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Charlie Palmer On Reopening, Reacting, And What To Do With All That Wine

Adapting a nationwide portfolio of restaurants to local conditions, and keeping an eye on the vineyards.

Charlie Palmer is chef and owner of the Charlie Palmer Collective, a nationwide group of restaurants including the Aureole and Charlie Palmer Steak brands among others.

We’re spread out all over the country, so we have very different views and different approaches to the pandemic in different geographic areas. One example is Dry Creek Kitchen, which is in the town of Healdsburg in Sonoma County, California. We’ve been reopened for six weeks now, with indoor seating some of that time. That was recently changed, so we’re back to outdoor seating only. The fortunate thing there is we have an ample amount of outdoor seating, and probably one of the greatest climates in the world.

We’ve created a very strict but hospitality-driven protocol for all of our reopenings when they can happen. Reno is doing very well. I think that part of Nevada has not seen as much blowback as some places. Our rooftop bar in Napa has reopened, and the restaurant is slated to reopen next week. But again, that’s going to be determined by whether they allow indoor seating.

In New York, the location where Aureole has been for the last 10 years—we’re converting that. We’re actually doing the construction now, revamping it to Charlie Palmer Steak, mostly because I think it’s a better concept for that location going into what we hope the future looks like.

But at the same time, we’re also pursuing a new home for Aureole. The move wasn’t solely because of the pandemic, but that certainly pushed things forward. We have a lot of interest from different landlords. It could certainly be in a hotel environment, if and when hotels start to come back. But it’s really a timing thing. There’s going to be tons of transitions for all kinds of restaurants. They’re going to reopen, or not reopen. Landlords are looking at situations like that. Aureole is a very strong brand that’s going to be very sought-after by a number of potential partners.

Fortunately for us, all of our landlords have been very, very accommodating. The new lease model for all of us in this business is based on percentage rent. You can call it a rent, but it’s really a partnership with the landlord. As things hopefully come back and business increases, then obviously the rents will increase. But the days of paying some crazy square-footage rent, no matter your revenue—that’s pretty much over.

In the meantime, our solution for keeping Aureole vibrant—Aureole at Home—has been very, very successful so far. We’re operating it now out of our facility at 151 West 42nd Street, where we have an incredible execution kitchen. That kitchen also served us well with all the charity efforts we’ve been doing. At one point, we were doing 2,000 meals a day for World Central Kitchen. We’ve done several hundred meals a day for Frontline Foods. That’s been good for us—not so much as a revenue generator, but it does keep some of our employees busy and employed.

What we’re doing with Aureole at Home is a combination of totally prepared and partially prepared courses. Once customers get it home, they heat up anything meant to be hot. They have plating specifications for the dish if they want to take it out of the container and present it as we would in the restaurant, even with a couple of little garnishes. Dressings are on the side, so they can dress at the table too.

We’re having one of our employees actually deliver it. We’re not using an outside service. It gives people the assurance that this is directly from the source, it’s been handled very carefully, and delivered in a really nice way. It’s a chance to show a little bit of hospitality, even if it’s just handing off the to-go bag.

The ability to offer to-go alcohol has helped a lot. At Dry Creek Kitchen, the entire menu is available to-go, along with a number of different craft cocktails for two that are presented nicely in an earthenware jar. You just shake it and pour it over ice. Then there’s a wine list too. For to-go, we’re building a check average that’s equal to what people are spending in the restaurant, because they have that option to treat themselves to a couple of cocktails before they have this nice dinner, or they’ll have a bottle of wine.

All of our restaurants are sitting on a lot of wine inventory. The mantra is to use and sell that inventory as much as we can. It’s not that we’re not buying, because we are. In the more active spots like Reno, we are buying. We sell a lot of wine there, so we’re replacing inventory as we sell it, just like we normally would do.

I’m so close to the wine industry in California that it’s a consideration for me, and for those of us that support the wineries and the people that we love, because they’re in a tough spot—maybe even tougher than we are. They have the next vintage coming in.

Everybody says the people are drinking more wine, but I think that the mass-produced wine is what’s really increasing in sales, not the small producers and the people who are doing something special. We’ve been trying to support them as much as possible. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens with them, because that’s a business you can’t slow down. The next harvest is sitting here in my own vineyard right now.

The thing we’ve been most successful at in this pandemic is reacting quickly. When the rules change, they change overnight. For instance, when they permitted outdoor seating, we expanded outdoor seating at Dry Creek Kitchen the next day. And you have to also bend the rules a little bit. They tell you that you have outdoor seating on the street. Well, let’s take over the street, and then we’ll deal with the consequences later. If somebody says, “You can’t you can’t have tables there,” it’s like, “Hey, we didn’t know.”

I would love to see very aggressive regulation relaxed for restaurants like us. The restaurant business in general was already heading in a direction that made it almost impossible for the American dream to happen for the young chef or restauranteur. I feel bad for the young people trying to come into what I think is the greatest business in the world, and not having the opportunity because the numbers just don’t work anymore.