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An illustration of a restaurant front, with big chalkboard sign that reads “Yes, we’re still open!” Illustrations by Brittany Falussy

5 Ways Restaurants Are Adapting Right Now

Facing unprecedented challenges, small restaurateurs are finding clever ways to stay afloat.

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The Russell is a fast-casual restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri, that cooks everything over the open flame of an Argentinian fire table. Lunchtime orders used to provide the bulk of its business. That is, until Mid-March, when the city issued stay-at-home orders like those in cities spanning from San Francisco to New York — a critical measure needed to flatten the curve of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but one that put The Russell’s livelihood in peril.

Like restaurateurs everywhere, owners Amante Domingo and Heather White faced a tough choice — to furlough staff and close shop for the foreseeable future, or adapt. Seeing an opportunity to remain in business while serving their community’s shifting needs, the pair worked quickly.

“We used Square Online Store to make a virtual restaurant: a marketplace that has all the basic necessities a house would need,” says Domingo, who is also head chef. “We also made curbside and delivery options available.” The Russell Market now offers ready-made meals for adults and children; baked goods like muffins, cupcakes, and cookies; wine and beer; and pantry staples.

Many menu items rotate daily, and everything is prepared from scratch. Domingo adds: “If it’s raining outside, we’ll make a hundred pot pies ready to pick up. So, we’ve adapted not only to people’s needs, but even to the weather.”

The pivot that allowed The Russell to keep its doors open, and its employees working, is not an isolated story. Across the country, thousands of businesses are shifting their models rapidly to better support both themselves and their communities while social-distancing orders remain in place.

In a world that’s been quickly upended by the novel coronavirus, here are five ways that small business owners are adapting to meet these unprecedented challenges.

1. Becoming bodegas and wholesalers.

It’s an understatement to say our food supply chain has undergone a massive shift. The switch to at-home cooking means restaurants are using far less food than usual, while supermarkets are selling out of basics. Some restaurants are seeing that gap, and using their supplies to help their communities stock up.

Stay Golden is a restaurant, coffee roaster, and bar in Nashville, Tennessee — an area recently hit hard by both a tornado and a state of emergency in early March due to COVID-19. “We had to figure out how we could continue meeting needs in our community,” says Jamie Cunningham, founder and director of hospitality. “We shifted our focus outward, figuring out what we could do to make people’s lives better.”

The Stay Golden team set up an online ordering page with Square and started providing “survival packs” — family-style dinners; reheatable meals; cocktails; and pantry staples like flour, butter, and toilet paper — that customers can order online and pick up curbside.

2. Selling gift cards.

Gift cards provide restaurants with much-needed cash flow as revenue takes a downturn — helping small business owners pay rent and stay in business. Restaurateurs Cory and Silvia McCollow, owners of Oakland restaurants Nido and Backyard, are using the income to support staff. “In our most recent newsletter, we announced that all gift card sales from now until we’re back to normal are going to staff,” says Cory McCollow. “So far, we’ve seen a huge influx in online gift card purchases.”

Purchasing a gift card to your favorite restaurants is incredibly meaningful right now. It’s a gesture that says, We appreciate you, and trust you’ll be back to business soon. Cory says many purchasers add notes saying things like: “I don’t even want to use this, I’m just doing it to donate to your staff. We’ll come in and pay full price when we’re allowed to.”

If you need help finding a local spot that could use your support, start by searching Square’s Give & Get Local directory to find neighborhood restaurants and businesses selling gift cards.

3. Inspiring our at-home meals.

The city-dweller who stores sweaters in her stove might be a slight exaggeration — but, social distancing means that many of us are now cooking the majority of our meals at home for the first time in — maybe ever? Local bars and restaurants are finding ways to capitalize on this shift by providing inspiration to rusty and first-time home cooks, with social media how-tos on cooking comfort foods from roast chicken to pastries. And “virtual tip jars” are helping support chefs until they can get back in the kitchen.

In addition to their expanded offerings in the Market, The Russell is staying in close contact with customers, emailing twice a day with updates and posting cooking lessons on social media. It’s part of Domingo’s determination to continue serving his customers.

“Just because we can’t engage with them in person doesn’t mean we can’t engage on the internet using the marketing tools available to us,” he says. “The real fans and the real people who love your business will continue to open emails.”

4. Supporting frontline workers.

Doctors, nurses, and others in the healthcare industry, as well as other essential service providers, are performing more critical services than ever — and in the communities hit hardest by the pandemic, they’re also working longer hours than ever. Lauren Crabbe, owner of San Francisco mini-chain Andytown Coffee Roasters realized that many people in her community were eager to support local businesses and frontline workers — and introduced an ingenious way to connect the two.

With Andytown’s new “Coffee For Heroes” initiative, customers can purchase drinks and pastries for healthcare professionals working at local hospitals and senior care facilities. “It’s keeping us in business because people are still buying coffee,” Crabbe says. “But the coffee they’re buying isn’t going to them, it’s going to a hospital. It’s a gift our customers have given us, [and] we get to brighten people’s days.”

An illustration of a paper takeout bag with a blue smiley face on it; with text that reads “Thank you for your business!”

5. Ramping up their delivery and takeout business.

For restaurants still open, delivery and takeout offer a lifeline for their business. However, not all restaurants had online-ordering capabilities when the shutdowns were announced. To help bridge the gap, Square offers a platform that allows restaurants to create an online store quickly and easily, with no fees — that’s a big win for small restaurants, where every dollar counts.

The ability to take online orders is critical for businesses like Lada Ladies, a San Antonio-based food truck and catering company, co-owned by sisters Sandra Lira and Elaine Lira-Dean. Previously, most of their business had come from catering events and corporate clients; now, it’s all about takeout. But social-distancing mandates limit the number of people allowed to be at the truck at one time — so the co-owners needed a new process to serve food quickly and safely. The pair set up an online ordering page, allowing customers to choose their meals and pay before arriving at the truck.

“[When they arrive,] we’ve asked our customers to stay in their vehicles until they are texted to receive their order,” Lira-Dean says. “Only one person at a time will come to our counter, and we stay in the food truck to keep our distance. We’ve relied heavily on our Square online ordering system. This has come in handy to keep up with the contactless guidelines.”

With social distancing mandates still being extended, some restaurateurs see these strategies not as temporary measures, but as part of a new way of doing business which will continue to require adaptation and agility. Jamie Cunningham of Stay Golden sees the benefits of curbside now, and in the future. “I think our community appreciates the curbside pickup, and they’ll continue doing it,” he says. “There are a number of things that we’ve realized through this process are going to change our business permanently.”

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