Four restaurateurs reflect on change in the face of the pandemic, what new tools and innovations surprised them, and what's next for the industry.
By Square as told to Zagat Stories
Square has the tools to run your business—even when it’s not business as usual. To help businesses make the shifts they need, Square partnered with Zagat Stories to tell the stories of Square sellers navigating the current pandemic and planning for what comes next.
The coronavirus lockdown shuttered most restaurants nationwide earlier in 2020. As lockdown restrictions have eased, many restaurants had to make quick adjustments and alterations to their menus, processes, staffing, and physical spaces to reopen. But as the pandemic will continue to affect restaurants for a long time to come, restaurateurs are adopting new technology and services to make their businesses more efficient, safer, and easier for customers and employees alike.
David de Betelu, Wally Sadat, Jeff Krupman, and Charlie Marshall are all restaurant owners who, like many others, had to act fast when the pandemic hit. Through innovation, scrappiness, and technology, all four discovered a new way of operating that surprised them and is helping them plan for a better future.
David de Betelu
Co-owner, Maison Danel, San Francisco
When the pandemic started, new restaurant Maison Danel had to quickly figure out how to translate their fine-dining menu and experience for take-out—something they had never imagined. See video story.
We opened in the middle of February, and on our four-week anniversary the shelter in place order came down. We had to close the following week. We didn’t really have time to celebrate at all. We got some really good press and support from the community, and it was heartbreaking to have to then all of a sudden shut down so soon.
We were faced with a decision—do we continue to be in limbo and wait until things are back to normal again, or do we try to pivot the business to respond to what’s happening, and try to innovate, try to survive, and fight for our business? Ultimately, we chose the latter.
We are not just a bakery and pâtisserie—we are a restaurant as well. In addition to serving baked goods and pastries, we have authentic French food. Those things are not the easiest for takeout. Think about steak frites, beef bourguignon, and cassoulet. We had to pivot to more takeout-friendly items.
Square has made that transition very easy for us because all of our items are already in the system. We were very quickly able to have a web presence that people could order directly from us through the site. The Square POS is very nice for takeout because it’s all one integrated system, and we’ve been using Square for Restaurants for our sit-down places. Square also enabled the On-Demand Delivery option really quickly, which gave us a delivery option on the back end. Turning all of that on was very straightforward compared to having to go to these individual delivery apps, which is a headache because you have to manage each system separately.
We want people to be transported to France, to Paris, when they experience our pâtisserie, so there’s a beautiful interior with a chandelier and banquette. You don’t get that experience for takeout, so we focus on the packaging. I worked to design beautiful pastry boxes in different colors, with beautiful ribbons, so that every order looks like a gift.
That packaging is here to stay. Custom packaging has always been in our plan, and the pandemic accelerated the launch. We knew our packaging was a hit when people reacted to receiving and opening our pastry boxes with the same awe and enthusiasm as walking into our tea salon. We want to continue to bring that joy to people after the pandemic.
Even though we’re new, we still had to adapt to the whole new dine-in environment because of the pandemic like everybody else. We’re cautiously optimistic. We’re at 25 percent inside occupancy right now, which is not a huge capacity. We’re rearranging the dining room completely so that there’s proper social distancing. We set up beautiful display tables for the holiday season to separate the takeout portion of our space and the dining room.
Customers are becoming increasingly digital-savvy, and the pandemic has pushed this adoption much more rapidly. QR codes aren’t new, but they’re popping up everywhere now at restaurants. It might sound a little weird to not get a physical menu when you sit down, or a bill that comes to you at the end of the meal, but think about how we order a pizza for delivery now. We no longer look at a physical to-go menu and talk to someone live to order, so maybe it’s not so crazy to think that the dine-in experience will start to leverage mobile phones as well.
The pandemic forced us to focus on what makes Maison Danel special—authentic French techniques and flavors. This spirit of trying new things while staying true to who we are is for sure something we will keep doing.
Co-owner/CMO, Kebab Shop, San Diego, Bay Area, Orange County, Austin
The Kebab Shop, owned by Wally Sadat and family, did everything they needed to adapt and pivot. With his scrappy attitude and technology like curbside pickup, he’s been able to keep serving guests while planning for the future. See video story.
In the beginning of the pandemic, it was obviously a big shock to everyone. Overnight it was like the end of days for restaurants. It was a ghost town.
But no one really thought about the business or the restaurant then. You were just thinking, “How do I keep everyone safe?” One time, we got an email at 8 or 9 at night, saying everyone had to have mandatory masks the following morning, or you’re shut down. All of us were looking at each other and calling family members, like, “Where do you get masks?” We went to a craft store trying to figure out ways to make masks for 200 people. I was on a website ordering a high-end tablecloth, thinking maybe I could make that into masks.
We were adapting constantly. That’s been the theme of our brand right now, just trying everything. We’ve been able to MacGyver this thing to make it work. We took it upon ourselves to build sneeze guards. We were literally taking it day by day, maybe hour by hour.
Square was really helpful, because within the first two weeks they gave us these new options like curbside pickup. We were able to roll out curbside pickup and also On-Demand Delivery through our own website. That helped us a lot. When we added the Square KDS systems to the kitchen, we didn’t have to print a ticket. I don’t have to put your receipt on the bag to see your order. Customers don’t want a printed receipt. Nobody wants to touch anything.
It’s easier for the team to confirm orders too. It’s nice because the food is hotter, it’s fresher. The guest doesn’t have to get out of their car. They just know when the meal is actually ready to pick up. In terms of efficiency for both parties, it definitely is a help.
Navigating through these unprecedented challenges has forced us to innovate by introducing new operational initiatives. We hope to keep many of these new offerings, including our own online delivery, curbside pickup, and contactless ordering as they enhance the experience of our guests and team members.
We’ve witnessed how important it has been to implement new technology solutions in our back-of-house operations, digital ordering, and guest experience. Restaurants will have to be more technology-focused to compete in this new environment.
Chef/owner, PizzaHacker, San Francisco
Jeff Krupman never knew his perfect pandemic solutions would be QR codes and curbside pickup, but now he’s betting this method of ordering at a restaurant will be the way of the future. See video story.
Everything was happening at once. When the pandemic hit, I had this makeshift curbside solution we had been using for years. That solution was dying, the virus was just coming in—we really needed curbside. I kind of cried out on Twitter. I wrote a plea to Jack Dorsey—”I’ve been asking for curbside for years. Now that lives depend on it, we could really use that curbside.” Square got right back to me with, “We’re rolling it out tomorrow.” It was hilarious.
We’d been working on the new Tam Junction location for about a year. The pandemic made me need to raise a little more capital, and that was a little scary because nobody was thinking about investing in a restaurant then. We weren’t sure how things were going to play out.
Then we realized we’re going to have this new outdoor space. That was probably going to be good for us. We’re using our inside beer garden tables in the outside space. Those tables have been great.
Overall we had a pretty lean setup, and we still needed people to run the pizzas out. But it just sort of flowed. Nobody really got screwed up. It miraculously played out at the new location. I mean, I’m pizza. I’m still doing fine at the Mission location in the city. I figure I’ll ultimately have the same situation at the new place.
Right now, as a way to show community appreciation, we have an option for customers to buy a pizza for somebody else in need to take if they can’t pay. There’s been far, far more people donating than taking, which is a funny problem for me. I’ve got to figure out how to give away these pizzas.
Ordering at the table has been great too, since it goes right into the Square POS. I can’t claim to have envisioned using QR codes, but ordering from the table is something I’ve been asking about for years. I definitely think the ability to order at your table is going to be the norm, even post-COVID. There will still be table service, but for those people who know what they want and know how it works, this is what they’ll do. My sense is that given the choice, most people will choose to order and pay on their phone.
Moving forward, I think self-serve will definitely be an option at most restaurants. How often is there a technology that costs nothing, saves a restaurant money, improves the experience for the customer, reduces errors, and ends up effectively increasing the employee tips? And technology will rapidly evolve a more personalized experience based on prior orders or preferences—such as vegetarians seeing a meatless menu. Cash will not be accepted in most restaurants, and cryptocurrencies might even replace credit cards.
Chef/owner, The Marshal, New York
When Charlie Marshall first bought a wood-fired oven, he specifically said it was not for pizza. But when the pandemic hit, everything changed, and the next thing he knew he was selling pizza and had a whole new website to get it to his customers. See video story.
I started doing pizza, because I figured who eats a $34 lamb shank right now?
Pizza was never our thing, even as an afterthought. I worked for years for Chef Mathieu Palombino at Motorino. He heard a rumor I was opening my own place back when I worked for him, and he almost fired me because he found out I had a wood-fired oven, and thought I was opening a pizzeria. I said, “No, Mathieu, I’m opening this little American wood-fired restaurant. We’re using wood because it’s carbon neutral.” And he said, “Charlie, just so you know, pizza is always a good fallback.” Famous last words.
We had our own website which used to do nothing but say “Here’s the restaurant” and sell gift cards. We’re all of a sudden trying to use that website to sell pizzas with toppings, and it wasn’t made for food. The order would come into the e-mail, and I’d have to retype it into the computer. I had a delivery guy, and he’d call the person and say, “This says we’re delivering it to Indiana.” And they’d be like, “Oh, I’m sorry. That’s my billing address. I’m so confused.”
When we found Square and started using On-Demand Delivery, it was like, “Okay, we can get rid of our delivery guy. He can become a server. We can stop worrying about somebody stealing the bicycle wheel. We can stop worrying about taking manual credit cards over the phone.” Having them complete our deliveries for us has made it a much better, more easily manageable machine, and second to that is not having to pay those commissions on the online orders. With Square, the website orders go right into our POS system and prints out in the kitchen. There’s no phone call. There’s no double entry. It’s much more streamlined.
We have learned, by necessity, to operate within new margins. I do believe, however, that as things return to normal, diner preferences will continue to evolve, and so shall we. Delivery was never a huge part of our business pre-COVID, but I think it will remain a large part of our business post-crisis. Pizza was never on the menu pre-COVID, but I think it will remain.
Restaurants already had to change significantly pre-COVID to stay profitable and relevant as staff pay levels drastically increased in a very short period of time, and diners spent less in brick-and-mortar locations in favor of delivery or meal kits. I don’t see either of those trends changing, so only those who have a real passion for restaurants will find it worthwhile to own and operate mom ‘n’ pop shops. I also think we will see an expansion of chains and quick service, and we will see fewer white tablecloth establishments. Hopefully any chef—big or small, casual or fine dining—remembers to still support her or his local farmers.