Three Creative Ways Restaurants Have Pivoted Their Business Models During COVID-19 


11 min read

Across the country, on-premise dining is temporarily shut down due to the COVID-19 health crisis, leaving restaurants scrambling to adapt their businesses and survive what could be months of uncertainty.

But restaurants are getting creative, testing out different ways to stay afloat.

They’re pivoting their business models entirely, showing their resiliency and their desire to help their staff and communities. They’re continuing to build customer loyalty — despite serious limitations — and giving back to those most affected by the crisis. They’re offering new products, or new ways of ordering their food, and staying nimble in the face of an unprecedented situation.

We've gathered some examples of resilient and adaptable restaurants and food businesses that, against all odds, are making it work.

Pivoting to Pop-Up Grocery Stores or Bodegas

Restaurants are looking to serve their communities in unconventional ways. Some, like the restaurants featured below, are leveraging existing supply chains and food-service relationships and morphing their businesses into bodegas and pop-up grocery stores. 

Farmers Restaurant Group, based in Washington, D.C., is adapting its restaurants — including Founding Farmers, Farmers & Distillers, and Farmers Fishers Bakers — into food markets called Farmers Market + Grocery. Opening April 7, the stores will be staffed by a small crew of Farmers Group employees.

“There’s a reason people cook at home; it’s less expensive,” said FRG owner Dan Simons to National Restaurant News. “The corner market or bodega will be set up within the restaurant… and will sell meal kits cooked by the remaining restaurant staff along with packaged chicken salad, toilet paper, paper towels, wine, beer (in growlers) and other essentials,” Simons said. Though they won't be bringing in full-service revenue, they're keeping money coming in and providing their community with high-quality, affordable staples.

Dog Haus, an LA-based gourmet hot dog chain with 45 restaurants, has launched “Dog Haus Markets” in some of their locations. "While we continue to serve our signature Dog Haus items via pickup and delivery, we are also offering a vast list of essential foods that you can purchase to prepare for yourself and your loved ones at home," they explain on their website.

Salt & Time, a butcher shop and restaurant in East Austin, is offering bulk groceries, and they're dedicating their first hour of business to the elderly or those with compromised immune systems who are most vulnerable to illness. “Friends, as we enter the next phase of this journey, we want to make sure you know that we are an essential business that will continue to serve you,” Salt & Time wrote on their Instagram.

LA’s Barcito has launched an innovative cocktails program, offering Aperol Spritz kits (among other things) for pickup and free delivery. Barcito is also offering produce boxes and other groceries — some days boneless chicken thighs, some days ribeyes. This changing groceries menu is reflected on their website. 

Adding Special Takeout and Delivery Items

Some restaurants are getting creative in their takeout and delivery offerings, adding special items that function as meal kits for guests to prepare at home.

Monument Charlestown has sought creative ways to package its meals to go. It’s offered Make Your Own Pizza Kit, an EBTV (everything but the vodka) take-home Bloody Mary kit, and a taco-making kit Monument calls “Takeout Taco Bell Tuesday.”

Monument is also embracing the opportunity to offer these special items in a way that directly supports their employees. For example, Monument recently hosted a “Social Media Silent Auction” offering diners an opportunity to win an exclusive takeout Taco Tuesday experience for four guests — including a margarita and taco tasting menu. Bidding started at $250, and all proceeds went directly to the Monument staff relief fund. 

Other restaurants are tapping into the more fundamental needs of their communities. For example, Inver Grove Brewing is offering take-and-bake pizzas and fried fish, along with “crowlers” of craft beer to go. The Minnesota restaurant and brewery never previously offered online ordering or even takeout, but they quickly pivoted to introduce both on April 1.

Meanwhile, Guerrilla Tacos in Los Angeles developed an “emergency taco kit,” which includes everything customers need for a taco night, along with the biggest incentive of all: four rolls of toilet paper.

Even the bigger chains are shifting their offerings to reflect our rapidly changing new normal. Shake Shack introduced Shake Shack’s first ever steakhouse meal, Steak Frites to go. The restaurant chain developed the offering in partnership with New Jersey meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda. “Looking to elevate your takeout game?” Shake Shack wrote, announcing its plan to serve a to go meal featuring a 10 oz. Pat LaFrieda ribeye steak cooked medium to medium-rare, served with Shake Shack’s signature crispy crinkle cut fries, watercress greens, ShackSauce, and horseradish sauce for $24.99. This steak frites meal is available for pickup from locations in NYC and NJ. 

“With everything going on, we know our guests are wanting accessible dining options without having to sacrifice the fun (and they could sure use the comfort!),” a Shake Shack spokesperson shared with Time Out New York. "We thought this offering would be a great way to bring some excitement to our diners.” 

Producing Hand Sanitizer Instead of Alcohol

Craft distilleries nationwide have responded to the pandemic by pivoting away spirits and toward another product: Hand sanitizer, which is sorely needed by health organizations on the front lines of the virus. Eight Oaks Distillery in New Tripoli, Pennsylvania, was one of the first craft distilleries to pivot its manufacturing process from spirits to sanitizer. Owner Chad Butters was appalled at the hoarding that characterized the early days of the pandemic. He saw how people hoarding sanitizer and cleaning products was crippling nursing homes and community health organizations in his area. 

“This isn’t a time for panic or chaos,” Butters told CNN. “But it is a time of a sense of urgency and purpose, and… that’s what’s happening in the community right now.”

Recently, Anheuser-Busch jumped on the sanitizer wagon as well. “We live in these communities. We know these people. We’re watching them suffer, and we have the ability to help,” said Brad Plummer, a spokesman for the American Distilling Institute and editor-in-chief of Distiller Magazine, to the NY Times. 

It’s definitely not business as usual for any restaurant these days. But with a little creativity and adaptability, restaurants and food businesses are showing how they're fighting to make it to the other side of this crisis.

Though it feels like nothing is how it was two months ago, one thing hasn’t changed: Restaurants are still showing up and making a difference in the communities they serve.