Restaurants fight for their lives as they turn to no-contact delivery

The James Beard award-winning restaurant Canlis in Seattle used to serve diners exquisite plates that were as much a feast for the eyes as for the mouth.

But new social distancing regulations implemented by the state to stop the spread of the coronavirus have forced restaurants across the country to shut down service, spelling estimated losses of $225 billion and as many as 7 million jobs over the next three months, according to the National Restaurant Association.

High-profile restaurant groups such as Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group and David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants have been forced to close their establishments and lay off employees.

Meyer’s group laid off 2,000 workers Wednesday. While Meyer’s group said it was doing everything it can to financially assist its former employees, the company and other restaurants across the nation have accepted the “brutal” reality that they cannot support their business at this time.

A delivery worker rides his bicycle along a path on the West Side Highway in New York on Monday, March 16, 2020.John Minchillo / AP

“It’s just impossible to reconcile for a purpose-driven business that put’s people first to say that the only thing you can do to take care of people is to lay them off,” Meyer said in an interview with MSNBC.

But some other restaurants say they are trying to navigate a way through and keep their businesses open despite the brutal reality.

The 70-year-old, family-owned Canlis has joined the growing number of restaurants across the country that are trading dine-in service for pickup and delivery suited for social distancing. The venture might not be profitable enough to sustain in the long term, but for now it’s the best restaurants can do to keep business running as usual, for employees and patrons alike.

“You may be 6 feet away, but we are still a community,” said Mark Canlis, owner of Canlis.

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It’s an unprecedented shift for fine dining restaurants like Canlis to suddenly trade in their upward-of-$100 tasting menus served to a maximum of 200 customers a night to now serve more than 1,200 people a day — on the menu now are meals like $14 burgers handed out in paper bags to cars lined up at the restaurant drive-thru style.

Then there are the sanitation requirements: Employees must wash their hands every 15 minutes, sanitize surfaces every 30 minutes and keep 6 feet away from one another.

The operation isn’t perfect, but the support from the community keeps them pushing.

“It’s crazy. I don’t know of any burger worth waiting two hours for,” Canlis said. “Even people that can’t get in an order, there’s this overwhelming support with people that are just saying thank you.”

Seattle native Amy Jeffries used to go to Canlis once or twice a year for its tasting menu to mark special occasions. Although she is now ordering from its significantly cheaper dinner delivery menu, it still feels special.

“The fact that Canlis, which is a fine dining restaurant so elevated above the norm, has been able to make these one-on-one connections with families, especially in this time of physically distancing ourselves — it’s amazing,” she said.

Restaurants across the country are also making an effort to maintain some sense of normalcy through contactless delivery.

Brooklyn restaurant Rucola has its customers call in and pay for their pickup orders over the phone. The general manager places the delivery outside the restaurant and steps back to keep the appropriate social distance when the customer arrives to pick it up.

Even though Rucola is making some profit, owner Julian Rizzi said that type of operation isn’t sustainable for any restaurant.

“I don’t think anyone is doing it to break even or not lose money hand over fist,” Rizzi said.”Everyone is doing it to keep their core staff employed and to keep the ship from a full stop. It’s basically out of desperation.”

Rucola closed its dining room Saturday after its brunch service and began pickup orders shortly after. Profits have been coming in from the delivery orders, as well as from gift card orders.

“It’s actually very kind and very encouraging that folks would, in return for nothing, make a donation to the restaurant. Just hoping for our long-term well-being,” Rizzi said.

But gift card sales and scrambled takeout operations might not be enough to help restaurants pay the rent, taxes and other expenses to preserve their dining rooms during the coronavirus crisis.

Laid-off employees might be financially better off filing for unemployment than employees kept on payrolls in an unprofitable delivery business model. But state unemployment offices are crashing from overwhelming claims, and unemployment also means employees would lose their health care coverage.

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Delivery services like Grubhub and Caviar have announced that they will delay or temporarily waive commission collections for restaurants in need, potentially providing restaurants like Rucola another avenue for profit. But the exact terms of which restaurants will qualify for this promotion and whether the entire commission fee will be waived remain unclear.

In a recent tweet, David Chang called trying to survive off of delivery “fool’s gold.”

San Francisco, where there is a shelter-in-place order, has restaurants remaining open for delivery and takeout, as they are considered essential businesses. But everything, as is the new normal, is up in the air.

Canlis knows the government could shut down his operation any time, but up until that point, he plans to keep serving his community.

“The human spirit wants to keep going. It doesn’t want to quit,” he said. “Look up, and if the sky hasn’t fallen, you just need to ask yourself, ‘What am I appreciative for and what can I do to forward that?'”

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