Two different restaurants use a similar approach to expand their base of customers.
Business came to an abrupt stop at the start of the pandemic. But that did not stop Parker Vaughan, head chef and co-owner of Jackson’s Corner in Bend, from staying busy. During the first three months of the shutdown, his kitchen continued to make meals for the 75 families of employees who were laid off.
The restaurant also provided free lunches to children out of school. But after receiving money from the Paycheck Protection Program and entering phase 2 of lockdown, it became clear the old way of running a restaurant was not going to work anymore.
Andina, a Peruvian restaurant in Portland's Pearl District, faced a similar challenge. Despite installing a state-of-the-art air filtration system to guard against the virus and refitting the tables with copper tops less hospitable to bacteria, social distancing and stricter sanitation guidelines meant the restaurant could no longer turn over between 500 and 600 guests a night like it used to.
Diners eat in a remodeled, socially distanced Andina. Credit: Andina
In some ways the two restaurants could not be more different. One is a counter-service American food restaurant that shares space inside a grocery store; the other is a textbook example of Portland fine dining.
But to adapt to the pandemic both restaurants have adopted similar strategies. By focusing on a hybrid model of service that caters to different kinds of eaters, maintaining close relationships with local suppliers, and moving payments and ordering into a more seamless online system, the two restaurants demonstrate both the struggle and innovation of sit-down restaurants during the pandemic.
A new needlepoint bipolar ionization system was installed in the Andina restaurant. The air filtration device sends positive and negative ions into the air that cause particles such as dust, dander, bacteria and virus to stick together, becoming easier for vents to suck up.
It is the latest in antiviral hardware, but new ventilation does not solve the restaurant’s customer woes.
The customer volume-driven model of Andina became obsolete overnight. Restaurants everywhere are experiencing what Peter Platt, founder and owner of Andina, describes as a “major hollowing out of the middle market.” With more customers seeking food on the go, Andina launched Chicha, a new to-go-only concept.
Chicha has an entirely different menu to Andina, inspired by modern Peruvian street food. Platt describes the new takeout division as the "younger punk cousin" to Andina. “We were seeing the restaurant model bifurcate with sit down versus takeout, so we decided we would do both,” says Platt.
At Jackson’s Corner in Bend, Vaughan has also tried to cater to a changing customer base. As well as standard counter service, the restaurant is now offering family meals to prepare at home, including the company’s broth, bread, marinara sauce and signature pizza dough.
“We’ve transitioned from being a sit-down-only model to selling more of our in-house items as groceries,” says Vaughan So far, Vaughan says the grocery offerings have been helpful for families on the go.
“It’s really been a saving grace for us. We had a great summer to be honest. We’re lucky our restaurant has a lot of support in the community,” says Vaughan. Much of the restaurant’s short-term financial future will be decided on how many tourists show up to nearby Mt. Bachelor.
The staff of Jackson's Corner pose outside the restaurant.
In a way, Jackson’s Corner’s new model is a blast from the past. The restaurant doubled as a grocery store 100 years ago when it was built, and had aisles that were removed as the years went on. Now part of that model has returned.
“We’re selling flowers and CBD products from our farmer friends. We’ve always gotten a large majority of our produce locally. Those bonds are really paying off now.”
A supporter of local farming, Jackson’s Corner did not suffer the rash of supply chain issues that have hindered other restaurants. At Andina, fluctuating meat prices led to more plant-based options on the menu.
“It started with red meat. We were dealing with supply chain shocks and weren’t able to get the things we usually counted on. We thought ‘wow, this is not sustainable.’ It pushed us in the direction we wanted to go,” says Platt.
Platt adds that more plant-based options was a priority even before the pandemic. “It’s a healthier way to eat."
Andina will keep its classic meat dishes, but the new menu also allows the restaurant to offer more unique meatless offerings, including peppers from a farm that grows produce from the Andes.
A lower volume of guests has allowed Andina to offer these rarer vegetables. Platt also connected with a fish supplier in Newport, who was looking for buyers in the local market who have experienced international supply chain issues.
Both restaurants invested more heavily in online ordering. Chicha will have its own unique ordering platform separate from Andina. For Jackson’s Corner, the bulking up of online capabilities meant it had to upgrade its account on point-of-sale system Breadcrumb, as well as add more phone lines. A not-insignificant expense for the eatery, but one Vaughan describes as necessary.
As restaurants seek new customers to stay afloat, investments and innovation appear to be the only way forward for many.
“We want to put ourselves in a leadership role if we want to make it through this winter of discontent,” says Platt. “If we’re going to go down, we’re going down fighting the good fight.”
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