Like other restaurants, Manhattan-based fast casual shops that serve droves of office workers are reeling amid the recent wholesale decimation of New York City’s restaurant industry due to the business-shattering, albeit necessary, COVID-19 curbing measures. Many have closed. But some chains, already built to sell delivery and takeout at scale, are betting on a new normal for customers — one where, sometime soon, diners will be eager to order more delivery.
It takes a level of trying to predict the future. Delivery customers are scarce right now, the chains say. Vegetable-friendly weekday lunch spot Mulberry & Vine used to do between 200 and 250 delivery orders at its Tribeca location, but that number went down to 20 to 25 during the week of March 16, owner Michelle Gauthier tells Eater.
Some companies, like Chinese-American chain Junzi and Mexican-American chain Mexicue, think that will change. Raids on grocery stores will abate, and people will get tired of cooking at home, they say. So they’re pivoting operations, changing menus, and revamping marketing efforts — all with the goal of being able to re-employ staffers earlier and to weather the coming months with some revenue.
“There is hope,” says Yong Zhao, the CEO of Chinese-American chain Junzi. “It’s very, very important for people to carry on.”
Junzi — which had a 70 percent drop in customer traffic in March and had to lay off 70 people from its three Manhattan stores this week — started rethinking its delivery program on Thursday, March 12 and launched a new menu less than a week later in hopes of tapping into a new type of customer demand and, eventually, generating enough revenue to rehire people.
Instead of simply trying to send a single bowl of noodles to customers holed up in their homes in the outer boroughs, Junzi’s new family meal menu offers delivery for up to eight to 10 meals worth of bulk food at a time, for up to $90. Junzi’s chefs may be popping up on video to show customers how to assemble the meals, too.
Junzi’s delivery sales never accounted for more than 25 percent of total revenue in any of the shops normally, and sales aren’t booming yet, but Zhao is confident that consumer demand will shift as people get more comfortable with the new at-home reality.
“We’re thinking about it like we’re 30 days away from a major increase in sales, not five days into this deep struggle,” he says.
Chef Einat Admony’s Taïm Falafel is still open, adjusting operating hours and beefing up the delivery and takeout menu, to try and stay in business. And Mexicue — which had already been prepping to launch a completely revamped, in-house delivery program in mid-March — is still moving forward with its plans. Now, though, the delivery radius is extended, first-time orderers can get free margaritas, and the restaurant staff has been reduced to 25 percent of its usual size.
The early numbers have been encouraging: In the first week of the new launch, Mexicue processed 300 online orders between takeout and delivery. In the prior week, Mexicue had just 19 orders between takeout, delivery, and catering. As of Saturday, March 21, the chain added a weekend brunch menu for takeout and delivery, too.
“It doesn’t solve the problem,” said restaurant co-founder Thomas Kelly, noting that upwards of 90 percent of sales came from dine-in customers on a normal basis. But, he’s hoping that it will “help offset” the losses, and he’s already in a position to start re-hiring some of Mexicue’s laid-off staff to help with delivery.
Other restaurants sticking in the game also don’t expect to turn a profit from staying open with delivery, even with anticipated gains in demand. Junzi’s Zhao notes that delivery sales are slow right now, and pulling through requires changing both staff and customer mentality of what delivered food can look like.
“In tough times, we have to make changes,” Zhao says. “We’re a small company, we’re agile. This is a time to change, and a time to grow.”
Indeed, the difficulty in making those shifts is partly why not all chains are scrambling to stay open, even with experience on the takeout or delivery side of the business. Sandwich-and-soup spot Hale & Hearty recently announced that it would be temporarily closing down all 21 of its locations, and laid off just over 400 staffers in the process, according to an Eater tipster. Popular noodle and dumpling chain Xi’an Famous Foods shut down all operations and laid off almost 200 staffers on Wednesday, March 18, CEO Jason Wang confirms to Eater. Lebanese chain Naya temporarily closed down all seven locations on Monday, March 16.
Wang says that, aside from facing “zero revenues” and “about $250,000 just in rent per month across our stores,” it doesn’t make sense to stay open from a public health perspective.
“We don’t want to contribute to the pandemic,” Wang tells Eater. “This is beyond sales. There’s so much we don’t seem to know about the spread of this virus.” For the chains that do stay open, owners are working hard to over-communicate bulked-up sanitation rules for both staff and customers.
Even so, operators are constantly re-evaluating the decision to keep going. Mulberry & Vine’s Gauthier decided to temporarily shut down the chain starting on Monday, March 23, after initially offering takeout and delivery throughout the previous week.
“My employees were all incredibly willing to come to work and they’re not even that concerned with getting the virus. Their fear is that they may be a carrier and contribute to the spread,” Gauthier tells Eater. “It became more of a moral decision than anything else and I think we all felt better about just staying home.”