Restaurants are widening menu options to include prepared meals, packs, and bulk options to simplify production and give diners more flexibility.
By Zagat Editorial as told to Zagat Stories
Restaurants are finding that expanding their menus to include large-format meals, packaged prepped entrees and sides, and mass quantities of favorites allows customers to buy for a group and make the food last. Plus, it lets the restaurant serve more, package less, and focus on food that requires less individual attention.
Chef, Colonia Verde, New York
We’re doing a lot more deliveries. One hundred percent more. But instead of doing delivery on general terms, like sending more meals, we started doing prepared meals, because we found out that it was a useful thing for many families to have that they can just pull out of the fridge or freezer and heat up. We were able to start hiring back three, four people to start working the kitchen and get something going. We’ve been doing this for a little bit over a week now, and it’s been successful. We brought in three people for the kitchen and a couple of front of the house people to help with the deliveries and whatnot.
I’m trying to be mindful, trying to be safe, trying to be healthy, and trying to be as contactless as possible. That’s been working. It’s been interesting. It’s something that seems to have some legs and some potential.
A couple things have worked well for this, like our ajiaco—a Colombian soup that we’ve been making since we opened. People just went directly to that soup because it’s hearty and it’s homey and it’s everything you need to keep you comfortable. We have some great duck confit tacos, but we separate everything. We have the duck confit we made, and we have the tortilla that we sell separately, and the cheese. It’s kind of a build-it-your-own dish.
And it’s the same thing with our pasta. We have a poblano pepper pasta that we separate the Bolognese sauce and the poblanos, and then the homemade pasta is sent on the side. Customers feel like they’re making a meal. We’ve also added a buy-a-meal for first responders and hospital workers at the hospital just down the block. The community’s always been super important for us, being a neighborhood joint.
Operations manager, Taquiza, Miami
We have three stores and one commissary that provides food to all of our stores. We had to go from 80 employees down to 5. We decided to stay open with one of the stores. We moved a very small amount of production to that North Beach location.
We had actually just started our delivery business maybe a month before this all went down. We make our masa from scratch—we take the corn, go through the whole nixtamalization process, make our masa, and from the masa we make our tortillas. So our product is very delicate in the sense that it’s very fresh, it can oxidize very quickly. So we were like, hey, let’s not do delivery. We don’t want anyone to not have the same product that they would have in our restaurant. But we figured out a way to separate everything—the meat is in its own container, the tortillas are in their own wrapped container that keeps the moisture appropriate for the tortillas.
We vacuum seal all of our product, so have a good amount of lead time in order to keep everything fresh. For example, we’ll marinate and braise a pork shoulder. After cooking, we cool it down and vacuum-seal it. That was always our process. It kept the food fresher, and it was just a better product overall. Fast forward to now. This ability for customers to refrigerate or freeze our products has been a blessing—it’s how we make the at-home package that we offer to people. They can order the protein that has already been vacuum sealed and bagged, and it’s ready for them and they can keep it longer. It ends up translating very well. All you have to do is open it and heat it up, and it’s as delicious as if you had gotten it in our stores, which is great.
Co-owner, Yaso Tangbao, New York
Before COVID-19, I had five restaurants, with another ready to open. I had to delay the opening and close my five restaurants. I’ve moved all my production to my commissary in Brooklyn. We did about a 25 percent delivery business before this. But the traditional delivery model does not work for our fast-casual Shanghainese food. Now we do, first, a bag of soup dumplings and baos that customers can steam at home. Second are box meals—a 5-meal or 15-meal combo that customers can order and store in a freezer. It can last for two or three weeks.
For Chinese restaurants, it’s been extremely stressful—starting in late January, Chinese restaurants started seeing a decline in sales. For us, it was about a 10 percent sales decrease. But for my restaurant friends in Chinatown and Flushing, it was a 50 or 60 percent drop. I feel like I need to get the comunity hear my voice and make a difference, to let people know that Chinese food is safe. I cofounded an NGO called the Voice of Chinese Americans to organize Chinese restaurant owners to discuss marketing and pitching to media. We organized some funding for a local hospital to buy masks. I want the community to hear from Chinese restaurant owners. We are also part of all of the city. My home is Brooklyn. I love this city.