Restaurants Reinvent Themselves For Thanksgiving And Beyond: 'You Just Pivot'

Nov 26, 2020
Originally published on November 26, 2020 4:39 pm

Yuko Watanabe had to learn a lot of plant names. She lists them with as much confidence as she does her extensive soup menu. Calathea, pothos, Swedish ivy, song of India.

For over a decade, her Yuko Kitchen has fed Los Angeles Japanese comfort food — something like your friend's mom might cook for you after the school, Watanabe says. But this pandemic spring, when streets emptied and her phones grew quiet, a mini-jungle took over the chairs and tables, her cafes pivoting to sell nourishment both for the body and the soul.

Now comes Thanksgiving, a holiday when Watanabe closes her restaurants and normally doesn't do anything special.

"This year, the first time, I make green-tea cheese pie for Thanksgiving," she says. You know, the classic Thanksgiving dessert. "A Japanese twist," she adds, laughing.

In a year of devastating shutdowns, few restaurants can afford to ignore America's big food-centered celebration. Even storied establishments were offering to cater Thanksgiving to go, like the Huntington Library in California or the restaurant group serving the U.S. Senate and several Smithsonian museums in the nation's capital.

For the first 10 months of the year, sales at bars and restaurants were down more than 19% compared to last year. The National Restaurant Association estimates total pandemic losses have reached $215 billion. As of October, the industry was down over 2 million jobs.

"Fight or flight," says Eddy Santiago, a general manager who helps run Giardino and Villa Bella, his family's Italian restaurants in Virginia.

Early in the pandemic, Santiago and his wife raided their party supplies, packing Dr. Seuss-themed gift boxes for families who pick up kids' meals. They delivered wine and beer and made grill packages for summer cookouts. Classic Italian appetizers and prime rib for Thanksgiving? Why not. Holiday gift baskets with olive oil and salami? Definitely.

"You just pivot," he says. "You're a restaurant, a foundation in the community — how can you add value and keep your business afloat? If that means I've got to make cannolis for a thousand people a day, then that's what I have to do."

Mark Bucher's Medium Rare restaurants in Washington, D.C., offered free traditional Thanksgiving dinners to people over 70, at home alone for the holiday.
Mark Bucher, Medium Rare Restaurants

In Washington, D.C., the local steak-and-fries chain Medium Rare has been setting up free-food fridges for families with children and delivering free meals to older people, those most at risk for the coronavirus. As Thanksgiving approached, something gnawed on co-founder Mark Bucher.

"There's only one meal that we eat all year that's really impossible to cook for one person — and that's Thanksgiving," Bucher says. "It's expensive."

So Medium Rare offered free traditional Thanksgiving dinners to folks over 70, at home alone for the holiday. Bucher expected maybe a couple hundred orders around the District. Instead, he expects to top 3,000.

"We're getting requests for people an hour away that we can't get to," Bucher says. "And just in five days, we've probably gotten two dozen requests ... rescinded because they've either gone to the hospital or long-term care."

The deliveries are paid for by a GoFundMe campaign and Medium Rare itself. The restaurant was able to start the year with a decent cash cushion thanks to some careful business planning — for example, a limited menu of a lot of beef and potatoes allows for economical buying.

And the company is doing another Thanksgiving special, Medium Rare's annual turkey fry: a free frying service to cut back on accidents at home or help those without the means to cook. This year, for pandemic safety, the fryers are going outside — the event is now at the Washington Nationals baseball stadium.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Pivot is the word of 2020 for many restaurants trying to survive the pandemic year in any way possible. Well, Thanksgiving, as a holiday centered around food, is prompting many restaurants to find ways to reinvent themselves no matter their cuisine. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Yuko Watanabe describes her menu as Japanese comfort food, the sort of thing someone's mom would cook after school - lately, a lot of soup.

YUKO WATANABE: Ginger pumpkin soup, yellow tomato soup, chicken kale soup.

SELYUKH: Normally, people would slurp these happily inside her three Yuko Kitchen restaurants in Los Angeles. But when crowds vanished from the street and her phones grew quiet, something else took over the chairs and tables - a mini jungle.

WATANABE: I have spider plants, bamboo, Swedish ivies.

SELYUKH: Selling plants was her biggest pivot of the year, turning Yuko Kitchen into a place for nourishment of the body and the soul. Now comes Thanksgiving, a holiday when she closes her restaurants and normally doesn't do anything special.

WATANABE: And this year, for the first time, I make green tea cheese pie for Thanksgiving.

SELYUKH: Your classic Thanksgiving dessert, green tea cheesecake.

WATANABE: (Laughter) Yeah - Japanese twist.

SELYUKH: In a year of devastating shutdowns, few restaurants can afford to ignore America's big celebration of food. Even storied establishments were offering to cater Thanksgiving to go, like the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in California or the restaurant group serving the U.S. Senate and several Smithsonian museums in the nation's capital.

EDDY SANTIAGO: Fight or flight.

SELYUKH: Eddy Santiago is a general manager who helps run his family's Italian restaurants in Virginia - Giardino and Villa Bella.

SANTIAGO: You just pivot. How can you add value and keep your business afloat? If that means I got to make cannolis for a thousand people a day, then that's what I have to do.

SELYUKH: Whatever it takes to draw people to your restaurant and make their lives easier. Early in the pandemic, Santiago and his wife raided their party supplies, packing Dr. Seuss-themed gift boxes for families who come to pick up kids' meals. They delivered wine and beer, made grill packages for summer cookouts. Classic Italian appetizers for Thanksgiving were a no-brainer.

SANTIAGO: We don't do bird, so we're doing prime rib for five or for 10. That's, like, party of four or a party of eight plus a little bit extra.

SELYUKH: In Washington, D.C., the local steak and fries chain, Medium Rare, has been delivering free meals to older people, those most at risk for the coronavirus. And as Thanksgiving approached, something, gnawed on co-founder Mark Bucher.

MARK BUCHER: There's only one meal that we eat all year that's really impossible to cook for one person, and that's Thanksgiving. It's expensive.

SELYUKH: So Medium Rare offered free traditional Thanksgiving dinners to folks over 70 at home alone for the holiday. Bucher expected maybe a couple hundred orders around D.C.

BUCHER: We'll top out over 3,000.

SELYUKH: There's 3,000 people who are elderly and alone on Thanksgiving?

BUCHER: More, because we're getting requests from people an hour away that we can't get to. And just in five days, we've probably gotten two-dozen requests that we've had rescinded because they've either gone to the hospital or long-term care.

SELYUKH: The deliveries are paid for by a large GoFundMe campaign and Medium Rare itself. Bucher started the year with a decent cash cushion thanks to some careful business planning. For example, a limited menu of a lot of beef and potatoes allows for economical buying. He's doing another Thanksgiving special, his annual turkey fry, a free frying service to cut back on accidents at home or help those without the means to cook. For pandemic safety, the fryers are going outside this year. The event is now at the Washington Nationals baseball stadium. Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.