For upscale restaurants, it’s adapt or die
The day starts earlier than usual for the people at Toyo Eatery. A government-imposed quarantine has pushed the staff to begin their day as early as 6 a.m. With only a third of its employees reporting, Toyo has had to adapt to a post-COVID-19 world.
The brainchild of chef and coowner Jordy Navarra, the Makati-based restaurant has built its business on high-end comfort food. Known for its modern take and creative presentation of Filipino dishes, Navarra’s love letter to Philippine cuisine was in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list the past two years.
But upscale restaurants like Toyo now find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Such establishments draw a clientele that is particular about the dining experience. It is more than just the character and atmosphere of the place. Food preparation and creativity matter.
The quarantine meant no dine-in or walk-in customers, prompting many in the food service industry to slug it out in the home delivery arena. Not an easy shift to make as the challenge is to still maintain a high level of dining experience where little or nothing is compromised.
To survive, Toyo initially turned to bilao offerings, a flat round-shaped winnowing basket filled with different food items. Their Silog bilao is a mix of seafood and meat, while the Pansit is egg noodles made and hand-cut in-house combined with other dishes like the weekly specials.
“Right now, we’re still trying to answer the question as to the possibility of being sustainable with this model of offering pickup/delivery. It seems pretty promising for Panaderya Toyo since bread and baking bread seem to fit with that format and for Toyo Eatery, I feel it’s a matter of constant adjustment to see what makes sense for us and our customers,” Navarra pointed out.
The recent relaxation of quarantine restrictions, including the opening of malls and allowing private transport, has given restaurants some wiggle room. Take out is now an option and shuttling employees has become easier although still far from ideal.
But what happens when restrictions are further eased in areas placed under modified general community quarantine? The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has declared that restaurants would be allowed to offer a dine-in service but at 50-percent capacity. Tables and chairs must also be spaced out at least one meter apart on all sides.
Establishments known for offering a chef’s table or tasting menus prepared by the head chef would be hit hard.
Helm, one of three restaurants owned by Filipino-British chef Josh Boutwood, is a 10-seater venue. Observing the guidelines issued by the DTI would require more than just a radical change in the restaurant’s layout.
Like Toyo, Boutwood has had to consider exploring a new business model. And like Navarra, Boutwood’s innovative work has not gone unnoticed. His other venture, The Test Kitchen, a 60-seater reservations-only restaurant, was recently named in CNN Global’s Best New Restaurants in Asia for 2020.
The company recently unveiled a ready-to-eat/cook menu. The new menu takes into account home kitchens and reheating dishes outside a restaurant setting. QR codes are added to enable customers to connect to The Test Kitchen’s YouTube channel. Still, the restaurateur believes the changes might not be enough.
“I hate to say but I do not think takeout/delivery can sustain restaurants like mine as they are very much based around a complete experience, an experience we cannot just package in a to-go box. We can create menus that have faster turnover but that sacrifices the experience,” he noted.
While government’s Small Business Wage Subsidy program has helped many to deal with the impact of the pandemic, the food service industry, from kiosks to fine dining restaurants, needs more than a breather to remain afloat. The challenge is how to deal with empty seats, limited mall traffic, rent and other operating costs in a very stressful environment.
“Any form of rent subsidy, tax relief or some form of spending program would help our industry since it directly relates to agriculture, food security and even tourism. Restaurants/food and beverage businesses directly or indirectly support and contribute to a variety of other industries and fields so there are positives in keeping the industry alive and well,” Navarra added.
The new normal will require more than just a design overhaul and observing health protocols. With every industry affected by the pandemic and businesses seeking relief, age-old arrangements need to be reevaluated to keep up with an industry hungry for positive news. —CONTRIBUTED
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