Great Ways Restaurants Are Staying Connected to Customers

From coast to coast, restaurants are serving up creative ways to connect with customers and support their communities.

April 17, 2020
Woman's hand taking a picture of delicate Japanese style cuisine with various side dishes, miso soup and main dishes with smartphone


Woman's hand taking a picture of delicate Japanese style cuisine with various side dishes, miso soup and main dishes with smartphone

Photo by: d3sign / Getty Images

d3sign / Getty Images

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Restaurants have always been more than simply a place to get food — they are community gathering spaces. And now, in the midst of the national shutdown, many restaurants and chefs are finding creative ways to express hospitality virtually, nurturing community and sparking joy for diners and keeping their own spirits and hopes high. Here are some ways chefs are continuing the spirit of community.

Offering a Little Something Extra

Around the country, restaurants are answering the shortage of toilet paper by tossing in a free roll with orders. Chains like Ike’s Love & Sandwiches and high-end restaurants, like Korean steakhouse Cote in NYC, have tacked rolls into takeout orders. But other restaurants are tapping into collective needs with helpful baking starters, festive goodies and more.

In the Washington, D.C., area, Neighborhood Restaurant Group, comprising 20+ independent restaurants, has created Neighborhood Provisions, an online destination that offers chef-made meals, ready-to-cook foods, pantry items — including yeast, flour, eggs and hand sanitizer — wine, house-bottled cocktails and the brand’s own cult-beloved canned beer, all delivered by employees. The company offers discounts for members of the restaurant industry, and a points system (throwing in toilet paper, hand sanitizer and house-made lemoncello), as well as an option to buy meals and pastries for hospital workers.

June, a natural wine bar and restaurant in Brooklyn, has offered free sourdough starter (though they’ve also got a to-go bread and dip plate featuring sourdough from a local bakery if you prefer your bread baked by pros). It’s a boon for locals who want to get in on the bread-baking obsession that’s been sweeping the nation, and it goes great with the available natural wines, like Casa Belfi's dry sparkling red.

Brennan’s of Houston added a little holiday flair with “To-Geaux” orders around Mardi Gras (including beads, pralines and chef’s hats) and Easter, when they offered baskets with pralines and plastic eggs stocked with goodies like miniature bottles of Tabasco, to accompany Easter lunch and brunch orders.

Cheers-ing to Virtual Hospitality

Bars from coast to coast are offering virtual happy hours on Instagram Live, where viewers can watch bartenders making cocktails, ask questions in real time and virtually wave to friends they see tuning in (bargoers can also tip bartenders via Venmo and other platforms).

Beloved New York showtunes bar Marie’s Crisis has transferred the singalong to a Facebook group, hosting regular hour-plus arrays of showtunes. But performances happen at unexpected times regardless of the type of bar, like when Sean Umstead of Kingfisher, a craft cocktail bar in Durham, North Carolina, unabashedly danced behind the bar while waiting for his guest bartender to tune in.

At Philadelphia's Apricot Stone, owner Ara Ishkhanian is as much a part of the dining experience as the homespun Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes (prepared by his mom, chef Fimy Ishkhanian). To add a personal touch to ordering from his restaurant, diners can reserve a time to FaceTime with Ishkanian, who plays the role of server, with music lilting in the background, while his team delivers the meal. After the food arrives, he calls back to check in and exchange a few pleasantries before leaving them to their feast.

Speaking of sparking joy, NYC-based bartender Pam Wiznitzer’s Instagram videos are equal parts cocktail tutorial, fashion show and lip-synching contest; we dare you not to grin after you watch her Banana Daiquiri montage or her Hamilton-inspired (George) Washington Apple shot demo.

Looking to learn a little bit more about wine during quarantine? Tail Up Goat in Washington, D.C., launched a #StayHome Wine School via Instagram. Followers can sign up via email to access Zoom classes which cover a different topic each week, like “The Past, Present, and Future King: Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux to the Broader World.”

Feel like flexing your grape knowledge? Sommelier Michael Kennedy, founder and vintner of Component Wine and Vin Fraiche, has taken to Instagram Stories to offer wine quizzes with questions sourced from fellow somms and bottles of wines up for grabs for participants who nail a perfect score.

Tuning In to Cooking Classes & Cook-Alongs

Chefs often get into the hospitality business to feed others, so barring the opportunity to serve diners food, many are turning to social media to share recipes, dish up tips and tricks and share informal tutorials.

Michael Symon has hosted pantry-driven #SymonDinners each night on Food Network Kitchen’s Facebook page since March 16. And with Food Network Kitchen’s chefs all cooking away at home, live classes on the Food Network Kitchen app have moved to their own kitchens.

Many chefs thrive on collaboration, so in the absence of festivals, charity events and guest-chef dinners, getting to virtually cook alongside their peers has been a boon to their spirits. Through Luck Reunion, chef Michael Fojtasek hosted Prime Cuts, a cook-along benefitting the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, in which he was joined by chef Ashley Christensen, who whipped up cornbread to accompany Fojtasek’s hoppin’ John, and Jessica Sanders, who mixed mint juleps and old-fashioned cocktails.

Helping One Another

Restaurants, farms and food artisans have banded together in cities across the country to streamline the food supply chain, offer creative solutions to feed people and keep afloat.

Haus, a drink company focused on aperitifs, launched The Restaurant Project, partnering with several restaurants across the country to create limited-edition bottled aperitifs. You can pre-order the low-alcohol beverages now — say, JuneBaby’s botanical juniper-elderflower-orange tipple or Kismet’s earthy sweet beet, hibiscus and rose number — with orders shipping mid-May and 100 percent of proceeds benefitting each respective restaurant.

Lawrence Barbecue, a new-school barbecue joint that was slated to open this summer in Raleigh, North Carolina, has kept the fires stoked to help feed out-of-work hospitality workers and offer curbside ‘cue pick-up of their popular pulled pork and Texas-style brisket sandos. But chef-owner Jake Wood has been fanning the flames of creativity, too, collaborating with local small food businesses, like a recent collaboration with Tribucha that featured kombucha-glazed pork belly burnt ends and six-packs of ‘booch on the menu.

In San Diego, Mostra Coffee developed a gratitude box, featuring a new Thank You blend of coffee. The box comes with a personalized thank you note, and is designed to be given to hospital workers, teachers and delivery workers, with all proceeds going to the CDC Foundation Emergency Response Fund.

In Carrboro, North Carolina, chef Kevin Callaghan of Acme Food & Beverage Co. helped found Carrboro United Local Food Hub, which offers a weekly menu of local produce, meats from purveyor Firsthand Foods, and prepared restaurant meals from places like Acme and Venable. To date, the food hub has averaged 2,000 orders per each of the pick-up days and has generated over $40,000 of revenue each week for local businesses.

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