Reilly did with their cavernous, downtown restaurant, The Majestic. Known for twelve years as a pre-theatre destination restaurant with a menu of chef-driven takes on classic bistro dishes, the Reilly’s, on a dime, recreated The Majestic, transforming the former movie theatre into a to-go/outdoor dining only red sauce joint called Cocozza. Without throngs of Orpheum-goers to fill seats, it was a fairly riskless metamorphosis and one that, by all accounts, is producing tasty food with far less overhead. I’m sure Patrick—a deep dyed Irishman—wasn’t excited about cozying up to American Italian food. But he also wasn’t too precious with his original concept. Because of that, the Reilly’s are keeping their heads above water.
Miles Tamboli is another chameleon-like owner who has created a worthy blueprint on how to forge ahead and stay solvent in a world falling to pieces. Just yesterday it was announced that his year-old restaurant, Tamboli’s Pizza and Pasta, was awarded New Restaurant of The Year in the Memphis Flyer’s Readers Poll. This year especially, that distinction is a heroic statement. Most restaurant statisticians understand that the likelihood of closure is great in new restaurants but to open a small, family-run restaurant months before a worldwide pandemic and still be standing—atop the heap, no less—almost defies logic. His success owes in no small measure to his soccer goalie-like agility to leap, reach, and catch revenue out of the ether. His well-advertised commitment to local purveyors and to his fleet of young (mostly attractive) servers/social media virtuosos who, with laser precision, target paying customers with cute graphics, ingenious concepts (like the Tamboli P+P mobile grocery pantry) and good PR are smart grabs as well. Don’t discount the Calvin Klein vibe when you walk in to Tamboli’s. Those underwear model looking servers are brutal with their Tik Tok and Facebook accounts. They could sell AK-47s to Buddhist monks. Miles’ business is dependent on them.
I have a couple suggestions of my own that might work too. One thing we’ve done that has been successful during the pandemic—and when I say we, I’m mean the founders of the Restaurant Phoenix Project (myself, my wife Kristin and long-time friend Bobby Maupin)—is to harness restaurant industry partnerships and public goodwill by doing collaborative dinners. These dinners, designed for maximum fanfare, are an offshoot of the Chef Partnership dinners we did at Caritas. The idea is to get two well-known chefs who haven’t cooked together behind the same stove for a three-course dinner with wine pairings. I’ve found over the years that alone I can attract enough interest to fill one dinner, but subsequent interest seems to wane. McMillin, again? But, by pairing Jimmy Gentry of Paradox Consulting and Catering with Ben Smith of Tsunami, for example, we were able to sell out two back to back dinners like they were Led Zeppelin reunion tickets. This month, we are featuring Michael Patrick of Rizzo’s with Dave Krog from (yet to open) Restaurant Dory. That one is sold out as well. We’ve found that by creating that buzz and showing the dining public that they can eat great food in a safe environment, steady business follows for the featured restaurants.
Don’t have relationships with other chefs? Are you an insular mom and pop Mexican restaurant? Have you reached out to the very accessible food journalists in town? I can tell you from experience that Jennifer Biggs from the Daily Memphian, Jennifer Chandler from the Commercial Appeal, Michael Donahue from The Memphis Flyer and Stacey Greenberg, Editor in Chief for Edible Memphis are always looking for things to write about. Create a buzz-worthy dinner idea and send one of them an email. Why couldn’t you feature the cuisine of different regions of Mexico in a bi-weekly format? One dinner is Oaxaca, next time Mexico City. Pair dishes from those regions or cities with interesting beverages—they don’t have to be adult beverages, what about agua frescas—and you’ve got a potential restaurant saving idea. You see what I’m getting at? Your job as a chef/restaurateur at this point is not only to cook, manage, take temperatures and contact trace, your job is also to pull scared customers off their sofas and plant them in your dining room. Believe me, most folks are ready to get away from their houses at this point. They just need a good reason to leave and trust that they won’t catch the coronavirus.
If Grant Achatz, wunderkind chef of ground-breaking Alinea in Chicago can keep his Willy Wonka-version of fine dining alive by feeding Chicago lasagna Bolognese, fried chicken sandwiches, sushi (wtf??) and Oreo cookie crumble budino in plastic deli cups, you can too. And should. A well-made lasagna Bolognese sold into a tin foil rectangle is the new Lamb, Mastic, Date and Rosemary Vapor.
And burgers. Every chef worth a shit has one now. Make the bun, use an interesting cheese, a proprietary grind. So what if you’re a Mexican restaurant. Burgers are in. Make one with a blend of chorizo, ground beef and fairy dust. Oh…also consider putting a New York style pastrami on rye on the menu. Have you noticed these popping up around Memphis? Karen Carrier (The Beauty Shop and Bar DKDC), no slouch of a restaurateur herself, opened up Hazel’s Lucky Dice Delicatessen in August out of Bar DKDC. The foodie intelligentsia went bonkers. Other restaurants in town jumped on the popularity and now there’s a deli trend circulating around the kitchen of Memphis. Watch for the latest machination to pop up at Tyson Bridge’s downtown restaurant, The Paramount.
Ok, so maybe I’m getting a little preachy. One might read into all of this that I believe I have a gun full of magic bullets that will save our industry. But I’m aware that my advice could very well be a game of Russian roulette. I don’t understand the inner struggles of restaurants currently operating in this insane environment. I’m out of the game. Maybe morphing your beloved Mediterranean fish restaurant into a dumbed down lasagna barn will be the final straw. It’s easy to sit back and dole out advice, harder to clock in and try to figure out how to save a restaurant, I guess. I can see my colleagues gathered around a computer reading this and laughing at my ignorance. I will say, the accrual of sadness brought about by the closings of Puck Food Hall—a once promising distant cousin of Boston’s Quincy Market, The Grove Grill, Farm and Fries, Josh Steiner’s Strano, Jimmy Gentry and Chris Thorn’s version of Interim, Lucky Cat Ramen and the fear of suffering the same fate by almost everyone else still in operation, is jarring to me. I’ve never seen such a rapid fire loss of quality restaurants. I’m not one to sit by and watch things fall apart. As a restaurant community we need to form coalitions and think tanks. We need to collaborate and support each other.
And maybe reconsider that kid’s menu.