When dining-rooms shuttered across the country, operators were forced to re-think their takeout strategies in order to survive. While some segments — such as quick-service and fast-casual restaurants — were better suited to pivot, for others, a number of challenges presented themselves.
“We’ve always taken pride in having a very diverse portfolio,” says Nick Di Donato, president and CEO of Liberty Entertainment Group (LEG). “We go from casual dining (Cibo Wine Bar), which always offered takeout and was ready to move forward [during COVID-19], to BlueBlood, a very high-end steakhouse with very expensive products.”
With the average check at BlueBlood ranging between $75 to $100 per person, ensuring the quality of the takeout experience matched that of in-restaurant dining was a challenge. “When people are spending that kind of money, they want to have that quality. We knew steak would lend itself to being able to be packaged, because the quality of steak would resonate, but [the challenge was] finding the right packaging, the right containers, the right products.”
Making space to offer takeout safely, while adhering to physical-distancing guidelines, can also prove challenging — especially to restaurants with smaller footprints. For Vancouver-based Browns Restaurant Group, (BRG) which has a number of casual-dining brands under its umbrella, that meant re-thinking the layout of their restaurants.
“We’ve increased takeout packaging and pick-up area allocation, as well as designating specific driver access doors wherever possible to reduce contact occasions,” explains Bruce Fox, executive vice-president, Business Development for Browns (BRG).
Changing consumer behaviour also impacted takeout success, says Di Donato. “[Our takeout business] fluctuates based on timing and periods. For example, during special events such as the Christmas season or Thanksgiving, it goes up a little bit, but I found it slowed down a little bit in January, because people are staying at home and making their own food — they may be getting tired of takeout all the time.”
While takeout is not a substitute for in-restaurant dining, Di Donato says government wage and rent subsidies are making it a sustainable alternative in the short term and, long-term, will help make re-opening the dining-room easier.
“Right now, I’ve got my executive chef for every restaurant, I’ve got my general manager, my sous chef and her other assistant manager, all working. And so, when I’m re-opening, they can create and build our team.
While Cibo Wine Bar already had the logistics of takeout — from online ordering to packaging and containers — Di Donato wondered about the feasibility of BlueBlood offering its menu to go. It was here he found an unexpected opportunity with a consumer base craving the finer things.
“We decided it was feasible to create some fantastic products, but we’d have to scale it a little bit so it would be more accessible to homes,” says Di Donato, adding choosing the right packaging, containers and products was key to maintaining both food quality and the concept’s fine-dining image. “We found that, after the first month or two of people being locked down and having casual food every single day, there was a demand and need for high-end dining at home.”
BlueBlood’s current takeout offerings include Alaskan Crab Fritters with dill and jalapeño aioli ($22), Short-Rib Wellington ($55), a selection of steaks ($60 to $75), side dishes, sauces and desserts. Di Donato says every order is also packed with a hand-written note from the BlueBlood team.
Overall, LEG used the challenges thrown at it by the pandemic to find opportunities to re-visit and re-think its pickup model “and really fine tune them to be more effective and make it a part of our business. We’ve gone through the effort of creating many [takeout] packages — cost effective ones —and can produce a great product to take home, so that will stay with us moving forward.”
One of the biggest opportunities, says Di Donato, has been the new ability to sell wine and spirits as part of the company’s takeaway and delivery options. “This was not previously permitted, but the new government provisions mean we can include a selection of wine and beer for delivery, which has allowed us to increase our sales.”
He’s also taken the opportunity to “cut the fat” when it comes to operations. “We’ve become lean, more effective and have been forced to look at our weekly and monthly costs and come up with ways to do things a little more cost effectively. This business really is a nickel-and-dime business so cutting some of those costs and being more effective will make a difference — and that will continue on as we come out of this.”