High-tech hygiene, cooking classes, and take-home kits are just a few ways local restaurants are adapting to how we eat now
In all of my conversations with Las Vegas restaurant operators this year, the mood has ranged from resigned to frustrated to hopeful. But one thing was constant: I had the distinct impression that I was interviewing runners at the midway point of a marathon.
The pandemic is far from over. Every week, new closures are somberly announced on social media channels. In October, The Wall Street Journal reported that employment in restaurants and bars has dropped by 2.3 million jobs, and that independent restaurants have lost nearly double what chain restaurants have lost in sales this year.
For those restaurants still soldiering on, a mix of ingenuity, support networks, and sheer luck has kept them going.
“It feels like I’m in startup mode all the time,” says Nina Manchev, owner of Eastern European restaurant Forte Tapas. When the shutdown was announced on March 17, Manchev had just bought a huge amount of inventory for the restaurant and her wholesale customers. Within two days, she decided to sell online cooking classes with ingredient kits, and reached out to Secret Burger, an online events platform, to host the registrations. “I think the classes saved my business,” Manchev says.
I was one of the many eager customers who signed up for a Forte Tapas khachapurri class in early April. With restaurants closed and most of us confined to home amid the uncertainty, this felt like the safest way to do something fun with food at home (and I was getting really tired of my own cooking). As I carefully rolled the edges of the khachapurri dough over piles of cheese and cracked an egg into the center, questions poured in for Manchev over the Facebook Live feed: How much of the cheese should I use? What’s in the spices? Have you ever added garlic?
Manchev says this interaction was one of the surprising benefits of holding the classes. “It’s almost like we were training people to understand our food better, so when they actually came back to the restaurant ... it’s not that unfamiliar.” She says it also gave customers a better sense of why she might price dumplings higher than a frozen bag from the grocery store — they got to experience firsthand how labor-intensive it is to make them from scratch.
Coping with the inventory issue — fridges full of perishables like milk, cheese, and meat amid the dining slowdown —inspired some restaurants to open small grocery operations. Yvonne Wallace owns Pacific Diner in Henderson with her husband, Marvin. As panicked shoppers cleared grocery store shelves this spring, Wallace knew she could put her inventory to good use while supporting the business. They sold flats of eggs, five-pound sacks of potatoes and chicken breasts in 10-pound bags.
“We did it as a response to our community,” Wallace says. Their restaurant is right across from a senior living facility which wasn’t letting drivers in or out, so the elderly residents weren’t able to get groceries delivered, she says. “Seniors could come up in their motorized chairs and I could stack it in their baskets.”
Liam Dwyer, the owner/operator of 7th and Carson in Downtown Las Vegas, says that for the first six to eight weeks of the shutdown, the pantry helped make up about a quarter of their sales. Like many of the restaurants that ran pantry sales, they’ve since slowed down: They’re open for dine-in again (and the weather is perfect for outdoor seating), and grocery stores are no longer short on supplies.
Most of the restaurants who’ve continued to offer grocery items are selling value-added ingredients — the kind of stuff a casual home cook might not make from scratch, like Sparrow + Wolf’s homemade pickles, charcuterie, and sauces. You can also get meal kits to finish at home, like the Merino lamb rack from Bazaar Meat or Hobak Korean BBQ’s wagyu bulgogi.
As we see more of these new experiences, from the cooking classes to the meal kits, I think they represent a blurring of the lines between restaurant dining and home cooking. Recently, I had a meal that started off with some takeout charcuterie and a freshly-baked baguette — followed by a salad I made myself. In a few weeks, I might try to wow my parents with the results of a Bulgarian cooking class. And as the weather cools and outdoor dining is less of an option, I know I’ll be getting more take-out — but will eat on real plates and maybe even light a candle.
After all, the aesthetic pleasures of dining out are important, too. Manchev says she’s noticing more people staging beautiful spreads at home on their Instagram accounts. “Even if they’re picking up kits, or if they’re picking up to-go items,” she says, “they’re recreating the restaurant experience in their house.”
Other restaurants, rather than embracing pantries and interactive classes, are doubling down on safety and hygiene. Lotus of Siam manager Penny Chutima, whose family owns the restaurant, says employing every precaution possible was paramount for reopening their renowned Thai dining destination. She started watching the news from Asia ever since the coronavirus first became serious there. “And during the time that we were closed, I was asking all my friends over there to send me pictures of how people were doing,” she says. “You know, especially in Taiwan, because they’re very strict on their procedure.”
Taking these lessons from Asia into account, Lotus of Siam installed plexiglass shields, hand sanitizing stations, thermal cameras, disinfectant floor pads, and extra cleaning for both guest areas and staff areas. They paid for all of their staff to get tested. Chutima estimates they spent $35,000 on these upgrades — a fee she acknowledges that not every restaurant can afford. But she sees it as an investment. “If we cheap out on something, somebody gets sick, then what happens? You know, it’s our reputation on the line.”
A phantom future
As chefs figure out how to open and operate restaurants in this new era, one idea that’s attracting a lot of attention has less of a corporeal form than traditional eateries. “Ghost kitchens,” as they’ve been dubbed, rely on the boom in take-out and delivery. These restaurants have a commercial kitchen but no dining area, focusing solely on fulfilling orders made over apps or the phone. Here in Las Vegas, chefs Jon Batista and Jordan Dunewood opened one such operation this year called Ghost Unit Kitchen.
“If I wanted to open a brick and mortar today, it would be the most foolish investment I could ever make,” says Batista. You could spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars building out a dining room and a concept and a menu. But a ghost kitchen allows Batista and Dunewood to be more nimble: They don’t have branded signs all over their industrial space. They can test out menu items and switch them up by simply updating their offerings on the apps.
Currently, Ghost Unit Kitchen is home to three restaurants that all have their own pages on the delivery apps: A Southern creole menu at Chef JD’s Taste Kitchen, empanadas at YourPanadas, and soup and wings at Souper Wings. Since all three operate out of the same kitchen, they can share ingredients and create less waste.
The flexibility of their workspace has also allowed them to cook where the need is — because feeding hungry people is what chefs do. This spring, Batista and Dunewood started a nonprofit called Chefs 4 Vegas that collects unused ingredients and distributes free produce boxes to hungry families.
One of the biggest hurdles of a ghost kitchen, however, is the same one that plagues all restaurants doing delivery: The most popular delivery apps (and therefore the place they’re most likely to be discovered by hungry customers) charge high fees that can end up zeroing out any profit. It’s become such an issue that cities across the country are enacting fee caps on apps like UberEats and Grubhub. In August, Clark County passed an ordinance capping fees at 15 percent. But, Batista says, it’s not enough. “So then they added additional fees that makes it 30 percent anyway,” he explains. The best thing to do as a customer, Batista suggests, is calling the restaurant directly with your order and driving to pick it up yourself.
Government cheese, please
It’s important to note the vital role PPP loans have played — and that structural inequalities favor restaurants that are already better-resourced and know how to navigate the system to begin with. Manchev at Forte said a PPP loan helped her with rent over the summer; Wallace at Pacific Diner said that it helped them keep every one of their employees and start paying her husband minimum wage after months of going without pay. Restaurateurs have made sacrifices, and they know there’s more to come.
Currently, there’s a bill that has passed the House and is awaiting discussion in the Senate called the RESTAURANTS Act (five stars for this acronym, which stands for Real Economic Support that Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed to Survive). The bill would provide $120 billion in grants for payroll, rent, and PPE. Importantly, it’s specifically earmarked for smaller businesses, unlike the PPP loans, which were initially given to massive chains like Sizzler and Shake Shack (the latter of which later returned the loan after public outcry).
This year is a rough one for restaurants—even the ones who’ve scrimped, saved, hustled, and pivoted as if their lives depended on it. It’s likely that without another stimulus package, we’ll lose even more of them, and more restaurant jobs.
They’re still determined to forge onward. Dwyer at 7th and Carson is thinking ahead to next year with high hopes. “When we do turn the corner, the eternal optimist in me says, you know, we will be in a great position then to help even more people.”