No Going Back to Normal, Part 2

How restaurateurs are adapting to a new reality

Cover photograph by Chip Chockley.

In “No Going Back to Normal, Part 1” we looked at how the restaurant industry as a whole has changed, probably forever. Today eight Memphis restaurateurs give us a look at the changes they’re making to survive—and eventually thrive—in this new world.

Credit: Chip Chockley, No Going Back to Normal, Part 1

Safety first
Jonathan Magallanes, chef and owner of Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana (Germantown)

We were lucky—masks were donated to us, and we already had a stockpile of gloves and hand sanitizer. So we already had all the PPE, bleach, and other products needed to clean and operate in a safe way.

We’re trying to be very rigorous about cleaning, and, from there, we try to limit how many people are in the dining room. No more than 10 in the dining room, ever. We have a three-table maximum right now, but our landlord also gave us the blessing to put five tables outside—fold-up tables. That has been one of the bright spots of all this.

We’ve had moments where we’re so busy during the dinner hour we just can’t keep stacking up to-go orders. We’re actually encouraging everyone to pay on the phone, and we think it’s safest for us to bring it to your car. We can send someone out there gloved and masked. I think to myself, “Would I feel comfortable if I was the customer in this situation?”

Because it’s on me to make the customer feel the way I’d want to feel.

We’ve also been lucky in that we’ve been able to keep all of our employees at both restaurants—about 18 total. I personally want to bring every order outside if I can. I want everyone to do curbside, and I just want to say thanks to the people who are putting the order in. Thanking people never gets old. This means a lot to us.

Credit: Maciel’s Facebook

“To go” is the new go-to
Manuel “Manny” Martinez, owner of Maciel’s

We’re changing our model to be more of a to-go restaurant, but it’s difficult.

On one hand, we need the customers, even if they order to-go. But when we get busy, the food needs to come out quick—and that’s the problem. It’s not easy to time orders in a way that we can get everything in less than 20 minutes. And we can’t have more than four people in the kitchen because of social distancing, and that’s making the restaurant work slower.

We’re not complaining. We’re happy to be open. We just need to be positive and passionate.

I don’t think we need to raise prices. We have so many wonderful friends and customers that don’t mind the wait. We just need to find the way to make it better for both the customers and the restaurant. We’re working on it because, at the end of the day, we are in this together.

Credit: Edible Memphis

Smaller footprint, bigger rewards
Kat Gordon, owner of Muddy’s

April 1, we closed and went into full-on hibernation. The kitchen ovens haven’t been turned on for a month. We were a 35-person team. Now, it’s me, my part-time assistant, and an occasional volunteer helping out with our Wednesday market service. We’re doing staff development Zoom workshops for furloughed employees. We’re making video content for customers. We’re finding different ways to fulfill our mission while holding out as long as we can in reopening.

In many ways, what’s “normal” has changed over the years anyway. A community is always adapting and adjusting. In 2008, “normal” meant there was a decent chance you’d get some chocolate batter splattered on you if you walked too close to a baker in the shop because “normal” was one all-in-one bakery and shop. It only recently became normal to see people enjoying a cupcake with their laptop or phone instead of a friend, family member, or book. … Some changes will be necessary to keep people safe and do our part. And some of those will break my heart. … Not being able to see others’ smiles underneath masks has been impacting me hard, and I’ve always enjoyed Muddy’s the most when it’s a little closer than comfort but bustling with energy.

I didn’t start Muddy’s to make cake. I started it because I love hosting people.

And I’m worried about the changes needed to enforce safety compliance by customers and the toll it will take on my staff to do so if people are resistant or mean about it.

I expect we’ll need to adapt our menu significantly and move a lot of items onto the “on vacation/retired” list. And some of those will be someone’s favorite or the item they’ve been looking forward to. … Creativity loves a challenge, and this situation is chockablock full of those. Also, it was really hard for me to separate the kitchen from the shop, even though we desperately needed the room. I expect that we’ll be utilizing our kitchen space on Broad in new ways that feel right to me. I foresee that we’ll end up a smaller footprint, a smaller team, and a smaller business … which a part of me has wanted for a long time, despite feeling very proud of what we’ve done over the years. So we’ll lose some things, but we may gain some in other ways.

The hardest thing about all this will be accepting that things are different and not trying to live in the past. … We can’t reopen as the exact same Muddy’s you remember coming to a year ago.  But our mission holds and our values haven’t changed, and that’s the foundation we’re working from to build something special and tailored for what our community needs now, not yesterday.

Credit: Richard Lawrence, Alex’s Turns 65

Expanding food offerings
Rocky Kasaftes, owner of Alex’s Tavern

I’m doing a lot of to-go food right now. Making some different stuff—homemade spaghetti and chicken and shrimp alfredo. My mom’s recipes. Also done some barbecue chicken and pork chops and a few other things.

People have been great about coming to get to-go food. Wouldn’t trade my customers for anything.

Our prices are the same, and we’re social distancing. I have three tables and three booths, so it’s not hard to separate. Most folks are still getting food to-go. Folks are still scared to get out yet.

Credit: Michael Butler, Jr., Chicken Wings: A Love Story

Embracing curbside
Tiffany Wiley, co-owner of Riko’s Kickin’ Chicken

Riko’s Kickin’ Chicken is adapting to curbside, which has picked up 100 percent. Catering is very different for us now. Instead of us setting up and serving, it’s now more of a drop-and-go kind of thing. We miss our dine-in customers and our weekly catering—our food truck spots as well.

My advice to restaurant owners would be: Don’t let fear consume you.

Still open the doors and push curbside. We appreciate our delivery partners such as Grubhub, DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Postmates. We continue to post our business on social media—call-ins and takeouts.

We try to offer different family meals and lunch specials. It’s a big adjustment. We didn’t raise prices, and we slimmed down the menu a little. We took a big hit in sales when dine-in went away. Lunch was always rolling for us. Our customers love to dine-in.

Photo courtesy of Huey’s Restaurants

Gradual reopening
Lauren Robinson, CEO of Huey’s

As soon as COVID-19 hit, our business model completely changed. We were doing some to-go before, but no delivery, catering, or curbside pickup. We immediately focused on how we could give the absolute best, most accessible experience to our community. We rolled out our curbside pickup service first, then delivery, and catering followed. This has changed our community, maybe for good, but at least for the foreseeable future. We completely understand that many people in the community will feel nervous to get back to our dining rooms, so we are continuing to research delivery options, fine-tune our catering menu, and create the most streamlined pickup process for our customers. While continuing to implement these strategies and COVID-19-compliant protocol, we plan to open our dining rooms at 50-percent capacity, making sure that the layout is as comfortable and safe as possible. While we are not certain of our opening date, we are planning to open the locations gradually to give ourselves the time and space to ensure our new processes and procedures are as they need to be.

The hard part is that nobody really knows when things will feel normal again.

While we’re hopeful in our planning for the future, we’re also taking it week by week and day by day.

Our priority is and always has been to take care of our employees and guests. If that means making sacrifices and changing the way we do business, we’ll do it. But, we will say, the day that we can have a packed house, live music and blues, brews and burgers flying out of our kitchen again—that will be a good day.

Credit: Brandon Dill, Riding the Waves

True cost of business
Lisa Toro, co-owner of The Liquor Store and City & State

Overall, I think restaurants will look to diversify as far as takeout versus dining and remaining flexible to multiple revenue streams, such as bulk meals and pre-order.

But, in order to become a more viable business model long-term, it’s going to take adjusting pricing to a truer cost of doing business.

Single restaurants or small groups cannot compete on price with big chains and are ultimately hurting customers by setting false expectations regarding what prepared food in a restaurant setting should really cost. If we need to move to living wages and benefits, then those costs have to be passed to the customer because, as it exists today, there isn’t margin enough to accomplish these things.

[The Liquor Store] is still evaluating [price increases], knowing there is also an impending economic downturn.

We will be eliminating indoor waiting for the foreseeable future, will limit group size as we always have, given our small space, and may even reopen under a reservations-only model in order to control the number of folks in the space at any given time. Up until the pandemic, people would pile in on the weekends waiting for a table and not only block the door but even stretch out into the dining room around tables and patrons. It’s too small a space, and we want to ensure folks aren’t crammed in. So, even if it’s raining or cold or 110 degrees outside, they are going to have to wait for a table from somewhere, maybe shopping on Broad or even in their cars, but not inside.

Credit: Nathan W. Berry, The Art of Tsunami

Greater respect for restaurants
Ben Smith, chef and owner of Tsunami

The purveyors that we usually rely on to deliver goods to the restaurant are either on an abbreviated delivery schedule or are having difficulty keeping the ingredients I need in stock. There has been a sort of rollercoaster of availability of goods due to the lockdown. Early on, just after the mandate came down to close restaurants to in-house service, our purveyors had a surplus of goods. Purveyors eventually adjusted their stocks based on the lower demand. Now that some restaurants are now opening again, the purveyors are trying to ramp up their stocks again. So we went from one end of the spectrum in regards to the availability of certain goods, especially perishables like proteins and produce, to the other.

In the case of Tsunami, we have seen a significant jump in prices of seafood and a substantial dip in availability of certain items. The nationwide closure of restaurants drove the demand for seafood down to a point where a lot of fisheries were not sending out as many boats as they normally do.

In the days leading up to the mandate to close, my management staff and I met on a daily basis (sometimes several times a day) to discuss our plan of action. We sort of sensed the direction that things were going and tried to stay proactive in adapting to this new business model. We began by removing half of our tables to maintain social distancing. We upped our cleaning and sanitizing efforts and extended the stringent daily cleaning of every surface of the kitchen to include a thorough cleansing of the front of the house. And, after hours of debate and discourse with my management team, we decided to close the restaurant to in-house dining the day before the mandate went into effect.

By that time, we had already formulated a plan to focus 100 percent of our efforts on takeout and delivery—two options that, with a few exceptions, we had never before offered.

The takeout and delivery aspect is an entirely new and different beast for a restaurant that has been focused on plated dinners in a white tablecloth environment for over 21 years. But my staff has done a truly remarkable job in making that shift. We have learned a lot from this new model. And we have tried to glean ideas and practices from our current situation that  we may continue to utilize in the future.

What does the restaurant business look like after the dust of this pandemic settles? I don’t think any of us can really say. I can tell you what I hope happens.

When people do start coming back to restaurants, I hope they come with a deeper understanding of the important role that restaurants play in our community and a greater respect for the people that have chosen to make a living working in restaurants.

I hope that people recognize and understand that we are real people working real jobs. The people that greet you at the door, the people that show you to your table, the person that takes your order or pours your wine, or mixes your cocktail or cooks your food. They are all hard-working, highly talented, and extremely motivated and capable people. And they deserve respect for that.

Andy Meek is a native Memphian whose work during a nearly two-decade career in journalism has appeared in outlets like The Guardian, The Washington Post and Fast Company. @andymeek