COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders have forced restaurants to quickly pivot their operations or temporarily close their doors. With new information emerging daily and regulations changing just as quickly, it’s no easy task to determine the best move for your restaurant. To discuss the factors that influence that decision and what to do once you’ve made the call, we turned to two New York-area restaurateurs: Tim Madrid of Takeshi Sushi in Tribeca, N.Y. and George Vlahos of Urban Griddle in Elizabeth, N.J.
An intimate sushi haven from first-time restaurateurs pivots to delivery and takeout only
Takeshi Sushi is an 11-seat sushi bar that opened just over a year ago. Tim and his partner are first-time restaurant owners, and they’ve been riding the wave of highs and lows since last April. They had just finished their final round of renovations in February and were barely open a full week before COVID-19 regulations hit New York.
“Initially it was very confusing,” Tim said. “There were mandates from the city to cut occupancy, and as an 11-seat sushi counter, that’s near impossible. Within a day, things unfolded even more, and we saw the writing on the wall.”
It was time to close their doors.
“It was a health issue, first and foremost. You’re just playing Russian roulette with the safety of, not just the customers, but also the staff. So we knew we had to close the doors, but we also did so knowing that we would reopen for delivery. People were still going to eat—it was just going from an out-of-home experience to an in-home experience, so we closed as a way to recollect ourselves.”
As a restaurant that had offered delivery in the past, this wasn’t a completely foreign concept, but delivery had previously only been supplemental to their business. “Switching to full delivery and takeout was a complete fundamental shift in terms of how people enjoy our food. But this is a story of survival. We needed to make a push. First to serve, and then to stay alive—to somehow keep the doors open.”
When they were looking to reopen they looked at it two-fold. First, operationally: They needed a menu with dishes that could physically travel well. Second, abstractly: They were looking to serve more than just the menu. “We’re serving sushi, sure—but we’re also serving self-care. We’re serving indulgence… defiance and sass in face of the quarantine. So it kind of took a personality of its own,” said Tim.
And with that came “home-akase.” It’s still the Takeshi Sushi omakase experience, but at home, your way. It’s travel friendly, and options include nigiri or premium sashimi, chosen by Chef Takeshi Sato.
Once the new strategy was in place, it was time to push the message out to all of their customers and community. Posts on Instagram, more frequent newsletters to their mailing list, leveraging Yelp Connect, and even utilizing dating apps like Tinder for geo-technology targeting.
Across all of these marketing platforms, their message stayed true to the original intent: to offer more than just a product, and even more simply, deliver a sense of normalcy. “We all need to evolve, but a lot of the core truths of what made your restaurant and business you still apply today. Hone in on that.”
A once-bustling urban cafe closes its doors (for now) to focus on the future
In Elizabeth, N.J., George is the owner of a 100-seat breakfast, lunch, and brunch restaurant. Open 7 a.m – 3 p.m., Urban Griddle focuses on pancakes, omelets, mimosas, and bloody marys.
“Breakfast is the most fun part of food, of eating,” George said. “So I built my dream restaurant. I’ve been doing this since I was a 13-year-old kid. I know the restaurant business. I know the ins and outs. I know the ups and downs. And unfortunately the downs that we can’t control are the ones that are the most challenging.”
When things with COVID-19 first started to unfold, George knew he was going to need to close. They had one last incredible weekend before state mandates were put in place, but by the end of the day on March 16, their doors were closed for the foreseeable future.
“When this virus struck I thought—I need to protect the people who work for me and the people that we serve. Closing was a no-brainer to me.”
George was brought up in the restaurant business and learned a lot from his late father who was an immigrant business owner. He was a hard worker who had a “doom and gloom” approach to life. The silver lining of that type of thinking? It taught George that it was important to save for the worst. And the worst came. He was fortunate to have a few months reserve for the business which afforded him the opportunity to close his doors without hesitation.
“I started putting all of my employees on unemployment, including myself. As a business owner, I pay the government a lot of money in unemployment insurance. It’s there to protect us, and now is a time we need protection.”
With the restaurant closed for now, George’s main focus is on the reopening rather than how to stay open and sustain on a takeout or delivery model.
“My restaurant has 100 seats. If those go unseated, there is no way for me to make up the loss in revenue through takeout. Takeout is about 20 percent of my business. It would cost more money to remain open rather than close up. We’re excited to come back better than ever, and we are focusing all of our energy on tomorrow and not today.”
While regular operations are down, George has kept a few employees on payroll to paint the back of the house, clean out the storage areas, and replace a walk-in cooler—all tasks and chores that may not have been prioritized before but now they have the time to get done. Next week, George will bring staff in to work on new menu items and recipes.
He has also made it a priority to continue communicating with his community and customers, even as the doors remain closed. The restaurant’s social media director has maintained an active presence online from day one, even after they closed.
“I always look at social media as a way of engaging, even when we’re not open,” George explained. “That’s one of the biggest things when it comes to social media. Some people put up a post. A hundred people comment and respond. But yet, there’s no feedback to those people. So I believe in social media engagement. I could care less if you have a million followers. If you’re not engaging with your million followers, it makes no difference. We want to be at the forefront and for people to remember that we’re still here.”
With communication in mind, George had a final piece of advice: “Your message needs to be clear to your guests, regardless of what it is—you just can’t leave it to chance.”
Tim agreed and adds that open communication reminds everyone that we’re in this together. “Transparency helps not just with comprehension, but there’s also more empathy from customers because of it.”
To hear more of the discussion, listen here.
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