The global Covid-19 pandemic hit the restaurant industry in U.S. Northeastern cities like New York and Boston with an incredible and nearly unexpected force, a bit like a tsunami that surged and almost overnight washed away the entire cultural practice of eating out.
And for all the challenges and difficulties he’s faced since the start of the shutdown that forced his many New England establishments to close their doors, the worst part, Legendary Restaurant Group Chef and Owner Chris Damian told PYMNTS, was knowing in early March it was coming and being able to do nothing to stop it.
Damian said he knew the pandemic was going to be bad, much worse than most people were predicting in early March because his catering division suddenly saw so many cancellations on behalf of various global events for which they’d been hired.
“I saw this was going to be really bad,” Damian said, adding that he remembered desperately trying to explain that to a third-party contractor earlier this year, without much success. “I told that person, I said, ‘this is going to be bad. And what I heard was ‘Oh, you’re crazy. You’re crazy,’ this is going to be nothing.’”
Unfortunately, Damian was right. About a week after that conversation, the state of Massachusetts closed up tight and the Legendary Restaurant Group had a lot of quick pivots to make and some tough triaging to do. Now that the state stands at the start of its reopening, Damian tells PYMNTS that there are some reasons for optimism — mainly in consumers’ literal hunger to begin dining out again. However, there are also many challenges still ahead as restaurants radically rethink their offerings to survive.
Rewriting The Business Plan In Real Time
When the pandemic first started, Legendary had four physical restaurants in operation: Papagayo, Sip Wine Bar, Burger Dive and Max & Dylans, as well as a fifth restaurant concept in the works, Aoki Poke.
When the pandemic forced all four to close, Damian noted, they had to make some tough choices about their restaurants. Burger Dive and Max & Dylans both had dedicated fan bases, but they were too large and too expensive in a way that couldn’t be simply offset by switching them to delivery. In the case of Max & Dylans, their choices were further spurred by “getting an offer we couldn’t refuse” from Citibank to take over the lease on its location. And so, he noted, the choice was made to close down its physical location for good. However, a few weeks into the pandemic, it occurred to the restaurant group that they could be resurrected the eatery in a new form — as takeout only without physical locations.
“We figured at this point in time we had a great opportunity to pivot and reopen them as takeout and delivery models. We were looking for an opportunity to get [the] frequency of takeout and delivery working within the restaurants, not to mention popularize these brands that people knew but hadn’t seen in a while. So I started looking at whether I can relaunch this within our square footage from an existing restaurant because that lends to productivity [and] production, as I don’t have to bring in a new team or a new staff. And it allowed us to take up our sushi concept, Aoki Poke, from the planning to execution stages just in a matter of days using this ghost kitchen idea.”
And the results of rewriting their restaurant models around a ghost kitchen concept have, so far, been very positive, he said. Consumer feedback has been positive because they like being able to navigate from a single touchpoint to order all the possible food offerings available under the Legendary brands. Moreover, he noted, they see it in their sales figures around consumers’ dining frequencies. Where they might have had a single interaction with a consumer at the destination dining spot Sip, is now expanding to multiple interactions simply because they are offering more dining choices under their digital banner.
“Now we’re getting them for two, three experiences, possibly even four experiences in the course of a week,” Damian said.
The Rocky Road To Recovery
As physical establishments are reopening, the complexities are so numerous, Damian noted, that restarting in many ways feels like opening up a whole new business. He added that shortly before starting his conversation with PYMNTS, he and his staff had been placing tape marks on the restaurant’s floor to better manage the physical distancing requirements.
And, he noted, the challenges only go on from there, as this week they can reopen their Boston-based Sip Wine Bar for outside seating. The staff reworked its 75-person patio dining space so that all tables are 6 feet apart and now they can still seat about 52 people at a time. They also eliminated their physical menus in favor of QR codes diners can scan to see the menu on their phones. The changes, Damian noted, are complex and a work in progress. Those changes are something he imagines he and his staff will spend the next several weeks adjusting as the situation presents itself.
“The plan so far is what we have been doing: get the information, adjust, get more information, adjust more, get more information, keep adjusting.”
And, he noted, Legendary is not unique in this regard. Being flexible and adaptable to rapidly changing conditions on the ground is what everyone in the industry has had to learn to do to survive the last 12 weeks — and what they will have to continue to focus upon to survive the next 12.
But, he noted, the light at the end of the tunnel for him and most chefs out there are the consumers themselves who seem hungry to eat a meal served to them by a waiter in a restaurant.
“I think restaurants represent the last bastion of high touch, social experiences. In the last two days, I’ve had 30 or 40 text messages from people I know asking if my patio is open yet. I think people will be careful, but I also think that they will be out there and looking really hard to be able to have that experience again to be perfectly honest.”