With dining rooms across Pennsylvania closed for months during the coronavirus pandemic, takeout has been a lifeline for restaurants trying to stay afloat. But the pivot to an all-takeout model hasn’t been easy, especially for restaurants new to the process. Here’s how three very different restaurant groups in Philly are figuring it out.
A 16-Year-Old BYOB Tries Takeout for the First Time
Hillary Bor likes to joke that she’s too stubborn to close Pumpkin, the South Street BYOB she and her husband, chef Ian Moroney, have run for the last 16 years. Immediately after the COVID-19 shutdown order in March, the 26-seat new American restaurant — which had never attempted takeout — announced a $35 three-course menu available for pickup and delivery. On the first day, Bor and Moroney were just trying to get rid of the food they already had in the kitchen and expected to sell only a few meals. But orders started pouring in. “I had to call my parents [to help],” Bor recalls. Her mother answered phones and her father delivered the food.
On a busy night before the pandemic, the tiny restaurant would serve 50 or 60 diners. Now that Pumpkin is takeout only, Bor and Moroney have nights where they’re selling around 100 meals at $35 each, made with ingredients like soft shell crab and steak from regional suppliers like Anthony’s Seafood, D’Artagnan, Lancaster Farm Fresh, and Local 130 Seafood.
Servers and cooks in the restaurant’s staff of eight are tasked with wearing a few different hats now, including making deliveries, but “we haven’t laid off anybody,” Moroney says. “We stayed open to protect everyone’s salary.”
Every evening, Bor sends an email with a note and the next day’s menu to Pumpkin’s mailing list. She says customers respond with thoughtful messages, donations to the restaurant, and even handwritten condolence letters after she shared that her grandmother died from COVID-19.
The couple agrees they won’t open their small dining room until the era of social distancing is over. Even then, they don’t know what the future holds. “I’m toying with the idea of doing this forever,” Moroney says. “I don’t know if we’re going to be a full-time takeout place, a catering hall, a taco joint… All bets are off.”
Mike Solomonov’s Restaurants Reopen One Meal at a Time
On March 16, Mike Solomonov and Steve Cook shut down all the restaurants in their CookNSolo group, including Zahav, K’Far, Dizengoff, Goldie, Abe Fisher, Merkaz, Laser Wolf, and the Federal Donuts chain, and laid off 400 employees. The scramble to react to the impact of COVID-19 wasn’t a smooth process for the company. But within a couple weeks, Solomonov and Cook were getting a handle on how to proceed. They brought back four employees at a time to cook meals for local hospitals and the Broad Street Ministry, an organization serving Philadelphians in need that the restaurant group has worked with for about six years, most notably through the now-closed not-for-profit restaurant Rooster.
With that underway, the team started figuring out how to serve paying customers again. “We realized that we could pretty easily put together large meals for takeout,” says Andrew Henshaw, formerly chef de cuisine at Zahav and now executive chef at the new Laser Wolf, which opened in Kensington in February.
In late March, Henshaw and crew tested the waters by offering a one-off four-course meal from Zahav anchored by the Israeli restaurant’s famed lamb shoulder. The meal quickly sold out and CookNSolo started to expand its takeout offerings, announcing family-style meals available for preorder and pickup at one restaurant after another.
Now, food from the restaurants is available every day of the week (except Monday). There are pints of Dizengoff’s hummus served with pita on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, multicourse meals from Zahav and Abe Fisher on Fridays, a weekend bakery bundle from K’Far, and so on.
“It took us a while to figure out how ordering, packaging, and pickups work,” Henshaw says. To streamline the process, most of the food prep — such as making Goldie’s falafel mix — happens in Laser Wolf’s large kitchen, where there’s enough space for employees to follow social-distancing protocols. Customers pick up the food at the restaurant they’re ordering from.
At this point, the group is selling more than 1,000 meals a week, and some of the money earned has gone toward bringing back more than 300 employees, Henshaw says. Until dining rooms can reopen and the restaurants are operating at full capacity, he expects takeout to continue. “With the infrastructure in place, it would seem silly not to,” he says. “It helps us generate revenue and employ people.”
Teddy Sourias Is Banking on Cocktails
When the pandemic hit Philadelphia in mid-March, bar owner Teddy Sourias boarded up his eight popular Center City venues and laid off 350 employees. The decision was took a toll. “It’s a mental thing,” Sourias says. “You don’t want to see your places shuttered. It’s draining to see them boarded up.”
On May 14, in anticipation of legislation allowing restaurants and bars with liquor licenses to sell takeout cocktails, Sourias began the process of reopening. At Tradesman’s on Chestnut Street, his staff cut a takeout window out of the plywood, which was originally put up to protect the restaurant, and sold beer, wine, and a compact menu of dishes from Tradesman’s, Bru, and Finn McCool’s. Now, to-go cocktails are available through the window too, with a mix of Tradesman’s drinks and options from Sourias’s Rittenhouse bar Blume. For the food, he’s also using delivery services like Uber Eats and Postmates.
It’s a far cry from what the once-bustling restaurant used to look like, but Sourias is happy with the sign of life. “At least there’s some kind of hope,” he says.
Sourias says he’s brought back about 35 employees so far. If the current setup proves successful, he’ll reopen Blume as well, to have a presence on both sides of Broad, and continue to expand the options at Tradesman’s, adding items like Christmas in July cocktails as a nod to his holiday pop-up bar, Tinsel.
The takeout setup will likely continue “even after restaurants reopen,” Sourias says, “until we’re back to capacity.”