Industry News

Resilient restaurateurs press on with new eateries optimized for uncertain times

Despite mounting challenges and uncertainties caused by the pandemic, some restaurateurs are persevering and launching new eateries tailored to the times.

Nearly 100,000 restaurants have closed either permanently or for the-long term, according to a September report from the National Restaurant Association. However, new eateries are opening at an increasing pace, a recent study by Yelp found.

“Restaurants and food businesses, an industry hit hard by the pandemic, have seen a significant number of brand-new business openings amid the increased challenges,” the restaurant review company said in its “Q3 2020 Yelp Economic Average” report.

“Yelp’s data indicates that the number of restaurant and food-based business openings are increasingly more in line with 2018 and 2019 volumes with every passing month,” the report said.

With limitations on indoor dining and elevated operational costs amid the pandemic, it’s no surprise that many of these new establishments are smaller eateries, designed to focus on off-premises dining and operate with low overhead. Food truck and pop-up restaurant openings nationwide in Q3 2020 actually exceeded figures for the same quarter in 2019 by 1,734 openings and 100 openings, respectively, Yelp found.

Pop-up restaurants are springing up across the country as restaurant operators find ways to use their existing spaces to launch new concepts with smaller menus and an emphasis on takeout and outdoor seating.

Bar Tano in New York City had to close down in March, along with its seven other Brooklyn sister restaurants. In its place, the owners have opened a pop-up on the patio called SweetTalk. Executive chef Steven Flynn created a menu inspired by his native Hawaii, which  General Manager Amy Mascena said she hoped would be transportive for diners. “No one could travel so we made it a tropical vacationing experience. We brought in a lot of bamboo and palm trees,” she told The New York Times.

Another pop-up that has sprung forth in New York City comes from chef Eric Huang, a former sous chef at Eleven Madison Park. Huang stepped down from the position at the prestigious restaurant in January in search of his next career move, and ended up at his family’s Chinese restaurant in Queens. Since returning to the family business in September, Huang has turned the restaurant into a fried chicken pop-up called Pecking House, a play on the restaurant’s original name of Peking House.

Huang runs the operation himself with the help of a couple friends, taking online orders via Instagram and delivering locally, Time Out New York reported.

The delivery-only model is one many restaurants are embracing during the pandemic, catering to elevated demand for off-premises dining. Some operators found that their existing menus didn’t translate well to takeout, so instead they created new virtual brands with menus designed to travel well.

This was the case for Washington, D.C., based Ghostburger, which launched in August out of the kitchen of Mexican restaurant Espita Mezcaleria. The hamburger- and cheesesteak- focused concept, which offers pickup and delivery, has “been a runway success,” according to Joshua Phillips, general manager and partner of Espita and Destination Unknown, Inc. The ghost kitchen is bringing in almost triple the predicted revenue, Phillips said during SmartBrief’s Food & Beverage SmartSummit last week.

The ghost kitchen approach has also proven successful for larger restaurant companies, several of which have added the virtual brands to further increase digital sales.

Chicken is a popular menu theme, and Bloomin’ Brands’ and Brinker International have launched the Tender Shack and It’s Just Wings brands, respectively. Tender Shack launched in September out of a Carrabba’s Italian Grill in Florida, and delivery -- available exclusively via DoorDash -- has already spread to more than a dozen markets across five states, FSR Magazine reported.

Brinker launched its chicken wing brand in June, preparing the food in the kitchens of 1,000 Chili’s and Maggiano’s locations. By August, it was generating sales at a rate of $150 million per year, and now the company is considering expanding the brand to a physical location, according to Restaurant Business.

“It’s Just Wings started as a virtual brand, but as we wire in execution and growth, it may take different trajectories,” CEO Wyman Roberts said on the company’s fiscal first-quarter earnings call.

It’s clear that the pandemic will leave the restaurant landscape forever changed. But as long as resilient restaurateurs continue to innovate and find new ways to keep feeding customers, it’s likely we’ll emerge from the pandemic with a host of new eateries ready for whatever comes their way. 

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