“No cash!” In the 27 years that Tom Hobby has worked as a manager at Peter Luger Steak House, he had never before spoken those words to a customer. Until last month.
The iconic 133-year-old Michelin-starred steakhouse has long been known for its old-school style of service. Before COVID-19 hit, reservations were taken over the phone, in giant ledgers straight out of a Harry Potter movie. Waiters took orders on paper checks. Nothing was computerized. The Peter Luger Card was the only form of plastic accepted at the cash register.
“We hadn’t taken a credit card for 133 years, now we’re credit cards only. We never touched delivery, now we’re exclusively delivering takeout. We’ve adapted more in the last week than we ever have or ever will,” said general manager David Berson, whose family has owned and operated Peter Luger since 1950.
The restaurant initially offered takeout during the first week of lockdown, but Berson shut it down after the number of cases surged in the city and it felt unsafe to continue operating. “Shit was hitting the fan,” said Berson. “It was hitting a fever pitch in late March and we wanted no part of it.” His concerns were realized several weeks later, when an employee at the restaurant’s Great Neck location died due to the virus.
In the two months since then, Berson and his team have had time to retool and reconsider changing many things that made the restaurant famous in order to be successful in the new operating environment. That includes making the Luger Burger, normally a lunchtime exclusive, available all day. It is now their best-selling item. New containers had to be brought in to fit the hefty porterhouse for two, which the restaurant would normally insist that customers eat on-site.
“We kind of have a blank slate,” said Berson. “We can try things that we never would have. We’re hopefully going to launch a steak sandwich, a BLT, just fun items that were always kind of on the back burner, but you’re just too busy with the day-in-day-out. It’s a silver lining in all of this.”
Luger delivery launched on May 19, and the restaurant was immediately inundated with orders. Here’s a look at the operations inside the famous steakhouse during COVID-19.
Peter Luger’s waiters used to jot down orders on a note pad and pass the slip to the kitchen; now everything originates from Caviar, run through a single Samsung tablet being operated by bartender Jaime Brill. It’s the first time they’ve used digital sales tracking and ticket printouts. “It’s a different world now,” said Brill.
The tickets end up in the hands of Alan Oms, an evening floor manager-turned-kitchen expediter. He shouts out the orders to the cooks, and organizes the partially completed orders before packing them. The kitchen gets its first dinner rush at 6 p.m.
The Luger Burger is the restaurant’s most popular item, now that it’s offered all day. “There was something exclusive about having a lunchtime-only burger,” said Berson. “I want people to order whatever they want. Like, here’s what we have. Go for it.”
What is normally eight or nine cooks on the line has been reduced to five to help with social distancing. But due to online ordering, there are often lead times of 30 minutes or more, allowing the kitchen to operate at a leisurely pace even through periods of heavy orders. Still, it’s all hands on deck for the time consuming task of cutting up par-cooked steak before it’s finished in the broiler.
Special containers were brought in to fit the porterhouse for two.
Ronnie Gelbard, who’s been a manager for 27 years, finishes packing the orders after they leave the kitchen. He reads the ticket for the bag in front of him: “Steak for one and a bottle of wine... sounds like it’s gonna be a good night!”
Every delivery comes with a healthy supply of Luger-branded gelt, which normally gets dropped with the check.
The second dinner rush hits. “I love this. I live for this,” said Oms.
The kitchen is used to serving over 1,000 customers on a non-pandemic day, but delivery will at most net 300 tickets, which even by extremely liberal calculations is food for 800 people. “When we’re normally open, it’s busy all day. This is easy,” said Ricardo Vargas, who’s been cooking at Peter Luger for 11 years.
With an instantly recognizable brand and a broadly popular product with New Yorkers, Peter Luger is one of the most successful high end restaurants operating during the pandemic.
As service wound down, two bicyclists rode up to the restaurant to place a last minute order: Win Son chef Trigg Brown and Ho Foods chef Richard Ho. Upon learning that cash was not being accepted, the duo ordered on Caviar while standing in the vestibule.
“It was one of the best burgers I’ve ever had,” Brown said later as he sat on the steps of the Williamsburg Savings Bank across the street from the restaurant, scarfing down fries and enjoying the sunset. “I love Peter Luger.”