CORONAVIRUS

Trial and error as restaurants adapt to doing business during a pandemic

Marley Carviou checks an order as customers (left) wait in their car for a pick-up delivery at Zeppelin's Bar and Grill
Marley Carviou checks an order as customers (left) wait in their car for a pick-up delivery at Zeppelin’s Bar and Grill in Cedar Rapids on Friday, April 3, 2020. Restaurants across the state continue to adapt to changing safety demands, including closing their dining rooms and offering curbside pick-up. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
/

Restaurants trying to adjust to a new normal as take-and-delivery outlets also face the challenge of planning for what happens next.

“If we’re told this is going to continue, that’s what we’ll do, too,” said Abby Luther, front-of-house manager and managing partner of Zeppelin’s Bar and Grill in northeast Cedar Rapids.

“We don’t have any plans of shutting down. That’s not in the cards. We’re just riding it out — that’s all we can do.”

With in-house dining banned by state order, many restaurants adapted on the fly to takeout and delivery service to both survive the initial business downturn and to keep in touch with loyal customers for the day social distancing ends.

The adjustments continue. Cobble Hill Eatery and Dispensary in downtown Cedar Rapids and Caucho in the NewBo District shifted from hot takeout to “take and bake” on a limited menu, Andy Schumacher said.

He and his wife, Carrie Schumacher, own both restaurants.

“We could spread out our staff a bit more and give them more space to work” with the change, Schumacher said. “We were able to spread all those tasks out a little.”

Taking orders by phone a day ahead of delivery made kitchen planning easier.

“We’re having people do call-ahead ordering for the following day, which allows us to organize staff a little better,” Schumacher said. “We can do the same task with less people in the restaurant at the same time.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Work flows and operational routines were reorganized so staff are ready to meet customers who give a description of their vehicles with each order. Customers are not permitted to enter the building.

“The first week was trial and error,” Zeppelin’s Luther recalled. “We’ve got a row of windows along the front, so we see people pull up. The combination seems to be working pretty well as far as getting it out in a timely fashion.”

‘Getting our feet wet’

Staff at the Wig and Pen allow customers to enter the building for their pizzas or deliver them to their vehicles, co-owner Chris Querrey said.

“We’re allowing them in, or otherwise we’d be too busy,” Querrey said. “We might migrate to (curbside only) in the near future.”

Pre-pandemic, Querrey estimated takeout accounted for 10 percent to 15 percent of business at Wig and Pen’s two Iowa City locations and one each in North Liberty and Ankeny. The North Liberty and east side Iowa City locations were takeout only.

“We’re pretty much a takeout and delivery restaurant now,” he said. “We’re keeping our head above water.”

Wig and Pen and Zeppelin’s also adopted in-house delivery.

“Delivery is something we’ve been wanting to do for some time, so we’re getting our feet wet,” Luther said. “We wanted to control the entire process.”

Pre-order takeout from a limited menu has simplified kitchen operations, Schumacher said.

“Typically we’re set up for an unknown quantity of people to come in and eat, and be ready to serve them food at a moment’s notice and to be able to do individual things for individual people,” he said.

“Now we’re making things in larger batches and trying to figure out how to organize a scheduled ordering system, which in some ways is a little easier if you know how much you’re going to need to do.”

“We’re still running our whole menu, but we’ve condensed the kitchen to be more cohesive with less people,” Luther said. “Obviously the volume isn’t what it would be on a normal day.”

‘Logistical things’

The goal during the first weeks of social distancing — simply staying in business.

“We did have some logistical things we had to figure out, but in terms of being chefs and being creative we were able to figure it out and make things work,” Schumacher said.

“The real challenge for us is, we’re just basically treading water. This isn’t nearly the business we need to survive. We’re just trying to stay afloat.”

“Most businesses were having a pretty good quarter, and that went to zero,” said David Hensley, director of the Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center at the University of Iowa.

The quick adoption of takeout and delivery is the first step in what Hensley said should be a two-track approach.

“We have to figure out now, ‘How do we survive,’ then ‘Now how do we relaunch?’” he said. “And realizing it may take a while to get back to where we were.”

The initial plan should cover the next 60 to 90 days, focusing on short-term needs such as rent, utilities, payroll and suppliers, Hensley explained.

“Right now, most small companies are in a crisis mode, trying to determine, ‘How do we meet our short-term financial obligations?’” he said. “How much cash do you have on hand and how do we stretch that as much as we can by renegotiating with your landlords, your bankers?”

Restaurants enjoying strong customer response may adjust to ride out the crisis.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“So far the food is flowing,” Hensley said. “They should be in pretty good shape there. It’s about having enough cash on hand to survive until they can reopen their seating areas and generate significant revenue again.”

Hensley hopes small-business relief measures included in Congress’ coronavirus response package will prove effective.

“It offers short-term financial assistance to small business to cover payroll and utility expenses,” he said. “It can be forgivable, assuming you use it for the purpose it’s intended.”

The loans will be through existing Small Business Administration lenders. Information on the program and others, including counseling for small business owners through local small business development centers, is available at iowasbdc.org.

That is an excellent program for small businesses to take advantage of,” Hensley said. “They have improved the application process dramatically. It’s so much smoother.”

Cobble Hill’s Schumacher has been keeping in touch with customers, a critical step for long-term recovery.

“We’ve been trying to connect with people over social media,” Schumacher said. “We have a lot of people who have become our core customer base and really like us and want to help us.”

“It’s making sure your customers are aware and trying to retain that relationship as best you can,” Hensley said. “Be working on your social media strategy.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“This is going to end at some point, and it’s good to remain in communication with our customers.”

Restaurateurs hope the strong customer response through the first weeks of the crisis continues — however long that is.

“We actually had to add shifts because we cut it to the bone at the beginning, and then we realized it wasn’t going to cut it,” recalled Querrey at Wig and Pen. “I can’t thank our community enough for the support.”

“We live in a region that embraces small businesses, and the community plays such an important role,” Hensley said.

“Whether it’s takeout or delivery or gift cards of gift cards, that will make a big overall impact in the survival of businesses in our community.”

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.