Restaurants brace for unknown amid virus outbreak

New Hotel Mertens serves up traditional
New Hotel Mertens rolled out delivery for its bakery items in August 2019. Courtesy New Hotel Mertens

Though restaurants have scrambled to convert their businesses to carryout-only service, most of them say they will not be able to stay afloat for long — even the restaurants that have predominantly relied on carryout service for the majority of their revenue.

Lisa Chang, founder of Erb Thai, 950 Wealthy St. SE, said takeout orders make up approximately 80% of the restaurant’s business, but with the COVID-19 virus rearing its ugly head, sales are down 30%.

Osta’s Lebanese Cuisine, 2228 Wealthy St. SE, also has relied on a robust carryout business with 50% of its revenue derived from takeout.

Still, owner Diane Ritzke, said, “We are not sure if we could survive on takeout only. Being an ethnic restaurant, part of the dining experience is enjoying the ambiance of our dining room. With takeout, you lose the experience. The food is always good but is better when you dine-in.”

The restaurant added a meals-to-go menu option hoping to cater to customers looking for prepackaged options they can eat right away or freeze and eat later.

“We require two-day advance orders and a minimum of five dinners,” Ritzke said. “This is our first week, and so far, it is well received.”

Other restaurants like The Green Well and New Hotel Mertens have seen a trend in increased carryout orders over the past year and have been in the process of investing in technology to take advantage of that growing market, but their businesses still rely on customers dining in.

“Carryout was a big part of our growth for 2020,” said James Berg, managing partner of Essence Restaurant Group. “We made an investment in our IT in 2019. We will be launching the Essence Essential Loyalty app in the coming weeks, which will allow us to grow with the ever-changing needs of the dining customer.”

While Berg said he thinks Essence Restaurant Group — which operates The Green Well, Bistro Bella Vita and Grove — can withstand the carryout only order in the short term, its restaurants will need to get back to normal soon. At The Green Well, 924 Cherry St. SE, carryout orders have historically only accounted for 3% of the restaurant’s sales.

New Hotel Mertens, 35 Oakes St. SW, also has been investing in delivery options for customers. The restaurant rolled out delivery for its bakery items in August 2019.

“We’ve listened to our guests telling us they want an alternative to the many chains that deliver lunch throughout our city, and we are now ready to offer a locally made alternative,” New Hotel Mertens owner Anthony Tangorra told the Business Journal at the time.

Tangorra said having the technology in place already made things a bit easier as the restaurant transitioned to carryout-only service.

It’s been a part of our core growth strategy for nearly a year, and this event has pushed us out further on that particular initiative than we anticipated for early 2020,” he said.

Meanwhile, other restaurants have recently made substantial investments that rely on dine-in customer capacity.

“We have spent the last five years building capacity at all four of our facilities to service our growing customer base. Due to this accumulated property, equipment and staff, we need things to return to normal sooner rather than later but will, of course, abide by all safety recommendations,” said Chris Andrus, co-owner of The Mitten Brewing Co., 527 Leonard St. NW. Andrus did note that carryout orders have been the “fastest-growing part of our business over the past two years,” however.

As restaurants continue to brace for what is ahead in April, Tangorra noted, “We’re very interested in the next steps of the process.  We do not anticipate the red light to suddenly turn green when we are through the phases of aggressive social distancing policies. What that yellow light looks like is something the restaurant community should be keenly interested in as it may be a lifeline to many of us. As weather warms, will lower-density outdoor seating be that first-step?

“We’ve been working hard to try to stay one step ahead of this and to communicate actively with our guests and the media, and sometimes, it feels like we are a paddleboat in the face of a hurricane — but we will not stop paddling. We know the entire community is hurting, and we are intent on doing our part. Though what we do pales in comparison to the doctors and nurses on the frontline, we want to make sure we do what we do as best we can to serve them and the rest of the community — trying our best to deliver a little slice of what life will be like again soon.”

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