Jack Huang and his Boston restaurants met shifting demand.
Throughout these past 11 COVID-19-saddled months, much has been written about sit-down restaurants and the transformation ignited by dining room closures. Brands that welcomed 90 percent, or more, of their business inside the four walls, abruptly had to invest in delivery, packaging, digital ordering, and other foundational pillars of off-premises service. But what about full-service operators who never counted on dine-in customers as their primary revenue stream in the first place? Naturally, they were better positioned for March’s collapse. Yet it’s not so simple.
Full-service restaurants that built business models around takeout (it’s not just fast food and fast casual) faced a changing customer as well. How did they adjust? What did life suddenly look like when the off-premises pool flooded with competitors?
Jack Huang, a Boston area restaurateur who runs several higher-end Japanese restaurants, including Douzo Modern Japanese Restaurant & Lounge, chatted with FSR about his concepts’ COVID journey, what it took to meet shifting demand, and what the industry might look like when the pandemic finally tapers off.
Give us some background on your restaurants, and your career.
My name is Jack Huang, I am the owner and operator of four full-service restaurants in Greater Boston, Douzi Sushi (Back Bay, Boston), Basho Japanese Brassiere (Fenway, Boston) Shabu Maru (Westin Copley Hotel, Boston), and Sushi Momento (Chestnut Hill, MA). Along with two fast-casual concepts, Basho Sushi Bar at Boston University (Boston) and Basho Express on Commonwealth Avenue (Boston). We also provide off premise catering and wholesale through dedicated contracts with sports arenas, like Fenway Park and TD Garden, as well as to higher education institutes, colleges and universities throughout Boston. We also offer catering services to the business and corporate world throughout New England, hotels, museums and beyond. I am also invested in an international operation, East 18 located in Taipei, Taiwan which strictly serves seasonal ingredients and I am now working on a new duo concept within the same space with an emphasis on Japanese Omakase and French counter cuisine.
I attended Northeastern University, majored in marketing, and I also attended Cornell University, receiving a Masters Certificate in Food Service Management & Hotel Management. In 2012, I attended the Sushi Academy of North America, along with the Yamato Ramen School and received a Certificate also that year, 2012. I have been a part of Boston’s restaurant scene for over 20 years and have a professional and dedicated staff, with some having worked for me for over a decade and several employees & managers have been with me since the beginning of my culinary career.
Let’s start with those early COVID days. How did your restaurants respond? It sounds like they were in better shape than most to enter an off-premises world.
We’ve relied heavily on the residents in the communities we serve to continue to visit our restaurants, and at first with the lockdown, takeout and to-go orders were like second nature. Our focus for the restaurants pre-COVID was takeout and as COVID became more of a reality it was clear that takeout was going to be even more important, leaving our dining rooms to be more of a show piece. We looked to create a unique food presentation when customers received their orders, and concentrated on the packaging of our sushi and dishes, which helped keep our restaurants top of mind for many. We remained in better shape than most, as we had returning guests continue to order throughout the pandemic, and familiar faces that kept our staff going.
How did takeout change as lockdowns picked up? Are there some unique challenges to serving a pandemic to-go customer?
Takeout become the primary option for our guests and that meant keeping up with orders and demand, working closely with our staff and schedules to make sure that all of our takeout orders (catering and beyond) were maintained efficiently and the process was consistent for our regular customers, while creating memorable meal experiences for our new ones.
How did your restaurants adjust to stay ahead of these changes?
We continued to follow state and city guidelines, and that included ramping up our PPE effort (hand sanitizers and temperature readings onsite, staff wearing gloves, masks, etc.), and we offered take out and to-go specials. I also provided incentives for my employees and was able to pay all of my full-time employees with full pay and full medical and health benefits. I also provided PPE equipment to the staff and offered a travel allowance during the lockdown so that my employees could come and go from work comfortably.
Did the landscape change just given how many more brands were offering takeout? Were there some things you had to do to separate from the now-bursting crowd?
Yes, suddenly restaurants that were primarily dine-in restaurants only, had to pivot to takeout and learn how to do the whole to-go process successfully. One added element that we provided our customers with and which separated us from other restaurants, was that each takeout order came with a small note of encouragement, letting our customers know that we were thinking of them throughout the pandemic, wishing them well and also, letting them know each takeout order was packaged and handled with care and all necessary safety precautions were taken.
What channels do you offer (in-house delivery, third-party, etc.)? Did you have to expand during COVID or lean into some over others?
We offer curbside pick up, takeout, dine-in (in accordance with state and city guidelines) and online ordering platform ChowNow.
What are some best practices for restaurants suddenly getting into delivery? How do you grapple with the fees and service concerns?
Best practices that restaurants should focus on when getting into delivery, include organization, creating incentives for people who order, takeout specials on dedicated nights, proper packaging and making sure to communicate with guests throughout the dedicated time of year (like the pandemic and beyond) via restaurant’s social channels, website and even the order itself (like inserting a small message or note).
When it comes to fees and service concerns, negotiating with the delivery vendor became important, and that meant making sure we were not increasing the menu price on delivery websites. We needed to keep in consistent, making sure it did not offset my cost of delivery.
What does takeout look like after COVID? Do you think it will remain elevated from where it was, even as dine-in returns?
We will continue to adapt to how customers' dining behaviors have changed due to the pandemic along with continually modifying service on what the new normal will be post-pandemic.
Takeout will be just as important as dining in a restaurant, especially as things start to get back to normal. It will be another elevated experience for restaurants to provide customers with a ‘taste’ of what dining in the actual restaurant looks and feels like. It’s an extension of the full dining experience but will allow customers to experience it from wherever they feel most comfortable.
What will separate the to-go winners and losers?
The to-go winners are restaurants that have always had takeout as an option in addition to dine-in. We are able to adapt in any circumstance putting an emphasis on takeout, offering incentives for those who order takeout and building a loyal customer following.
Generally, what do you think the restaurant industry will look after all of this? What will be the biggest area of disruption?
First and foremost, welcoming back our guests to a safe and healthy dining environment, while continuing to stay within city and state guidelines. I think a big focus on the restaurant industry will be making sure that people dining feel comfortable visiting restaurants again, and making sure that their dining experiences are enjoyable, the food is delicious and for those who visited regularly, it brings back fond memories while creating new ones. The biggest area of disruption may be with negotiating leases with landlords and building owners.