The pandemic is forcing any open restaurant into reconsidering how their food travels—and what their post-lockdown menu might be like.
By Nick Liberato as told to Melissa Curtin
Nick Liberato began his career in food stands in the Italian market in South Philadelphia. Surfing took him to California, where he started a catering company, then acquired and reopened the Venice Whaler, a longstanding LA restaurant. Later he served as executive chef at the Pier House, also in Venice. After TV stints on Top Chef Masters and Bar Rescue, Liberato now hosts a new Netflix series, Restaurants on the Edge, where he attempts to help struggling restaurants get back on track.
This isn’t the first time that the restaurant business has been crazy. It’s crazy every day. But something like this is clearly unprecedented, and it’s something that none of us was prepared for.
There are a lot of adjustments that the restaurant business needs to make. The initial shock of getting shut down and everything being put to a halt—it was like being suffocated. One of the toughest things for me was seeing all the bartenders, servers, bar backs, everyone you could possibly experience in this business immediately being put out of work—meaning no tips and just no place to go to.
We had a lot of things that were perishable. We gathered all of it—all the fruits, vegetables, and proteins—and we handed them out to every one of our employees for free. This wasn’t like we’re laying people off, and they’re going to be getting a job across the street. Really, no one had anywhere to go. We wanted to make sure we’re setting them up the best we possibly could after telling them to collect unemployment. And this was far before any stimulus checks were put in place.
We quickly transitioned into curbside pickups and delivery services. At first, we were doing that with Baja Cantina, which we had just acquired, but right now it’s just the Venice Whaler. We have two chefs—pretty much the same guys that are on every day—and with limited hours, of course, and a limited menu, because the menus that we had in place initially aren’t the ones that we can fully execute for takeout and delivery.
The Whaler takeaway model was something we put in place back in 2014—it’s something we have always done well. But at the end of the day, when you’re dealing with big rents and all the overhead in the business, that’s not sustainable. That’s not something that can carry this business. It’s only a Band-Aid for the problem that we have right now. It’s not a long-term solution.
DIY stuff is great because it allows that at-home experience—something interactive. You have to be as creative as you possibly can, whether it’s pasta that people are taking home to make their own and everything’s deconstructed, or a pizza where you’re just selling the dough, the cheese, the sauce and whatever the other toppings are. It’s allowing customers to create that experience at home.
At the Whaler, we’re doing a lot of tacos and ribs and cheesesteaks and sandwiches that are easily executed. Everyone’s wearing masks and gloves, and we’re constantly switching things out to be as safe as we possibly can. And we’re lucky—there’s a ledge outside our takeaway window where the transactions can be made cashless, which means less human contact as well as when the guest comes to pick it up. They can call ahead and we can just leave it on the counter outside for them. So there’s not that much interaction.
The smartest business model moving forward will be having some sort of takeaway, a better takeaway, and delivery options. I’ve always been a big fan of easily executed menu items that are great for takeaway or delivery. When I when I first created the Whaler takeaway food, I envisioned people picking up their clam chowder with grilled sourdough and walking out to Venice Pier and enjoying it while looking over the ocean, or grabbing a couple cheesesteaks and bringing them back to the house, eating them over a game, or bringing them to the beach and setting them down in your towel.
I think a lot of the people that may be losing out on their big restaurant buildout concepts may be adapting to smaller venues that have a number of different food concepts in the same area—one that doesn’t have as much overhead, a lower rent with a smaller kitchen, and just more modest expectations of what the businesses needs to provide as far as an experience. That’s something I’m currently working on in the Philadelphia area.
I think the last time we dealt with the economy getting hit was back in 2007. But we also have to understand the things that came out of a time like that. That’s when the food trucks popped up. That’s when people that lost their restaurants or couldn’t afford the overhead of a restaurant figured out, “Hey, I can put my foot on the pedal, change my demographic, change my restaurant every single day, and just have a truck that’s cheaper than this whole restaurant buildout and everything that goes along with it.” The servers, the bartenders, all that kind of stuff. And you know, I personally like to support all those positions because that’s how I was groomed in this business.
I can understand how that was also when a lot of the fine dining restaurants kind of died out. But I’ve been very impressed seeing what a lot of my friends that run those kinds of venues have been doing. Someone like Curtis Stone, for instance. I’ve been watching him really closely, and he’s adapted to it very, very well by doing little pots de crème in little mason jars, or really fun comfort-style foods, as well as utilizing his butchery inside Gwen or Maude.
It’s important to keep a healthy environment. I never wanted to ever see anyone struggle. I’ve always been the first person to walk up and down Washington Boulevard, talking with all the other business owners, maybe giving them something they need that they ran out of, or any advice on what’s going to help their business. The better your neighbors do, the better environment and community you’re going to to build around your own place. I hope that everything is going to get back to normal at some point. Whatever that means.