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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

How Restaurants Retooled for Takeout—and Survival

You do not want to be an independent restaurant right now. Depending on where you’re located, first you had to close, then you got to open, then you had to close again. Over 100,000 establishments have shuttered either permanently or long term since March, according to recent numbers from the National Restaurant Association. For those that are managing to survive, takeout is now an essential part of the business model. That means figuring out how to make nice meals travel well, and some restaurants, bars, and even technology companies have figured out how to make their offerings shippable, shelf-stable, and more broadly applicable.

Handle With Care

When the Ramen Shop in Oakland opened in 2012, its owners were adamantly against selling hot ramen to go. It’s a dish meant to be eaten as soon as the broth hits the bowl. “We wanted people to have the best experience possible,” says co-owner Sam White. Made from intensely savory soup, compact and toothy noodles, and delectable toppings, ramen is a staple food that chefs spend years getting right.

This is how it’s supposed to work: You sit at the counter, place your order, and watch the show. Your drink arrives. Billowy columns of steam rise up from the noodle boiler. These noodles cook fast. Line cooks heat the broth—poultry, vegetarian, dashi—which is blended with fat and tare (pronounced ta-reh), the main seasoning in ramen soup. Line cooks use a thimble for near constant taste tests. Ten minutes pass and your bowl is in front of you—noodles folded, broth blended and ladled, goodies placed. A wise diner begins slurping immediately because if ramen noodles sit too long, they sop up broth and become a mushy mess.

This is why hot soup to go was a no. The Ramen Shop owners, all alums of Chez Panisse, didn’t want to compromise that one perfect bowl when the pandemic first hit—they figured they could ride out a few weeks of being closed in March. But then suddenly it was May, and they knew they needed to find a way to send ramen home. That meant tinkering with the recipe, and sorting out how to package the dish up.

The egg noodles were the main problem to resolve. What if noodles sat out in the car, got left out of the fridge, or, worse yet, were reheated days later. “It would taste gross,” says White. After trials that included adjusting the flour blend and tweaking the rolling amount, they figured out that eggless noodles were more durable; you could even freeze them if you had to. Eggless noodles had a little less richness and color, but that was OK. Another side benefit was, you know, vegans.

The recipe, already simple, became even more so. Made daily, it includes a blend of organic flours, water, salt, and konsui—a mixture of potassium carbonate and sodium carbonate that makes noodles springy and provides tension. Without konsui, ramen noodles would be elastic, but not firm. Pre-Covid, the Ramen Shop staff could crank out 500 orders a day using their prized Yamato machine brought over from Japan. Today, sales are slowly climbing back to that level.

They also had to streamline production. “It’s been a process to tighten up the systems,” says White. Tare and fat are pre-portioned ahead of time. Stock options simmer on the stove. When a ticket is called, the chef combines them at predetermined amounts. No stops to taste. After a quick boil, noodles are plunged into an ice bath. This helps noodles seize up and stop cooking; they won’t soak up steam or get mushy. A quick squirt of olive oil keeps them separate, then they’re folded into a compostable bowl. Then, say, for the miso ramen, they’re topped with pork chashu, Brussels sprouts, shoyu-marinated egg, and greens. The finished soup goes into a second compostable bowl. Take it home, combine, and eat.

The owners’ resistance to takeout is almost forgotten. “If we want the business to survive, we had to change the business model,” said White.

Go National

Another restaurant rethinking form and function is Planta, a Miami-based chain of plant-based cafes. Earlier in the pandemic, business was limping along with limited indoor dining and a modicum of takeout. For Steven Salm, Planta CEO, and his partner, chef David Lee, the only way to sustain 10 restaurants and 550 employees was to fashion their food into something that could be shipped across the country, which meant rethinking how to prep, cook, freeze, and seal pizzas, burgers, and dumplings, their most popular item.

Stuffed with a range of veggies—shiitake, spinach, and potato—dumpling wrappers stick like glue to keep their contents contained. They also stick to other dumplings, which can lead to falling-apart-ness. Planta had to engineer a precise system for laying out the dumplings, flash freezing, and vacuum sealing them: If there was too much moisture in the freezer bag, the wrappers would stick together. If there was too much oxygen, the dumplings would smush and lose shape. If they weren’t packed tight enough, just barely touching but not sitting on top of each other, the freezer bag would roll like a toothpaste tube and crack the things open. As they were working out the process, Salm sent daily dumpling packages to friends and influencers who would take photos of every corner and crimp upon arrival before receiving the go-ahead from Salm to toss them in a pot of simmering water.

Now the restaurant chain is sending out hundreds of next-day boxes a week, kept cold by dry ice blocks, though Salm would really like to figure out how to send them second-day instead. Much cheaper. And Salm and Lee aren’t slogging through this “little” project only to pivot back when the restaurant industry comes back online. “We wanted the Planta-at-home brand to feel special,” says Salm. Dumplings arrive accompanied by cute glass jars filled with truffle soy sauce and chili oil. Once they’re empty, you’ll keep them around.


At Bathtub Gin, a somewhat hidden bar in New York City, the problem was how to keep selling cocktails even when no customers were allowed inside. “It’s been a long, hard struggle,” says beverage director Brendan Bartley. Prior to Covid, Bathtub Gin was known for its intricate cocktail menu—a 30-ingredient concoction was common. Once the pandemic struck, Bartley set to work recreating his drinks so that he could bottle them for takeout, delivery, and eventually national shipping. For bonus points, the Australian spirits expert also wanted them to be shelf stable for six months. When the bar reopens, the plan is for a single staffer to make use of those same bottled cocktails—fewer people meant a safer workforce. And he wants zero waste.

Some drinks like the complex 17-ingredient, 15-step “If You Like Piña Colada” could be made in advance and bottled. Others, like the “Lime-Less Margarita,” were tougher than you might think. Bartley says the problem with limes, and really any citrus, is that they’ll eventually ferment in the bottle and spoil. But acids give that pleasant tang, and, well, a margarita needs lime like the rim of the glass needs salt. Bartley was able to replicate the crucial fruit by adding citric, malic, and tartaric acid plus lime oil to a blend of tequila, agave, and distilled water. “We have this ideology that fresh is best,” said Bartley. “But it’s not always the best thing to use when you’re trying to make things consistent.”

Make A LOT of Reservations

Not to be dark, but one thing people don’t need right now is dinner reservations. This left restaurant reservation apps like Resy, Tock, and Open Table scrambling to figure out news ways to make money. Pre-Covid, Tock allowed fancy restaurants to sell prepaid dinner reservations, what Nick Kokonas, CEO and founder of Tock, calls “tickets.” When the pandemic struck, Tock was sitting on tens of millions of dollars in restaurant tickets that would need to be cancelled and refunded. “There was an existential risk to both of my businesses,” he said. (Kokonas is also the co-owner of The Alinea Group in Chicago, which includes the three-Michelin-star Alinea.)

As indoor dining vanished, Kokonas realized that takeout and delivery would replace it. So his engineering team retooled the system to offer 15-minute time-slotted increments. Perfect for when you don’t want everyone arriving to pick up food at 6:45 pm. Tock built the prototype in a week, later adding two-way text messaging, and 3rd party delivery options. He used Tock to sell more than a thousand deluxe turkey dinners over Thanksgiving, spreading pickups out over two days in 15-minute increments.

Since March, Tock has hired more staffers—from 80 up to 130; it has acquired 4,000 new customers; and it no longer only serves the elite. Tock clients can use the cloud-based service to sell 5-course dinners to go or simple weeknight meals, send weekly customer emails, virtual cooking classes, and take advantage of a flat delivery fee from Postmates and DoorDash that Kokonas negotiated. Business is growing 20 percent month over month, and now all kinds of companies use Tock to keep people distanced or spaced out by arrival—say, art galleries in Chicago or lunch spots at ski resorts. Coming soon: using Tock to schedule test drives.

Kokonas isn’t the only one looking beyond this unmentionable year. When Planta first started shipping its dumplings nationwide, it was about customer connection in that particular moment. But Salm is of course thinking long term, getting more customers, building the brand. Neither delivery or Planta’s normal business are profitable, at the moment—but it’s an investment for the future.

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