From Olive Garden to Michelin-starred restaurants, a shifting stance on delivery to stay afloat

Key Points
  • Darden Restaurants said it is offering delivery after resisting the trend for months.
  • The coronavirus pandemic is also forcing many fine-dining restaurants to make similar transitions as their dining rooms close.
  • Despite the pivot to takeout and delivery, many restaurants have laid off employees and could fall short on their bills.
Food delivery workers on bicycles travel along a street in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, March 17, 2020.
Debetrius Freeman | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Darden Restaurants said it's planning to offer delivery service to keep workers employed, but Olive Garden's parent isn't the only dinning company to consider doing so.

As the coronavirus pandemic forces the closures of dining rooms in more than two dozen states, fine restaurants that have longed resisted offering takeout or delivery are now making the switch to keep their businesses afloat. 

"I think [third-party delivery providers] have become one of the most powerful forces in the industry right now,"  said Gadi Peleg, owner of the Manhattan Middle Eastern restaurant Nur.  

Nur has teamed up with DoorDash's Caviar to deliver food. Its wait staff is also driving, biking and walking around the city with food for customers. 

In San Francisco, Michelin-starred restaurant The Morris has created a new, simplified menu as it pivots to serving food and drinks for curbside pickup or delivery only. The streamlined menu features items like caviar and smoked duck, which should arrive to customers in good condition. 

"Higher-end restaurants don't really do a lot of to-go dining because the food isn't the same," owner Paul Einbund said in an interview. 

Einbund, who is in Paris, has been managing the transition from there. In France, he got a preview of how governments would react to the virus: French officials closed Parisian restaurants and bars after consumers continued to disregard social distancing guidelines by crowding cafes.

The Morris has laid off 16 of its 21 employees. Its general manager and partner is delivering all of the orders to customers for now, Einbund said, citing liability issues and the fees taken by delivery companies. The Morris is also selling wine and encouraging customers to buy gift certificates to use when the restaurant reopens.

"All this work is just paying for labor, not any of the hard costs. It certainly doesn't pay rent or utilities or the insurance, which is not paying for our stop in work, although we have work stoppage insurance," Einbund said. 

Caleb Ganzer, managing partner of New York's Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, said business has been helped by New York state's decision to relax liquor laws. Restaurants can now sell booze for takeout and delivery as long as it's sold with food.

The French wine bar is now delivering bottles of wine with food. Nine months ago, it began offering catering for orders of at least $300, which has prepared it for the shift. Orders are flowing in through direct messages, emails and its website. 

"It's not super efficient right now, but we're figuring it out," Ganzer said.

At the Art of the Table in Seattle, "the phone has been ringing off the hook," co-owner Dustin Ronspies said. The tasting menu restaurant has been offering a $60 family meal for delivery or takeout since March 11. 

"A lot of our regulars are super supportive," Ronspies said. "People are giving us really nice tips."

Ronspies said he has been on the phone daily with suppliers and farmers, who have an oversupply of food, to decide the menu for the day. The restaurant had to lay off about half of its 20 employees. 

"We're trying to get to the dollar mark by selling food and stuff so we can just get people insured for one more month even if they've been laid off or furloughed," Ronspies said.

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