Embracing Adversity: Buca


Interview with Rob Gentile by Rosanna Caira

What have been the immediate impacts to your restaurant since COVID-19 first hit and restaurants were mandated to close?
We didn’t start doing delivery/pickup right away; our priority was to tend to our staff first and make sure they were taken care of because, unfortunately, under the circumstances we needed to lay off the majority of our staff like most restaurants. Then we gradually started with pickup/delivery once everyone was looked after.

Can you describe your strategy with regard to takeout and delivery?
We offered both pickup and delivery through our Bar Buca locations first and facilitated delivery through Uber Eats — a service that Bar Buca used already. For Buca pickup/delivery, our strategy was a bit different. We used our own platform through Silverware, with a third-party driving service for delivery and chose to operate out of our Yonge & St. Clair location that hadn’t even opened yet (we were actually only a couple of weeks from opening before the closures).

The space was fully operational, and we had a prep kitchen and lots of fridge and freezer space so from an operational and production standpoint, it was perfect but the location was also ideal. From there, we were able to reach our patrons downtown through delivery and also serve those who live midtown and north of the downtown core. In terms of offerings, we decided to include Buca favourites from our King Street and Yorkville locations and introduced new items that can be prepared or cooked at home — basically, a Buca takeout/delivery menu representative of all of our concepts with added accessible menu items that enhanced people’s food experiences at home, making it easy and fun for them to cook Buca at home.

To date, what have been the challenges and opportunities of this pivoting?
Trying to perfect a completely different style of service and business model in such a short time had its challenges, but our guest feedback has been incredibly valuable — both from a menu-development standpoint and from an operational perspective. When we started, we received so many orders and it took a bit until we got into the rhythm of it all. By no means is it perfect, but since we started, we’ve been able to evolve and establish efficiencies to better serve our patrons while also ensuring operational efficiencies after a few weeks of practice.

Now we know what works for us to execute and what our guests are really enjoying and we continue to expand those offerings, like our cook-at-home options, which are super popular. We ended up implementing a whole menu on Sundays with those items because there was a demand for it.

One of the biggest opportunities was that we were able to expand retail, which is something we’ve always wanted to do but could never fully develop. Now it’s all we can do, so we’re packaging our sauces, pasta, salumi and coming up with really interesting ideas based on this experience. We’re even selling frozen lasagna and pizzas through one of our suppliers, Woodward Meat, as well as on our own menu. It’s allowed us to really be creative and develop this area of our business, which has been amazing. Working with Woodward enables us to reach another audience and, when you are running restaurants, it’s not always easy to get these programs going.

Recently, we were even able to do a special delivery day in Vaughan, Ont. because a lot of our guests live there and it was difficult for them to make it into the city for pickup, so we’re continually evolving and extending our program to make it as accessible as possible. It’s a different way of connecting with patrons, but just as valuable as when they’re in the restaurants; it’s been a really great experience.

How do you anticipate your business/industry may change moving forward?
It will take a while for people to become used to dining out again and from this experience, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more restaurants expanding their online platforms and retail products to continue to stay connected with their patrons and to maintain their presence and offering to their audience. At the end of the day though, going out for a dining experience is an exciting event that we all find joy in and you can’t replicate a dinner out with friends the same way at home.

What lessons have you and your team learned from this experience?
The restaurant industry keeps you on your toes on a regular day, but this experience has enabled us to act even quicker and rapidly evolve in an environment we didn’t have any control over. During regular operations, at least you have some control — you train your team, there are procedures in place and steps we take every day during service in order to run the restaurant and provide our guests with the best hospitality we can. But there is no hospitality playbook on this — the small team we had left collaborated and worked very hard to keep moving forward and get better so we could extend the Buca hospitality experience virt-ually and continue to cook for our community and patrons. I’m very proud of the team and it’s such a joy to see our audience embrace our offerings and cheer everyone on; it means a lot. This really makes you realize what’s possible and what you’re capable of.

What kind of safety precautions have you been taking to ensure consumers feel safe ordering food from your restaurant?
Like everyone, we are adhering to all of the government workplace safety guidelines and have implemented additional measures of our own in order to protect our staff and our guests. We’re constantly disinfecting high-touchpoint surfaces — our staff wears masks and gloves and work physically distant from each other. We limit the number of people in the venue at any given time and enforce social distancing throughout the entire restaurant. There are very few people working and picking up food within the space our pickup area has been positioned very far away from the kitchen and we’ve developed a system to ensure pickup is quick and contactless.

During this time, a lot of business have stepped up to help the greater community. Have you introduced any initiatives on this front?
Our Number-1 priority was to first take care of our community of employees, so we began with implementing programs internally to support our teams. From there, we’ve since been involved in various collaborations and initiatives that support hospitals, long-term care homes and the restaurant industry as a whole. We’re always looking to help our community in whatever capacity we can.

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Rosanna Caira is the editor and publisher of Kostuch Media’s Foodservice and Hospitality, and Hotelier magazines. In her capacity as editor of Canada’s two leading hospitality publications, Rosanna directs the editorial and graphic content of both publications, and is responsible for the editorial vision of the magazines, its five websites as well as the varied tertiary products including e-newsletters, supplements and special projects. In addition to her editorial duties, Rosanna also serves as publisher of the company, directing the strategic development of the Sales and Marketing, Production and Circulation departments. Rosanna is the face of the magazines, representing the publications at industry functions and speaking engagements. She serves on various committees and Boards, including the Board of Directors of the Canadian Hospitality Foundation. She is a recipient of the Ontario Hostelry’s Gold Award in the media category. In 2006, Rosanna was voted one of the 32 most successful women of Italian heritage in Canada. Rosanna is a graduate of Toronto’s York University, where she obtained a BA degree in English literature.

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