How do you recreate an all-you-can-eat king crab and prime burger experience in the home of a quarantining customer? Crab Cellar, an endless crab-and-burger concept in Chicago, faced this very question when dining rooms shut down in the spring due to COVID-19.
“Finding a way to transition our dining room experience was the main hurdle,” says Bill Nevruz, executive partner at Crab Cellar. “The carryout experience obviously couldn’t be unlimited, so necessity became the mother of invention.”
The solution to Crab Cellar’s dilemma was an indulgent family meal offering one pound of Alaskan king crab and one prime burger per person, as well as hush puppies, fries, roasted broccoli, mac and cheese, coleslaw, and coconut cake. Clocking in at $109 for two and $199 for four, the meal includes bibs, crab crackers, and ready-to-eat components (along with proper heating instructions for the crab, which only remains at optimal temperature for around five minutes).
“We found a way to deliver a meal so abundant that it still feels like that over-the-top experience customers get in our dining room,” Nevruz says.
In recent years, full-service concepts have largely forged their own individual paths when it comes to off-premises. With a dual emphasis on top-quality fare and restaurant experience, some restaurants chose to build to-go platforms, while others continued relying solely on in-house sales. Now, restaurants are working with dine-in sales either entirely paused or, in the best-case scenario, bringing in much slimmer margins. Either way, off-premises is no longer a question but rather a necessity.
“[Full service’s] lack of preparedness for off-premises has been pretty hard for the sector to deal with over the last few months,” says Tasso Roumeliotis, CEO of Numa, an AI-powered service that answers businesses’ missed calls and texts. “There’s still a lot of user experience that needs to be optimized.”
When COVID-19 hit the U.S., Roumeliotis offered Numa’s software to businesses free of charge. Over the past few months, he says that, through its software, the company has seen off-premises orders soar up to 10 times higher than pre-pandemic numbers for various brands.
“People still need to eat,” he says. “And people still want to eat at restaurants.”
For the New York City–based Alicart Restaurant Group, the coronavirus didn’t bring the challenge of creating a system for off-premises. Takeout meals were already on offer at the company’s six-location, family-style Italian chain, Carmine’s, and its three-unit Virgil’s Real Barbecue. Instead, the group’s main difficulty was in paring down a large menu to ensure that off-premises operations ran as efficiently as possible.
“We’ve been doing this for 30 years, so we already know what travels. And we know items like angel hair pasta or linguini with clam sauce are not going to travel,” says Alicart CEO Jeffrey Bank. “But now we’ve learned to slim the menu down a little. We have found ways to not to cut corners on quality but to be more efficient.”
At the start of the pandemic, the group closed all Virgil’s and Carmine’s locations, except for the Carmine’s outpost in New York’s Upper West Side. Bank says this restaurant stayed open for takeout to support its community as New York City was riddled with a strikingly high COVID-19 infection rate.
The group moved Virgil’s into the Carmine’s space, operating the second brand as a ghost kitchen to maximize the remaining kitchen and staff. The Carmine’s to-go menu was edited to include only what Bank refers to as the “top 20 hits” that travel well, like an abundantly portioned Caesar salad, pastas topped with calamari, and thin-sliced chicken scaloppine sautéed in lemon and butter sauce.
Virgil’s dry-rubbed, hickory-smoked ribs, slow-smoked brisket, whole barbecue chicken, and sides were also added to the special menu. The meats are smoked on Southern Pride smokers in Virgil’s temporarily closed Times Square location, then paired with sides like potato salad and hickory-baked beans that are scratch-made in the Carmine’s kitchen.
“We have a total staff of 15 in the Carmine’s kitchen,” Bank says. “Our company has always been a food-first company, and we’ve always cross-trained our staff. Generally, during slow seasons, we have staff switch concepts to learn for situations just like this. That process is paying off right now.”
While details like determining which foods travel best and optimizing menus are crucial in transitioning to off-premises, the most important aspect may just be a shift in mindset.
“The biggest challenge is reframing from a business that does carryout to a carryout business,” Crab Cellar’s Nevruz says. “The rules of a restaurant don’t apply today. You can’t think of this shift as temporary, or you’ll forgive inadequacies and weaknesses in systems. You have to say, ‘This is how we’re living now, and this is how we’re doing our business.’”