If one buzzword shot to stardom above all others in 2020, it’s pivot. That’s because most of us had no choice but to do that during the pandemic this year, drastically changing how we live our lives, do our jobs, and communicate with others.
But restaurateurs, who already operate on razor-thin margins, faced a particularly tricky set of challenges, especially here in the Coachella Valley, where COVID-19 hit as high season peaked, halting the usual influx of visitors and forcing residents into lockdown. Restaurants could offer only pick-up and delivery for the first couple of months. Then, they were allowed to offer outdoor dining.
While most eateries had always offered menu items to go, take-out accounted for a small portion of the revenue at full-service restaurants. The shutdown changed that overnight. Restaurateurs became take-out-centric. They tweaked menus, scaled back staff, loaded up on disposable containers, and refocused their marketing.
Here’s how three Coachella Valley restaurateurs became take-out all-stars.
• Andie Hubka
There’s no good time for a pandemic, but for Hubka, March was the worst possible time. It was only two months into opening Tu Madres, a dine-in-focused Mexican cantina with a large bar that accounted for about 50 percent of its space. She was preparing for the nearby BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, which drew almost half a million attendees in 2019.
“In every way possible, we were overflowing at the seams with expense,” she says. “We were sitting on so much inventory.” Hubka decided to shut down all of her restaurants prior to the state order so that she and her newly pared-down team could regroup, rethink menus, stock up on take-out supplies, and perfect packaging. After several test runs, she found a way to vent boxes that held Cork and Fork’s signature crispy cauliflower and Heirloom’s popular scratch-made tater tots so they wouldn’t become soggy, mandated that sauces and dressings now came on the side, and temporarily said farewell to a cheese plate that had been on the menu for eight years. “It doesn’t travel well,” she notes, “and people don’t want a cheese plate at home, anyway.”
Hubka also focused on alerting customers that the restaurants would be safely reopening for take-out and delivery.
The original Heirloom Burger with bacon and truffle tater tots.
“I felt pretty strongly that we needed to be consistent,” she says. “I didn’t want to be constantly changing our hours or our menu or how we do things. Right now, the things that are keeping people coming back are how well their food is packaged, how easy it was for them to order, that they received what they ordered, and that the quality was there.”
Since the shutdown, Hubka introduced online ordering and promoted nightly specials on social media. She recently started offering an ever-changing Friday night family meal: It might be Southeast Asian one week, barbeque the next.
In June, Hubka launched a to-go-only Italian-Med restaurant called Citrine that operates out of her now-empty cooking school kitchen. It’s been the closest thing to a silver lining. “I’m very proud of it because I was devastated watching my cooking school, which was my baby and very first business, sitting there doing nothing,” she says. “So, for me, it’s been rewarding. Truth be told, it might eventually have a permanent place somewhere, someday. It feels to me that right now that anything’s possible.”
• Engin Onural
For Onural, details and personal touches are as important to take-out orders (which he says have quadrupled during the pandemic) as they were to plating his classic nigiri and innovative Technicolor rolls for the dining room. Now, his staff seals each to-go box with a sleek restaurant-logoed sticker and then hand-stamps it with the ink imprint of a whimsical, wild-legged octopus. “I could get them printed,” he says, “but I want that little imperfection to show that we are personally doing it. If people are paying this much for take-out, they should get something that’s curated.”
Like fellow restaurant owners, Onural has stayed flexible and resourceful amid the uncertainty of the pandemic. Some days his seafood purveyor couldn’t make the delivery, and Onural would drive to L.A. to pick up the fish himself. And when the turnaround time for his custom to-go supplies grew longer, he began ordering 30 cases at a time to make sure he didn’t run out.
Onural hasn’t made many changes to his menus, and he continues to offer his nine-course omakase-style chef’s tasting menu at $130 a pop for those who want a special splurge at home. (“People who know our food are the ones who order it,” he says.)
Braised & grilled Spanish octopus served with edamame hummus, bubu arare, tsukudani nori and microgreens.
And while a few dishes come with certain sauces on the side, most mirror the presentation at the restaurant, with a garnish of microgreens here or a shave of black truffle there. “We’re assembling everything as if you were presented the food here. We’re always showcasing our dishes in the best way possible and that goes for our to-go as well.”
Two dedicated employees on the line double check each order before it goes out the door with a delivery driver or to the customer picking it up.
• Tai Spendley
Chef/owner Rooster and the Pig in Palm Springs
If you’ve driven by this no-reservations eatery on a pre-pandemic evening, you’ve likely spotted the crowd in the parking lot, waiting to indulge in Spendley’s spin on the Viet-style food he grew up eating. Waiting was the only option back then; the restaurant didn’t offer take-out. “A lot of the dishes I was doing had so many components to them,” he says. “I didn’t feel like putting them in a box would translate.”
When pandemic shut down indoor dining, Spendley did a 180, closing for four days to reorganize the kitchen, clear the tables from the dining room, and re-emerge as a take-out powerhouse.
Step one: Stock up on to-go supplies. “I ordered different types of containers,” he says. “We were told these boxes were biodegradable and heat-resistant, but our food is really hot and the boxes would bend and melt. It was a learning process, a trial-and-error thing.”
Now the restaurant uses a mix of biodegradable, cardboard, and plastic containers with clear lids so guests can see what’s inside.
Caramalized Ginger chicken with lotus root, red bell pepper, and mushroom.
While a few dishes had to come off the menu — the showstopper whole red snapper, for example, was too big for most containers and loses its dramatic sizzle in transport — Spendley has actually expanded his offerings, adding barbecue duck buns, amping up vegan options, and rotating seasonal dishes such as the summertime shrimp-and-nectarine fresh roll.
“Tai has had more time and freedom to explore the kitchen and try things,” says operations manager Florentino Carrillo. “That’s been the best part. There’s such a variety of flavors, vegetables, and exotic ingredients. People are still treating it like when they dined in — ordering a bunch of different dishes and trying new things.”
Spendley has not reopened for in-person dining at either the restaurant or its adjacent small plates-and-cocktail-driven lounge he launched in February. He also forgoes delivery apps and online ordering systems in favor of curbside pickup orders that he fields the old-fashioned way: a single phone line with call waiting.
“It seems antiquated, and we might miss out on some orders,” he says, “but it’s nice to hear someone’s voice. We’re able to personally receive the thank yous and the appreciation from our customers. It feels so much more sincere than reading a review online.”
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