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Utah Business

Delivery won’t save our restaurants

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for restaurants. Utah’s eating establishments were closed to diners from mid-March to May 1, putting 15,000 employees in Salt Lake City restaurants and bars alone in jeopardy of losing their jobs, according to the Downtown Alliance. That’s left restauranteurs to turn to delivery and pick up orders in order to survive. 

Nationally, delivery sales jumped by nearly 70 percent in March, according to retail analyst NPD. But local owners say they expect a continued reliance on delivery and pick up orders for months after Utah re-opened for dine-in eating starting in early May. Customers will be slow to return, they believe, either scared by the possibility of catching the virus or put off by socially distanced dining.

“People are still scared or reluctant,” says Daniel Yuswadi, owner of MakanMakan Asian StrEat Food Fare in Sandy. As of early May, not even one-fourth of the restaurant was being used for dine-in customers. Delivery hasn’t made up the difference—business is drastically lower than before the pandemic, he said—but restaurant staff continue to show up to make curry and rice and noodle dishes. “Even though we have a very, very minimal profit,” he says, “we gotta do it. Minimal is still a dollar.”

Restaurants are getting innovative

While Yuswadi is struggling, he is sympathetic to potential diners. “I cannot expect more from the people. I know there are many people struggling. Everybody is in this very, very tough situation. All I can say is whoever can afford it, really supports the local businesses.” 

The new economy has led some owners, who viewed delivery or pick-up as gravy to their restaurant’s meat-and-potatoes dine-in business, to rely on it to (barely) make ends meet—and they’re finding innovative ways to do so.

Laziz Kitchen, for one, offered an online cooking class (participants got an ingredient list ahead of time) to make Lebanese vermicelli rice and tabbouleh with poetry readings as an appetizer and dessert. Yoshi’s Japanese Grill, for another, lets diners sign up for a sushi-making class online―they can pick up their meal-prep kit beforehand and attend the meeting via Zoom. 

Similarly, Beaumont Bakery sells croissants to be made at home and The Baking Hive created cookie and cupcake decorating kits for kids and weekly delivery bakery boxes, featuring treats like eclairs, cookies, truffles, and tarts. 

Even upscale restaurants now offer free delivery, family-sized specials, or take-and-bake options: Table X created local boxes of seasonal produce (with recipes on how to use them) along with other food staples, as well as bread boxes featuring their addictive sourdough, house-cultured butter, and honey. 

Provisions came up with daily family specials to-go―for $20, families can order three-course meals, including delicacies such as smoked pork shoulder, with free delivery within three miles of its Millcreek location. Diners can take-and-bake Pago’s grass-fed beef and bechamel lasagna, as well as purchase various pasta sauces should they wish to play gourmand at home. Families can also pick from five to six appetizers and entrees from Stanza Italian Bistro’s new carry-out family menu. 

When we stopped eating out, our restaurants were forced to get creative. Unfortunately, creativity isn’t always enough to save our restaurants.

But that’s not enough to keep them in business

Though COVID-19 forced many restaurants to get innovative, that innovation won’t necessarily keep the lights on. 

Meili Myles, who runs BGR (Burgers Grilled Right) in Sugar House, added a burger bar for four, six, or eight people to the restaurant’s online order system, but that doesn’t change the fact that business is down. “Our restaurant was mostly dine-in before all this happened,” Myles says. “Now it’s 10 percent dine-in.”

Myles successfully applied for the Paycheck Protection Program, the federal stimulus program that pays for two months of payroll costs, but it will be tough for the business to continue on its current trajectory. “We’ve got to figure out how to survive beyond the eight weeks,” she says.

Delivery apps like Grubhub and DoorDash aren’t helping. While they can connect restaurants with customers, they also eat up 20 to 40 percent of the profits from the total order. That’s led some cities to place caps on delivery fees. “Those delivery services charge us, the restaurant owners, horrific amounts of money,” says Eddee Johansen, owner of Yoshi’s Japanese Grill. “There’s no way you can pay these guys 20 to 30 percent of your sales and make money.”

Johansen urges customers to pick up their orders, instead. “It’s so much better if you would come to the restaurant and pick it up,” he says. 

Yoshi’s is open for dine-in, but business was slow in May. Johansen had enough delivery and take-out orders from his long-standing Murray location―which has been open for 18 years―to make up for lack of dine-in customers. Still, “over the next two to three months, delivery and curbside is here to stay for me. It may be the new world that we live in,” he says.

A new delivery service hopes to help

Besides urging customers to pick up their orders—some restaurants were only allowing pick up orders in mid-May—a local delivery company is growing to meet the demand. 

Chefpanzee distinguishes itself from national competitors by only delivering local food, and providing marketing, too. It started with once-a-week deliveries, now it is on-demand, offering food from Argentina, India, Senegal, Haiti, Jamaica, Afghanistan, and Japan. 

Started by husband-wife team Caleb Askins and Indu Sudhakar, they want the service to be less transactional and more about community: “[We wanted] to make it more about local chefs and who they are instead of just ordering food,” Sudhakar says.

Chefpanzee’s unique model includes cooking videos, chef interviews, and a tasting panel of influencers and foodies who vet the dishes. That’s led to a higher level of engagement among customers, leading them to spend up to 30 percent more than Grubhub customers on average, says Askins. When they order online diners, “know they’re going to get something good,” he says. “That goes a long way.”

“We make it a point to differentiate ourselves as authentic. These places are vetted,” Askins says.

The company says their fees are less than the main apps—one restaurant pegged it at 9.1 percent. “Their fee is completely manageable,” says Johansen. “This is a good solution to this problem we’re having.”

Sagato Bakery & Café―which serves food from New Zealand, Australia, and the Polynesian region of the Pacific―is a Chefpanzee client, and they agree. Co-owner Verona Sagato says shifting to delivery has changed the way she and her family run the bakery. 

Instead of welcoming customers with fun music, they’ve had to keep customers at bay with a register at the door. “This is a drastic change,” she says. “The challenge is getting used to a new way of operating. Change, no matter how good or bad is never easy. It’s training our employees and really not just employees, really trying to get our customers to understand.”

Sagato says her customers have been overwhelmingly supportive: They, along with strangers, have bought gift cards to keep the bakery afloat. Someone left homemade masks for the employees and some pick up their food and sit with friends in the parking lot on their lawn chairs. “It makes me want to cry,” she says. “I love that everyone, for the most part, is pretty accepting of what our current situation is.”

When we stopped eating out, our restaurants were forced to get creative. Unfortunately, creativity isn’t always enough to save our restaurants.