The pandemic shift to takeout inspires a decades-old neighborhood institution to keep customers in their own digital house.
By Rod Davis as told to Zagat Stories
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner BentoBox, a website, commerce, and marketing platform for restaurants. BentoBox’s zero-commission online ordering (Bento Ordering) allows restaurants to keep their profits without third-party surcharges and build direct guest relationships.
Rod Davis took over Nick’s Cafe in Los Angeles in 2009, after working his way through many different jobs in restaurants and hospitality. The classic Chinatown neighborhood diner first opened in 1948, and Davis has managed to keep the menu and tradition alive while navigating the extreme challenges presented by the pandemic. Davis also owns Rock’n Egg Cafe in Eagle Rock.
I was looking to open a restaurant, and some other deals fell through. I actually found Nick’s for sale on Craigslist or something silly like that. I went down and saw the place, and it was an old-school diner with a horseshoe front counter where they sit around on stools. That was just perfect. That’s what I wanted. I wanted an old-school diner.
Nick’s was closed when I saw it. Fortunately, the landlord—she had actually run it for a time—had some of the old recipes that go back to the original Nick’s, like the ham and the salsa. We were able to make that connection. We use the same bacon and sausage. We try to keep that intact, and we added stuff to the menu.
The pandemic was certainly very challenging. In the beginning, there was so much misinformation. They changed their minds about the rules so often, it was hard to keep up with it. At the very beginning we were shut down except for takeout, which was pretty devastating as far as sales go. There was all this promise of government assistance and stuff like that, so we just hunkered down.
It was survivable, but all the protocols you have to go through—all that stuff cost lots of money. Then we were able to open again for outside dining, and we made a slow comeback. For maybe three or four weeks, we were kind of back to normal. I thought, “Okay, I can break even again.” Then they jerked the rug out from under us and shut us down again with no warning. That was even more devastating. I didn’t know if we were going to ever open again.
Maybe because Nick’s has been here longer, we had a bigger loyal customer base. Rock’n Egg Cafe in Eagle Rock was newer. We did have loyal customers there, but not as solid as Nick’s. So the second place was more affected. I was surprised that people even came for takeout.
Before all this, at Nick’s we really didn’t do a lot of takeout. Sometimes we’d have big orders and stuff. It might have been only 10 percent or 15 percent of our business. At Rock’n Egg, on the other hand, we always had a strong takeout business for whatever reason, so it was more like 40 percent. Now Nick’s does a huge takeout business, so it’s good that we’re open and back to normal.
We made minimal changes shifting to do more takeout. It’s more about customer flow, making sure people don’t come inside the building, and we’re compliant with safety rules. We had a very limited takeout menu the first time around. Just the more popular things that would travel well. We really reacted right away—if something changed, we changed the same day. I noticed that a lot of people were slow to change, but all those changes cost money.
When we went to outside dining, I tried to make that experience as pleasant as possible for the customers. I ate out a lot during this time because I wanted to get ideas from other people—what they were not doing so well, and what they were doing well. A lot of these places were just annoying with these little salt and pepper packets. We tried to not do things like that. It’s a big learning experience—trying to make your customers feel like nothing has changed as much as possible.
We had only been using one of the delivery services at Nick’s, and four or five at the other place, because we had such a solid dine-in crowd that we didn’t really need them. Our old website was pretty limited. It wouldn’t allow online ordering. But BentoBox was really good to work with. I was really interested in their system—it’s really easy to use, so that’s a big plus. They were good about showing that to us. The one we used before was really complicated. It was not easy to use at all. Our old website was basically dead because it was so hard to modify. Now the more I use BentoBox, the more I like it.
Now we try to steer everybody to the new website for ordering because it’s cheaper for the customer, and it’s better for us. Trying to educate customers to go there is challenging. It’s been a slow process, but it’s building. In every to-go order, we include a little flier encouraging customers to go to our website. Any menu or anything we hand out has the QR code that sends them to the website.
I don’t know what we’re going to do with the delivery services. We might cut some of those back because it’s hard on the servers—they have all these different tablets to look at. It would be better just to look at one or two. Especially at Nick’s, we might just cut it back to our website and try to get everyone to go there.
We’re going to keep the outside dining area the way it is. It’s actually worked out really nice, although it takes some of our parking away. That means that when we open inside, we might overload the kitchen a little bit, so there are some logistics to work out. But at Rock’n Egg we already had outside dining, so we didn’t really make any changes.
People have gotten used to looking at the menu on the phone as opposed to an actual hard-copy menu, so we’ll keep doing that. But we’ll hand out menus too when it makes sense. Older folks tend to want something in their hands. That’s just how it works. But I’m an older person—I’m 66—and I prefer the menu on my phone because I can make it larger or smaller. I don’t need to wear glasses to look at it.