Heaping Helpings: As people hunkered down, restaurants pivoted to transform their takeout options

From Chianti Ristorante, Broiled Haddock with seasoned breadcrumbs served with cherry tomatoes and castelvetrano olives. Stewed cannellini beans with calamari and lightly spiced crushed tomato. Warm potato salad with olive oil and parsley.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
From Chianti Ristorante, Broiled Haddock with seasoned breadcrumbs served with cherry tomatoes and castelvetrano olives. Stewed cannellini beans with calamari and lightly spiced crushed tomato. Warm potato salad with olive oil and parsley.

Capital Region restaurants took a hit this past year, and some rolled with it. They learned fast, got creative and tried new things, like food delivery services. As if the restaurant business wasn’t hard enough, the pandemic made it harder. Here’s what some innovative businesses did to weather the storm.

Family-style
“We learned right away people were home in family settings and so we expanded our family options,” said Anthony Adonnino of Home Style Catering and Pizza in Schenectady. Instead of offering three family-style items a day from a rotating list three days a week, they made every family item option available seven days and offered entrees for takeout as well.

“The market was created by the pandemic,” said Adonnino. “It’s a new paradigm and it will continue going forward. You never know, with the variants [of the COVID-19 virus] we may go back” to being locked down again, he said.

And even when things do get back to normal, they aren’t going back to the way they were. Home Style will continue to offer all the family-style dinner choices every day of the week. “People are going to expect it now,” Adonnino said.

It has been a busy time. Adoninno oversaw the construction of a new catering room for parties of 25 to 30 and reduced the size of the dining room. Their business is primarily catering, so “We are not focused on the restaurant; it’s not integral to our success,” he said. The pandemic created opportunity: “We wouldn’t have been able to be open during construction,” he said.

The reconfigured, smaller dining room will remain closed until September or October.

Ramping up takeout
Johnny’s Italian American restaurant in downtown Schenectady has put lunch service on pause, citing the change in Proctors’ scheduling and the altered downtown landscape. When restaurants reopened last year, Johnny’s offered family meals from a limited menu, four courses for $40, to serve four people, as well as some dinners to go.

Now, “Johnny’s is more comfortable with takeout,” said Dillon Foster, general manager of the restaurant. They’ve become more organized and efficient. When the guidelines restaurants have had to follow kicked in, the amount of takeout increased. “We have come a long way,” he said, adding, “the kitchen has gotten used to it.”

Now the full menu is available to-go in addition to the family meals, and “We can accommodate changes for customers now,” said Foster.

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Utilizing delivery platforms such as DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats has actually made things easier for Johnny’s. “Their integrated systems make it seamless,” with the kitchen, and Johnny’s has the flexibility to stagger orders. The food delivery services take a cut, but “we factored the commission into food costs,” Foster said.

He expects takeout business to ebb as more people choose to eat in restaurants. But will they continue using food delivery services?

“I believe so,” he said.

Getting creative
DZ Restaurants, which runs Chianti Il Ristorante, Forno Bistro and Boca Bistro in Saratoga Springs also benefited from partnering with food delivery platforms. “Third-party delivery options were a huge help for us,” said Bill Gathan, director of marketing.

Before the pandemic hit and restaurants closed, “We did a small percentage of takeout,” said Gathan. “It was nice but not integral,” to the business.

“It went from 2 to 3 percent of total sales to 30 percent,” he continued. They used a variety of takeout promotions with DoorDash and Grubhub. For the first time “delivery was an option,” said Gathan. “They offer a service we can’t provide.”
“We tried to provide the same level of service and quality” their customers expected, he explained.

It was a time to be creative. “How absurd can we be?” said Gathan. They organized a kind of ghost-kitchen setup once a week in each of the three restaurant locations. “We did fast-food knockoffs,” like a Happy Meal Box with a toy or Carnival Box with corn dogs and kettle corn, as to-go specials.

Chefs floated ideas. “There was no wrong answer,” said Gathan, and the food boxes took off. “It introduced people to online ordering” and brought many to the DZ Restaurants website for the first time.

Social media helped bring business. “We have a deep email database,” explained Gathan. And chefs boosted the food boxes on their social media accounts. “We’d have 80 meals go out the door” a day as a result.

DZ has made hundreds of in-house videos over the years to promote meal deals. The circumstances of the pandemic made them get more creative.

“What’s the worst that can happen?” Gathan recalls thinking. The results can be seen on their Facebook page, short pieces starring the staff. In Chef Matt’s Yummy Funtime Playhouse sketch, a sock puppet comes to collect a debt.

“Ten Dollar Tuesdays,” says Socky Balboa after he wrestles the burly chef to the floor and spits a 10-dollar bill onto the table, “only at Forno Bistro.”

Zoom cooking classes became very popular. A chef leads 20 to 30 people through a recipe using materials they’ve picked up earlier from the restaurant. It’s not a meal kit; they cook popular dishes from scratch.

“We know what works now,” Gathan said. “We’ll still do picnic baskets and special occasion boxes like a Mother’s Day brunch box or Kentucky Derby box,” with optional mint juleps. Third-party delivery options “will probably continue” after diners feel comfortable eating in restaurants again, said Gathan.

High-end experience
When Mazzone Hospitality, based in Clifton Park, reimagined its business as a result of the pandemic, what came of it was something different for the full-service, high-end catering company.

“Our identity is creating a feel, an experience,” said Sean Willcoxon, vice president of catering. “This is one of the few times Mazzone is not full service.

“People were more comfortable gathering at home,” he said. So instead of takeout or a full-service Mazzone experience, they came up with at-home entertaining packages instead.

“This is our version of takeout,” he said.

The packages are more than meal kits. They come ready to grill or serve, along with utensils. There’s no shopping, no prep, just the Mazzone-quality experience, safely in your home.

In the case of pizza, it comes with a wood-fired oven and there’s an additional charge for a chef and attendant. You can add staffing, flatware and tablecloths for an extra charge.

Mazzone is going to “continue this going forward,” with a spring/summer and fall/winter menu.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced extended curfews for bars and restaurants, and that spectators will be allowed at horse and auto races at 20 percent capacity. “We’ll take that as a good start and a good sign,” said Gathan. And about the funny videos DZ made over the past year? “If we weren’t laughing we’d be crying.”

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