Restaurants thinking outside the box to stay afloat during pandemic

Masked employees work in the open kitchen overlooking the dining room at Cole’s Chop House in downtown Napa on May 22. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Takeout and delivery services have been a lifeline for struggling Bay Area restaurants, but many are now thinking outside the box to stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.

One in six U.S. restaurants — or roughly 110,000 — have closed permanently since the start of the pandemic in March, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Tens of thousands of others have laid off employees, cut back hours, overhauled their business models and used their creative juices to bring in customers.

When restaurants were first ordered to close down in the spring, Pete’s Brass Rail, a casual restaurant and sports bar in Danville, opened a curbside contactless grocery truck selling everything from yeast to bleach to toilet paper outside the downtown location.

The idea was to get folks to come down to pick up a chicken sandwich and have the convenience of also grabbing some bleach from the truck.

“It saved our butt,” said one food server.

Around the corner, Rodney Worth owns the Peasant & the Pear, a fine dining restaurant that was once part of seven restaurants owned by Worth. He’s had to shutter five over the last few years, including three during the pandemic.

(Photo courtesy

Worth, also an award-winning chef, has done everything he can to keep his surviving restaurants in business during the pandemic.

He made a YouTube video on how to cook the perfect prime rib, created upscale boxed dinners and meal kits, put a plain hamburger on the menu for that picky kid who won’t eat anything else, and even downsized one restaurant at a new location.

It still wasn’t enough.

Worth has been cooking around the San Ramon Valley for decades and has a loyal following of foodies who come for the “Rodzilla” (his version of the classic steak sandwich) as much as they come to see him.

So when he decided to put chairs and a table in front of his restaurant, and allow folks to pick up their pulled pork sandwiches and prawns diablo and eat outside, the reception was overwhelming.

“People are still doing the picnic protests,” said Worth. “They are bringing their own chairs or sitting on our planter boxes. I also see a lot of people doing little tailgate parties.”

Worth isn’t alone in his innovation. Restaurants looking for ways to distinguish their takeout are offering quarantine kits, lockdown lunches, social distancing desserts, and stay home hors d’oeuvres.

Some restaurants have even taken their pandemic marketing a step further by including toilet paper and other essential supplies with customers’ orders.

You don’t have to be a traditional meat and potatoes restaurant or sandwich-selling sports bar to offer takeout specials. Even small mom-and-pop eateries can make “specials” out of overstock or unused products.

Photo by Jay Wennington on Unsplash

Many items in a restaurant’s pantry that would otherwise spoil — eggs, bulk meats, cheeses, condiments — can be repurposed into unconventional takeout options, such as charcuterie boards, dough for making pizza, special sauces and, of course, shelter-in-place specials.

An example: Yuzu Ramen in Emeryville is doing cook-at-home ramen kits complete with homemade pork bone broth, boiled egg and green onions, perfect for quickly preparing and eating at home.

Heat-and-eat dishes and meal kits have become standard fare for many restaurants, but now movie theaters are getting in on the action.

In Oakland, the New Parkway Theater, which has always served food, is selling “food crates” for pickup and free delivery in Oakland and nearby cities. Some typical offerings include Hungarian Mushroom Soup, Asian Coleslaw with Ginger-Peanut Dressing, Santa Maria Style Tri Tip Roasted Vegetable Paella, Cheese Tortellini with Pesto, and Indian Curry Tofu.

It costs $60 for a half crate, which feeds two people and $125 for a full crate that feeds four people.

Photo by Corina Rainer on Unsplash

But if you are longing for movie theater popcorn, there’s a takeout place for that too.

At the Rialto Cinemas Cerrito theater in El Cerrito, the seats are empty amid the pandemic, but the chefs are still hard at work cooking up traditional movie-going fare. Every Saturday afternoon, the theater opens for pickup of pizza, burgers, nachos and of course, hot buttered popcorn.

With roughly 25 percent of the population working at home and hyper-tuned into technology, restaurants are turning to tech to help generate business. By now, people have likely seen the hashtags on social media: #TakeoutTuesday #TakeoutTakeover #CarryoutWednesday #TheGreatAmericanTakeout.

“Participating in national hashtag campaigns can amplify your brand and help you reach new audiences. Make sure you also tag your location (city or district, not physical address) so that local customers can easily find you while browsing,” writes Mark Plumlee, a marketing writer at MustHaveMenus ( , an online design and marketing tool for restaurants.

But one San Francisco eatery has taken tech to a whole new level. Creator, located on Folsom Street in the South of Market neighborhood, has long been famous for its robot-made hamburgers, but now they are using tech to distribute meals without ever coming in contact with a human.

“Our entrance is now sealed, with all meals moving through a pressurized transfer chamber. The chamber protects the inside of the restaurant from outside air, and has a self-sanitizing conveyor surface,” the restaurant’s website says.

Customers order through an intercom, and then pick up their hermetically sealed, double-bagged burgers through the conveyor window.

Innovation in the restaurant business isn’t limited to food.

It’s no secret that people are drinking alcohol now more than ever. Alcoholic drinks are an important commodity for restaurants as they can represent up to a third of the restaurant’s sales.

Photo by Oscar Nord on Unsplash

And with California lifting restrictions on the delivery of alcohol, many restaurants are delivering hand-made cocktails by the glass, cocktail kits, take-home margarita mixes and Bloody Mary makings.

As consumers continue to adjust to the effects of COVID-19, beverage alcohol e-commerce has become an increasingly important retail channel across the globe.

Research from the data firm IWSR shows that the online sale of alcohol is expected to grow by 42 percent across 10 key markets this year. By comparison, alcohol e-commerce value in those markets grew by 11 percent last year.

Moral of the story: people want their happy hours.

“Consumers’ increasing proclivity for online purchasing has been driven by necessity in recent months, but these purchasing behaviors are here to stay,” said Guy Wolfe, strategic insights manager at IWSR Drinks Market Analysis.

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