The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed restaurants to adapt and innovate in order to survive. As the architects of the restaurant industry, chefs across West Michigan have tested various experiments to stay afloat during the pandemic and beyond.
Restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus have cut down on already thin profit margins, leading many restaurants to close their doors. The Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association predicts about 5,600 establishments will close in Michigan in the next six months.
Restaurateurs have deployed a range of strategies have been since the pandemic hit, including ghost kitchens and pop-up concepts, increasing outdoor seating during colder months, and focusing on takeout and delivery. Meanwhile, some restaurant workers have taken on more duties as staff sizes shrink.
Some of the trends could be temporary while others might leave their mark on the industry in a more permanent way, according to four chefs MiBiz spoke with recently.
An emerging trend that gained prevalence during the pandemic has been ghost kitchens — temporary pop-up concepts that a restaurant launches out of its kitchen with a separate menu.
Hops at 84 East in Holland launched Frankie’s Cheesesteak Factory for a few months during lunch hours, offering cheesesteaks, fries and desserts.
“It was a good patch for us to be able to pull in some extra revenue,” said Hops at 84 East Executive Chef Robert Repp. “I think it makes a lot of sense for large restaurants that have larger kitchens. For the size of our dining room, our kitchen is actually really small, so for us to operate two separate restaurants is really difficult. But we knew we wouldn’t be able to make the numbers to have a full staff on for lunch hours without trying something like this.”
Ghost kitchens could potentially provide a path for newer restaurants to explore different concepts and find their niche after the pandemic, said EJ Martin, general manager and executive chef at Olive’s Restaurant & Bar in East Grand Rapids.
“The ghost kitchen concept was so great during COVID-19 for many restaurants, and hopefully that can help other businesses down the road outside of the pandemic,” Martin said. “They could use that to adapt and see where they could be most successful.”
Amore Trattoria Italiana in Comstock Park experimented with a pop-up concept by offering nachos every Thursday during the summer. It was a hit, but also time consuming, said owner and head chef Jenna Arcidiacono.
“It’s confusing for guests — it’s not my favorite idea,” Arcidiacono said. “It ended up being really popular but also a lot of extra prep work to do. We had to add a lot of extra stuff to our kitchen and most of it had to be used that week or else it would go bad. But we have some really talented cooks in my kitchen who had a lot of fun with it.”
CDKI Dining Group, which operates MeXo and Sandy Point Beach House restaurants, didn’t launch an entirely new restaurant pop-up during the pandemic, but the restaurant group did streamline its operations by working out of MeXo’s kitchen for both of its concepts.
“With ghost kitchens you have to be careful the way you advertise it so you don’t confuse people,” said Executive Chef Oscar Moreno. “In our case, we were just trying to consolidate the two concepts in one with the lack of help we had.”
Restaurants vary in how they have dealt with staffing levels in the past year, but most have cut down on staff sizes significantly with a lack of dine-in guests. Chefs in general are seeing growing uncertainty about who will want to work in restaurants going forward.
“I foresee a lack of potential employees for restaurants in the next couple years,” Martin said. “If I were a young person trying to figure out my direction right now, I wouldn’t be pursuing culinary, but maybe there are people who are looking at that as an opportunity with less competition currently in the field.”
The staffing landscape is “pretty rough” overall at restaurants right now, Repp said.
“I’m 31 years old, and when I was learning how to cook, you were lining up for a cook job,” Repp said. “It isn’t like that any more. Our service staff and kitchen staff are still pretty young, but there aren’t as many career cooks. A lot of them have gotten into different industries.”
The pandemic has pushed some people into industrial work and other professions, Repp said, but it’s hard to say if that will be a long-term trend yet.
With less of an in-person experience than ever, marketing was vital for restaurants this past year, Arcidiacono said.
“We’re out there hustling on social media telling people what we’re doing and hoping they’re listening,” she said. “I’m very vocal on social media and I think it helps a lot. It’s all about communication right now — people really want to hear about how you’re being safe and clean, so we talk a lot about that because a lot of people are scared.”
The pandemic has also pushed restaurant employees to be more hands-on and take on more responsibilities, Moreno said. In addition to cooking and putting together the restaurants’ menus, Moreno is now also mopping floors, washing dishes and doing whatever else he can to keep his restaurants in business, he said.
“I’ve gotten more involved with promoting the restaurant, creating videos and sharing pictures and information,” Moreno said. “It’s important to educate our guests about how we do things.”
Restaurants that are able to weather the pandemic could possibly see a boom in business as some in the industry expect to see pent-up demand as restrictions are lifted and the vaccine rollout is successful this year.
Based on what Repp saw at Hops at 84 East when it was able to reopen for indoor dining in July 2020, this year has the potential to be a boom for business if capacity restrictions ease soon.
“We were really busy last summer, it was really exciting to see,” Repp said. “After the first shutdown, we were like, ‘What is going to happen, is anybody coming out?’ But then we got flooded with customers on our first day we reopened.”
Arcidiacono is less optimistic about the predicted pent-up demand.
“People are very leery and will be for a long time, which is to the detriment of all of us,” Arcidiacono said.
Restaurants that are successful with takeout menus will thrive, but fine dining establishments like Amore Trattoria will have to upcharge menus and create an upscale experience for its customers, Arcidiacono said. That is how her restaurant reopened earlier this month at 25 percent capacity. Amore Trattoria created a chef’s tasting menu for dine-in guests that has three options for each course for $59 per person.
“We just decided to go that way for right now. We’re trying to figure out the best way to do dine-in,” Arcidiacono said. “For some people, this will be too expensive, but we still have our take-out menu as well.”
Martin feels strongly that activity will bounce back for the restaurants that are able to stay open.
“People love going out and I think it’s just something that everyone has on their agendas a couple times a week,” Martin said. “Once the vaccine makes its rounds and we go up in capacity, my hopes are the industry will bounce back and it will feel like we didn’t skip a beat.”
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