In Norfolk, Virginia, a potential blueprint emerges for other restaurants.
It was only about seven months after first opening its doors that Pendulum Fine Meats & Market welcomed restaurant concept Alkaline into its domain. The arrangement quickly proved beneficial for both parties and set a precedent for an enduring, albeit unconventional, business model—one that more foodservice operators might consider in a post-COVID world.
A chef and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Dylan Wakefield and his wife, Dana, bought and renovated an historic home in the downtown area of Norfolk, Virginia. The plan was to open a locally sourced butcher shop and café downstairs, with the couple residing upstairs. The building also had room for another venture in a separate space.
“The idea was to continue the push to make Norfolk a food destination,” says Dana Wakefield. “We saw the opportunity to give local chefs the chance to see if a concept they had would work in the community. They don’t have to purchase tables, chairs, and all the things needed to open a restaurant. They don’t have to sign a long-term lease. Their rent is based on a percentage of their sales so that the risk is lowered even further.”
So in September 2014, Alkaline, led by chef Kevin Ordonez, began serving its mix of ramen and Japanese street food. Although the operation was entirely separate, the pop-up benefited from the flexible rent model, Pendulum’s resources, and the then-fledgling butcher shop’s reputation. Eventually Alkaline outgrew its space and moved to a larger spot in an in-line shopping center just half a mile away. At that point, a new concept took its place.
Codex opened in 2018, bringing a very different cuisine and vibe to Alkaline’s former residence. Chef Ian Hock built a menu around farm-to-table small plates and rare, eclectic beers. For him, the decision to move into the Pendulum building was a no-brainer.
“The beauty of operating within a whole-animal butcher shop is pretty obvious for any chef. The access to amazing products and knowledge was a dream come true,” Hock says. “Pendulum also provided a springboard for Codex. The ability to have a successful business owner’s operating knowledge available as a resource and to be able to tap into their clientele to grow our business was truly an invaluable opportunity.”
While Pendulum and its guest pop-ups have operated within this symbiotic dynamic for years, dine-in restrictions have cast the relationship in a new light. Since the start of the pandemic, nearly all restaurants have funneled their efforts into makeshift takeout and delivery programs, but some have also added a pantry component with shelf-stable foods (often made in-house) and even sundries like brand apparel.
Pendulum already had the infrastructure in place, and Codex was able to piggyback off it. That’s not to say that both businesses didn’t make changes. Pendulum, which has always served lunch in its café, had to halt indoor dining. It also stopped accepting catering jobs that would require staff to attend in person and discontinued its on-site classes for the time being. That said, it did not need to change its café menu or its butcher shop operations. When Codex switched to an off-premises-only model, the changes were more drastic.
Hock condensed the menu so that it would only feature the dishes that traveled best. He also developed dinner kits to drive takeout business and took it a step farther by packaging the restaurant’s extruded pastas and handmade crackers. Those items were then put on the shelves at Pendulum for sale.
Whether Codex will continue to sell specialty items after the pandemic remains to be seen. For Hock, the top priority is real estate; like Alkaline, the pop-up has outgrown its space and is ready to leave the nest.
“We are planning on moving to our own brick-and-mortar location in downtown Norfolk this summer,” Hock says. “I hope that we have seen the worst of what is to come from this pandemic, and I cannot wait to welcome guests back into our dining room—safely, of course.”
Back at Pendulum, Wakefield plans to continue offering an incubator space and for startup concepts, and given the success of the prior two tenants, it shouldn’t be long before a new one moves in.
As for the future of restaurants embracing retail, Wakefield says she understands the appeal. COVID-19 has forced operators to rethink their whole business model; selling pantry goods and other miscellany may not be compulsive the way off-premises meal options will be, but that’s not to say it couldn’t become more popular.
“I do see more restaurants incorporating retail. Honestly, I don’t know if they will continue once things get back to normal. For us, we haven’t really changed our model at all, except for the indoor dining. We are doing what we have always done,” Wakefield says. “I can understand why restaurants are trying new things. When times are tough, you try to roll with the punches.”