Dining in a New Normal
COVID-19’s culinary takeaways
As restaurants and bars continue to assess the impact of COVID-19 on their business models, many proprietors realized that the lessons learned during the shutdown in March and April provide valuable insight into their model in the “new normal.”
For Riley Marshall, the owner of Bar Arbolada, the answer began with a burger.
“Right after the shutdown order, we had an all-staff meeting, and the main thing we discussed was how to throw everything we had at this to survive,” Marshall says. “We talked about expanding the menu, offering all kinds of food – so many ideas, but then we slept on it and realized there were better options.”
Those options included selling their justifiably famous burger all day on Saturdays. The burger’s status as a local legend began with the late-night bar crowd, as it was only served Saturday nights from 10 p.m. to close … and even then, not every Saturday night. Regulars scoured social media every Saturday for any indication that the Palomatown – a combo of burger, fries and a Paloma for $10 – was happening that night. The “smash” burger is the style Marshall, a Duncan native, grew up with, and it’s one familiar to many Oklahomans: smashed patty, crispy along the edges, mustard, ketchup, finely diced pickles and onions. It’s what McDonald’s burgers should taste like, and maybe did 50 years ago.
“We decided to serve it on Saturdays, and then we created the ‘wine shop,’ and the bartenders added the boxtails,” Marshall says. The boxtails are actual boxes, packed with all the ingredients necessary (except booze) for Bar Arbolada’s popular cocktails.
That sort of customer-focused thinking has always been a part of the hospitality industry, but it was in more demand during the shutdown, and many restaurateurs believe it will be necessary moving forward.
“We’ve always been kind of, ‘This is who we are, so like us or not’ about our concepts,” says Rachel Cope, founder of 84 Hospitality. “We’re whiskey-only at Burger Punk, dinner-only at Gun and, famously, no takeout at Goro. We’ve had to rethink all of those strategies.”
Cope and James Beard-nominated chef Jeff Chanchaleune changed their processes at both Goro and Gun, allowing takeout at Goro for the first time in the restaurant’s existence, and making take-and-reheat Gun meals available at Paseo’s Little Market – also owned by 84 Hospitality. The company also consolidated operations in one location for mashed-up concepts: Goro and Gun out of Goro, and Burger Punk and Revolucion out of Revolucion. Customers could order from either and pick up at one location.
Jamie and Jordan Winteroth used the same strategy with Aurora and Social, their Plaza District and NW 23rd concepts. Aurora’s popular brunch was made available in a brunch box that guests could pick up at Social. “We know this is changing the way people dine,” Jamie Winteroth says, but “we have new ways to present our food, which provides new opportunities to reach people who maybe wouldn’t come into Social or Aurora.”
One of those new strategies was to work with local Homeland stores to get pre-packaged, take-and-reheat meals into locations around the metro. “We loved that Homeland let us keep 100 percent of the revenue, and we know that would likely change in the future, but we would like to keep something like that going,” he says.
Bruce Rinehart, owner of two Rococo concepts, also used the Homeland program to get more food out. “Based on our catering background, it was a great fit for us,” Rinehart says. “We think we dialed in quality, freshness and appearance of our packaged foods, and that’s important when you can’t be there to see the food in expo.”
Rinehart also discussed being out front, talking to people and getting the word out. “We’ll be evaluating our business models for a while, but the one thing that really stood out during the shutdown was the necessity of being more connected to our guests, to the public overall.”