No sector of the restaurant industry has been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than full-service restaurants, and one of the biggest challenges for operators has been shifting to an off-premises model that actually works.
“It’s a challenge because business levels fluctuate so much right now,” says Michael Ponzio, Executive Chef at the Union League Club of Chicago. “You don’t have the buffer of a list of reservations to see how many people are coming in before you open up.”
The unpredictability of the current moment means operators are finding ways to be as flexible as possible. As a result, Ponzio reports serving a large number of braised meat items to generate a bit more shelf life out of his proteins. Ponzio and his team have also renewed their portion-control measures and found ways to minimize labor. One of the ways they’ve done that is by using prefabricated proteins.
“There’s a movement back in the opposite direction of where everyone was heading prior to the pandemic,” Ponzio says. “So, whereas everyone was starting to find ways to make every little rub, glaze, and ingredient from scratch, now operators are having to find ways to work with pre-smoked brisket, or pre-roasted pork to ensure their food costs are low.”
That means it’s more important than ever before to start with a dependable, reputable brand that creates a great product, Ponzio says, especially as the volatility of the overall meat industry has led to some difficult choices for operators.
“Smithfield Culinary brings that consistent quality that every chef is looking for,” Ponzio says. “You’re going to do some shopping around right now out of desperation to get the lowest price possible, but while much of the meat market has had prices shoot through the roof, Smithfield is very fair and consistent in their pricing. I’ve leaned on their pork to make sure that I can still be profitable during this unprecedented time.”
Another proponent of Smithfield Culinary’s pork, Chef Michael Gulotta, owner of MoPho and Maypop in New Orleans, already had a fairly robust off-premises program prior to the pandemic. But in mid-March, Gulotta actually elected to shut down both of his restaurants for two months because he did not see how the math would work in order for his brand to turn a profit and be able to support his 100-plus employees across the two restaurants. Around when restaurants in Louisiana were allowed to open at 25 percent capacity, Gulotta elected to turn on the proverbial off-premises switch, but still was not serving dine-in meals because once again, the math didn’t add up.
The pivot to off-premises-only required various measures that Gulotta believes will help his restaurant in the future. The first step that he took was to pare down his menu to items that truly worked as off-premises offerings.
“It used to be okay, whatever we serve plated in the restaurant will be put in a box and sent out as a to-go order,” Gulotta says. “But now we’ve really had to consider how the meal looks inside the box, how it sits, and if the actual packaging is attractive enough.”
The packaging itself is a challenge for full-service restaurants that have not always had to account for that in the calculus of how much a meal should cost. Both Gulotta and Ponzio had to now factor in up to $1.50 for packaging, to-go utensils, and napkins. When off-premises meals make up less than 10 percent of your revenue it’s easy to overlook $1.50 here or there, but when it’s a major part of what you’re doing—or the only thing that you are doing—the menu pricing has to reflect that.
But more than anything, Gulotta found it was important to find ways to use versatile proteins that required minimal prep work.
“For us, pork has always been king,” Gulotta says. “We do our Burmese-braised pork shoulder and use it across the menu, especially when you’re gearing that menu toward to-go offerings, it’s great to have a protein that works well in a variety of dishes that all feel very different. We use that pork shoulder on a po’ boy, or as part of a noodle bowl, or part of a rice bowl. We put it in pho. It makes the menu look big, but it’s one prep item that fills a lot of holes.”
Gulotta and his staff have also spent a lot of time coming up with daily and weekly specials that keep guests interested and coming back. For example, every Friday there is a barbecue special, and on a recent night he came up with a slow-grilled, glazed pork shoulder served with peach and heirloom salad with coconut rice.
For all of those dishes Gulotta is looking for the same thing out of his pork: quality meat with deep flavor that balances good fat content with good muscular content. For that reason, he uses Smithfield meats.
“What’s great about Smithfield Culinary is that they offer such a plethora of options that can help you stay ahead,” Gulotta says. “If you can get already-smoked pulled pork, or their deli hams, that saves you a lot of work that you would typically have to do in-house, especially now, when we are strapped for labor. Their raw pork stands up better to braising, curing, and grilling. It has that muscular fat and high quality look that you’re seeking out as a chef.”
Ponzio has taken off-premises in a different direction, too, pivoting to meal kits and cooking classes for his guests. For example, recently he prepared an espresso-rubbed tenderloin where the prep work is done in his restaurant’s kitchen and customers can pick it up and then tune in to an online cooking class via Zoom later that evening where Ponzio walks the interested parties through how to put the finishing touches on a decadent meal.
“That’s something I really believe is here to stay,” Ponzio says. “So is something else we did for Father’s Day this year, where we had pre-smoked ribs that families could purchase and go home and cook on the grill, and it was so popular—we sold out of them—that I’m planning on doing that next year, too, even when we hopefully are at 100 percent capacity, because I’m confident that is going to become a new revenue stream for us.”
Another thing Ponzio is confident about? He’ll be using Smithfield Culinary’’s product next year, as he did this year.
“Honestly, the best thing about Smithfield Culinary—and I tell this to anyone who will listen—if you go to their website, they have so many valuable resources at no cost,” Ponzio says. “They have recipes, market data, ideation—it’s incredible the resources they put together to help support the culinary community. They truly want to take care of chefs and operators in an incredible and selfless way. That’s just another reason I’m a huge fan of Smithfield and everything that they do.”
And if there was any doubt, Ponzio really believes the growing pains of making this massive pivot have also produced some of the most exciting ingenuity the industry has seen. His meal-kit cooking classes are a great example of something that will help carry his restaurant into the future.
“Once things get back to normal, not only is off-premises here to stay, it’s just another way that we can find revenue outside of our four walls,” Ponzio says. “There is a lot that’s going to come out of this difficult time that helps us as we move forward. Those little additional things aren’t going to make up for three or our months of lost sales, but at least the future looks bright.”
To figure out how to add Smithfield Culinary’s pork to your off-premises offerings, visit smithfieldculinary.com.