San Francisco chef Dominique Crenn met with staff one day in mid-March when she learned that coronavirus restrictions would shut down the dining room at her famous restaurant, Atelier Crenn. Immediately everyone started to think.
âWe said, ‘OK, who are we? We are people of service to the people, always here to feed the community, âsaid Crenn.
Since then, Crenn and a small team – 20 of the 70 people she usually employs – have prepared hundreds of meals for medics and firefighters. They sent meals to a nearby domestic violence shelter. They started a take-out business, selling multi-course tasting menus – a luxury seven-course kit costs $ 145 – and even a wine tasting kit.
Crenn is in good company. Chefs at many of the world’s best restaurants are making quick pivots to overcome coronavirus. Some say take-out has been so popular it will continue when dining rooms reopen. Others remained closed but prepared meals for their staff on leave.
Alinea in Chicago welcomed her guests with an 18-course tasting menu at $ 365; he’s now cooking up a six-take-out feast for $ 49.95. Copenhagen’s Noma, which usually requires reservations months in advance, has opened an open-air burger and wine bar. Friends in Singapore sell groceries like homemade butter and caviar.
Restaurants have been hit hard by the novel coronavirus. In the United States alone, the industry lost 6 million jobs in March and April. But gastronomy has been the hardest hit, explains David Portalatin, industrial advisor at The NPD Group. At an April low, fine dining deals in the United States were down 82% from a year ago, he said.
Fourteen American restaurants – including Atelier Crenn and Alinea – have obtained the highest rating of three stars in the Michelin Guide. Of these, only one – The Inn at Little Washington in rural Virginia – has reopened its half-capacity dining room. The restaurant has placed mannequins on its empty tables to make the space more inviting.
Some three-star restaurants, like The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., And Gordon Ramsey Restaurant in London, have temporarily closed their doors, saying it was the best way to protect customers and staff. Others do not offer take out but continue to cook. Eleven Madison Park in New York City prepares 3,000 meals a day for frontline workers.
In Paris, celebrity chef Alain Ducasse launched Ducasse Chez Moi, offering delivery of dishes like salmon ceviche for $ 14 and crusted foie gras for $ 28. The delivery was so popular that it will continue when the restaurants in Ducasse reopen.
Alinea switched to takeout on March 17th. Since then, it has served 82,000 meals, said Nick Kokonas, co-owner of the restaurant. It started with $ 35 entrees like Beef Wellington, which sold out nightly, and moved on to tasting menus.
Kokonas said the postponement was such a success that Alinea hired all of its employees at the end of April at 80% of their old salary and benefits. He believes the take-out will stick even after the restaurant’s dining room reopens later this summer.
Chicago behavior analyst Toshi Szpyra looked forward to celebrating her wedding anniversary at Alinea earlier this month. Instead, she and her husband ordered a six-course spring tasting menu. Each dish was prepared with instructions on how to reheat and prepare the meal, she said. The climax ? Scallops with ham and peas on fennel with a creamy white wine vermouth sauce.
âIt’s a great way for them to bring the experience to people who may not have had the chance to be there yet,â she said. Szpyra plans to order takeout from Alinea again.
Some fine dining restaurants are using the closure to redesign their interiors or revamp their menus, said David Mitroff, restaurant consultant and founder of Piedmont Avenue Consulting. Restaurants of this caliber need to keep things fresh and interesting, he said.
Others are completely rethinking the experience. Quince, a three-star restaurant in San Francisco, will likely be closed until fall. But starting in July, co-owner Lindsay Tusk plans to offer lunches and dinners at the Marin County farm that grows the restaurant’s produce.
âIt serves a higher purpose right now. Gastronomy is not what we need. Connecting around nature and food in beautiful surroundings and providing an authentic experience – that’s what we need, âshe said.
Tusk typically employs 170 people in three restaurants: Quince, the less formal brother Cotogna, and the Verjus wine bar. Most are on leave, but she was able to rehire about 25 people to help out on the farm. Others will return soon.
âIt’s tough right now, but we hope to break even in the next few months,â she said.
Upscale restaurants have things going for them. Landlords like the prestige they convey, so they’re more likely to give them a break from rent, Mitroff said.
Many great chefs also have other ways to make money, such as TV shows and cookbooks. Manresa, a three-star restaurant in Los Gatos, Calif., Made its extensive wine list available alongside takeout and made over $ 50,000 just by selling wine, largely to collectors at looking for rare bottles. Crenn just published a brief and she used a $ 50,000 donation from Lexus to prepare meals for medical workers.
Even when restrictions allow restaurants to reopen, they will have to decide if it makes financial sense. High-end restaurants spend less on food than regular restaurants because their portions are smaller, Mitroff said. But they spend more on labor because they have more specialized workers like pastry chefs and sommeliers. The work has approached 50% of their total costs, he estimates.
Upscale restaurants can turn a profit because they fill their tables every night. But if the restaurant is only at partial capacity, the calculation may not work. That’s why The Inn at Little Washington now offers two seats per night instead of one.
Crenn plans to reopen the dining room at Atelier Crenn on July 14. It can only accommodate 28 people and the tables are far from each other. But the coronavirus also made her think and want to try new things, such as meal deliveries for the elderly.
âIt’s more work than I expected, but it’s one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had in my life,â she said.