Restaurants Pivot to Survive the Pandemic

The current COVID-19 pandemic has affected every part of the food industry, yet it’s encouraging to see how some restaurants have been able to pivot and make the most of a very difficult situation. Whether it’s a small independent restaurant or a national or regional chain, those that have been able to update their menus and continue serving customers with a variety of options that include fresh produce are helping to ensure consumers still have access to creative, healthy meal options.

Ultimately, some restaurants have been able to pivot, while others have had to make the difficult decision to close; in some cases, temporarily, and in others, possibly for good. Restaurants that were able to quickly shift their operations and offer solutions to diners have been able to maintain operations.

Meals that appeal to families have been one successful strategy. Chef Steve Sturm, senior vice president of food and beverage for the Charlotte, NC-based national chain Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, created an updated menu that includes a new Family Meal Deal. “Just like every other restaurant, we’re only doing takeout and delivery. We’ve reduced the size of our menu and are focusing on items that are popular and travel well, like salads. We’ve also added family meal bundles that incorporate fresh produce to ensure a balanced meal.” Examples of dishes within the Family Meal Deal include wood-grilled chicken with smashed potatoes and wood-grilled salmon with broccoli. Both options include a choice of mixed greens or a BLT salad.

Some restaurants are also featuring make-it-at-home meal kits to keep kids occupied. Deconstructed dishes, such as make-your-own-pizza, showcasing a range of fresh top-pings, or make-your-own-sundae with fresh fruit, have made an appearance on some menus. California Pizza Kitchen is offering a lettuce wrap kit that includes ingredients for making lettuce wraps at home, such as water chestnuts, lettuce cups, mushrooms and green onions, while independent Chicago restaurant Happy Camper is offering a DIY Pizza Kit with two small pizza doughs, several cheeses like mozzarella and provolone, marinara sauce, pepperoni and Caesar salad.

Additional restaurants offering a similar family meal concept include chains like Flower Child and Panera Bread, as well as independent restaurant Honey Salt in Las Vegas. At Flower Child, the health-driven brand from Fox Restaurant Concepts, customers can choose from a range of proteins and salads that feed four to six people, while large sides feed two to three people, with options like a Family Chopped Vegetable Salad or a Large Clementine & Organic Apple platter.

Panera Bread is offering meals for four people that include two half sandwiches, two kids’ sandwiches, a whole salad, mac & cheese, and a baguette. And at Honey Salt, the restaurant offers a veggie lasagna family dinner that serves four and includes dinner rolls, house salad with field greens, vegetable lasagna with broccolini and zucchini, and apple cobbler for dessert.

For some operators, providing grocery staples that may be out of stock at retail stores in their area have been another business solution. In mid-March, soon after closing her dining room, Bonnie Morales, executive chef & owner of Kachka in Portland, OR, began offering an unusual, albeit popular, menu item in the time of coronavirus…toilet paper.

Chef Morales, this year’s winner of United Fresh Produce Association’s Produce Excellence in Foodservice Award for fine dining, was among the first in her city to begin offering a takeout program, and her restaurant’s curbside pick-up menu has grown and evolved into what is now an expansive menu of to-go meals, pantry and grocery items.

At Texas Roadhouse, the Louisville, KY-based national chain, ensuring customers could order to-go and curbside pick-up options became a necessity, as well as offering customers the option to purchase produce and fresh meat, similar to what they would find at the supermarket or a specialty butcher. According to Peter Rosenberg, director of operations support, “We’re still able to offer our core menu, which for us, includes a lot of produce, and we’ve even taken it a step further by hosting farmers’ markets at some of our locations. This has enabled our produce partners to generate additional revenue and has provided the opportunity to promote ready-to-grill steaks.”

Restaurants also had to face the added challenge of consumer concerns about whether or not the virus could be transmitted through food and telling positive stories about restaurants in consumer media. In Tucson, AZ, a close-knit community of independent restaurant operators and chefs worked with local food media to create a video, encouraging the public to support local restaurants at least once a week, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The video has since garnered national attention and helped area restaurants like The Parish take care of employees, while also supporting the community. According to Executive Chef Travis Peter’s, another honoree of this year’s United Fresh pro-gram, “We’ve seen success because of community support and initiatives like our ‘takeout once a week’ campaign for the city of Tucson. And because we’ve been able to stay successful, we’ve been able to give back to our community with meals for first responders and hospital staff.”

Andrew Marshall is the Director, Foodservice & Foundation Partnerships at United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, DC. For more information about the latest on-trend applications for fresh produce in foodservice, check out the most recent issue of Fresh Insights for Foodservice, a quarterly publication from United Fresh Produce Association, available free for download.