“If you’re going to take this chance with us, there will be a cooking class, for free.”
This just in: Boston-area restaurants—and the people who own and work in them—are still super fucked.
With coronavirus case numbers on the rise across the country and outbreaks throughout New England putting Stage 2 of Phase 3 on hold in Mass, as well as the constant push and pull between business and personal health that owners as well as employees face, the service industry is having to reinvent itself from week to week.
And let’s not forget: Winter is coming, which means that places that have returned to some semblance of their normal capacity with increased outdoor seating will have to invest in fairly expensive weatherproofing for those accommodations or pivot to making indoor dining at a reduced capacity somehow profitable.
There are also plenty of places, like Mei Mei on Park Drive near Boston University and Juliet in Somerville, that are without patio seating and won’t reopen for indoor dining until it is safer to do so.
“In a small space like Juliet, it just doesn’t make sense to be open for dine-in,” said Josh Lewin, chef and co-owner of Juliet and Peregrine in Beacon Hill.
So, what does make sense? What allows a takeout-only restaurant to remain viable, not just economically, but socially? If takeout solved all of a restaurant’s needs and purposes, we wouldn’t need this conversation; but restaurants are not just about food—they’re about gathering, connecting, and forming community.
How do we create that community if we can’t physically build it?
For Mei Mei and Juliet, it was pretty simple. Since they can’t have guests inside the restaurant, they’re bringing the restaurant to the homes of their guests.
To teach a village
These days, nearly all of us are familiar with Zoom-like video-chat platforms. Whether it’s virtual happy hour with friends, tuning in to a panel discussion, online learning, or the dreaded-but-ubiquitous staff meeting, gathering ’round the laptop for social interaction is fairly normal. Why not add food?
“At first, this was all things we did from our homes. We did some cocktail classes, some cooking classes, and then some noninstructional stuff,” Lewin says. “We said, We’ll try to entertain you, too, and let you remember that we’re here, and let us be part of your stuck-at-home quarantine.
“And then we started to go back to work in a very, very small way. First we did meal kits only and decided that if you’re going to take this chance with us, there will be a cooking class, for free.”
With a login code for a specific time, those who purchased a meal kit could join a member of the Juliet staff for instruction on how to turn the Blue Apron-style kit into the kind of meal Juliet has built its name and its story around.
“Juliet has always been about these five-, six-, seven-week long dining experiences where we plug people into the narrative of the origins of the cuisine,” Lewin says. “We’re trying to tell you a story and entertain you, not just give you food. The food is the medium for the story and experience we want to create. And we thought, How do we create that and give people access to that when we certainly can’t let you inside? We can’t deliver you a four-course meal with takeout; it just wouldn’t be good. But if you cook it yourself.”
It’s not just cooking—everyone on the call is able to sit and eat together.
“We really have a party, and it actually feels really organic,” Lewin says. “You have a glass of wine, the conversation sparks, and it really is a lot like you’re in a restaurant. You’re sharing a meal and having a conversation with strangers.”
These once-a-week experiences—hosted by Josh and his partner, Katrina Jazayeri, from home and another staff member from either their home or the restaurant—make up about 20% of Juliet’s current revenue. Chefs and industry experts don’t think cook-at-home is a silver bullet or saviour; still, for many, it’s a market worth exploring for the sake of community as well as making rent.
While restaurant and bar sales had been climbing year over year prior to the pandemic, even faster than grocery sales according to US Census Bureau data, those numbers along with previous predictions seem like they are from another lifetime. As Supermarket News reported, a June Food Industry Association study of US grocery shopper trends found: “87% of all families consider eating together as important, and the COVID-19 crisis has amplified that view. Of survey respondents, 41% report cooking more of their meals since the pandemic, and 42% are minimizing trips to the store.” Furthermore, “In cooking more frequently at home, 27% of consumers are planning more meals in advance, and 20% are trying new dishes more often or using perishables before they spoil.”
“It’s not solving all the problems,” Lewin says. “It’s not giving us all the money we need, but it is providing something that’s missing, both for the guest and for the staff, and that’s that connection you get by dining out, which is something that takeout can’t do.”
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Irene Li, chef and co-owner of Mei Mei, has a similar pedagogical approach in sharing her family’s award-winning and locally sourced Chinese-American cuisine.
“We are not opening for dine-in, indoor or outdoor, probably not until 2021 at the earliest, and so for us, setting that timeline has forced us to be realistic about what we need to do and how successful a given initiative needs to be in order for it to make sense for us,” Li says.
On-site cooking classes were part of the Mei Mei team’s pre-COVID model, so when the pandemic forced doors closed, shifting everything to an online model was fairly simple, she says. Five to six staff members are trained to teach the classes, which Li says allows staff to continue to participate in the community and enables guests to interact with their team.
“It’s been a really nice way for our regulars to still see our staff; they are what make Mei Mei interesting and fun and a place people want to come back to.”
Cooking classes alone wouldn’t keep Mei Mei afloat, but Li says they have been a tremendous complement to takeout service.
“As far as numbers go,” she says, “overall we’re doing 20-40% of our prior revenue, and classes are a small proportion of that.”
It’s not exactly set up as a money maker. While Mei Mei offers a la carte ingredients for purchase to be used in the various class offerings, “part of the Mei Mei story is that we are really home cooks,” Li says.
“We like to experiment, we watch a lot of YouTube videos, and so we also want to encourage people to use whatever ingredients they have handy and play around. We’ll say, You need a grain, which could be rice but could be farro, and something oniony, instead of giving a list of specific ingredients.”
Ultimately, like at Juliet, Li’s classes are a way to keep guests connected to the experience that is dining at Mei Mei.
“Takeout is a very flat experience,” she says. “You don’t get the atmosphere, you don’t get to talk to your favorite bartender or server. Takeout is all the same. What’s actually in the box on your kitchen counter might be different, but the experience is the same.
“These classes have been a differentiation factor that is smart for us as a business, and it feels like Mei Mei. Takeout can be from anywhere. We want people to be able to get an experience they can’t get anywhere but from us.”
Some local restaurateurs have also incorporated grocer-pantry-deli-style mashups with fresh homemade goods for purchase.
“When lockdown first happened, we were doing these deals on meal kits to blow out the inventory and attack it as a grocery item instead of something like a Blue Apron model,” says Jonathan Gilman, co-founder of Brato Brewhouse and Kitchen in Brighton.
Brato, which has a 14-table patio available for outdoor seating, is built around pub fare like a grilled cheese sandwich on a house-made beer grain sourdough with sausage. Gilman also added an additional daytime menu as well as grocery and bakery offerings, plus new dine-in options like breakfast sandwiches and coffee. There are also impulse buys and bulk goods such as bottles of house sauces, pickles, local cheeses, and loaves of Brato’s signature bread (as well as its sourdough starter, if you’ve been baking during quarantine).
“The main idea right now is diversification,” Gilman says. “We’re trying to figure out where we can get revenue, because we’re very fortunate to have a 14-table patio, but if it’s raining that’s reduced to zero. So we really want to have as many options as possible.
“That’s our general roadmap to surviving the most intimidating winter of all time.”
MIDA, the classic Italian South End eatery owned and founded by chef Douglass Williams, has taken a similar approach to supplementing takeout and dine-in options.
“We have the alimentary menu, which means small grocer or small grocer options; our dried handmade pasta by the pound; cocktails to go; wine and sangria to go. We also have our staples for sale,” Williams says, “like the preserved garlic that goes in nearly everything in the restaurant.
“That’s been a huge help,” he adds. “It really is an exciting piece of what we do that people get to enjoy if they’re not going to be dining in. Two months ago we weren’t there, we were all just trying to get people—and ourselves—through the shock, but now we have some room, some options.”
By expanding menu options to include dried goods and food to be prepared at home, MIDA has also expanded the ways guests can stay connected with the restaurant and keep the restaurant connected to its community.
“We’re planning our business around where we’re at, the human condition we’re all in,” Williams says.
“We aim to continue to be a bright spot in people’s lives in as many ways as possible.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project. The Silver Dining Playbook series has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
Haley is an AAN Award-winning columnist for DigBoston and Mel magazine and has contributed to publications including the Boston Globe and helped found Homicide Watch Boston. She has spearheaded and led several Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism investigations including a landmark multipart series about the racialized history of liquor licensing in Massachusetts, and for three years wrote the column Terms of Service about restaurant industry issues from the perspective of workers.