Full-service chefs are trying anything to bring in revenue, and that means their vendors are more important than ever.

The pivot to off-premises has been well documented, but it’s not all third-party delivery, curbside pick-up, and traditional takeout for the full-service industry. Still facing capacity restrictions and relatively thin revenue streams, some full-service restaurant chefs have gotten creative in coming up with ways to bolster the bottom line.

Take Chef Michael Ponzio of the Union League Club of Chicago, who has tried everything from virtual bingo nights to directly offering select cuts of meat to customers for private graduation parties. Another place Ponzio and company have seen success outside of the traditional off-premises channels is with home-meal kits, which have surged since the outset of the pandemic.

Some examples of home-meal kits that the Union League Club has put together include Pulled Pork Sliders with Dr. Pepper Barbecue Sauce and Apple Slaw, or a separate offering that Ponzio thinks will be an ideal way into the future to connect with football fans on gameday: Brisket Nachos, made with Smithfield’s Fully-Cooked Smoked Brisket.

“One of the things we’ve learned throughout this process is that you have to be coming up with ideas that are approachable but still delicious,” Ponzio says. “For example, in-house we offer a Dover Sole, but when we tried selling that as a meal kit, we only sold a handful—people didn’t want to deal with fileting the fish.”

In other words, one of the keys to a home-meal kit program is coming up with something simple and unintimidating without compromising on taste, which is one of the reasons Ponzio always uses Smithfield Culinary’s products. They are easy to work with, he says, whether the cook is an amateur at home or someone on staff.

“The reality is that costs are so tight, staffing is so tight, and we’re looking for great quality at an affordable price,” Ponzio says. “But that’s really nothing new in a lot of ways. Something that has changed is that we’re looking for that quality but also a consistent product that is easy to use. Smithfield has some of the best products because unless a cook absolutely massacres it in the kitchen, it’s going to come out looking and tasting great.”

Another reason Ponzio feels comfortable working with Smithfield’s products is that he views the company as more than just a vendor—it is a true partner, he says.

“It’s really the little things that make Smithfield Culinary so good at what they do,” Ponzio says. “They get in front of chefs from every different sector in the industry—it’s crazy the amount of work they put into new product rollouts. They take very seriously the word ‘partner’—when the pandemic broke out and everyone was watching pennies, they said, ‘How can we help you watch your pennies?’”

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