Good evening friends and neighbors!
As the pandemic sunk its teeth into the American culinary industry, there was no shortage of worries and opinions to fill column inches. They included hopeful outlooks, doomsaying, and more than a few appeals to our elected leaders that they should stop resembling a monkey sodomizing sports equipment.
A few of those hot takes even came from me- but one in particular came from my therapist:
“You’ve mentioned before how you and your wife enjoy going out to eat together. That’s certainly tough right now, but there’s got to be ways to make do.”
“Making do” is one of those skills that we humans are great at, diseases be damned- and tonight I went out to dinner to see how some places are doing it.
After nearly three months of lockdown and a Charlie Brown-style fake-out early on, restaurants and bars here in Portland got the “OK” to resume service with strict safety measures in place earlier today. The safety measures include the use of masks, minimizing contact where possible, and social distancing so that customers are no longer crammed in cheek-by-jowl.
Prior to the announcements, some restaurants and cafes tried out novel ideas to keep their businesses rolling despite the lack of sit-down customers. By far, the most common was pivoting to a delivery or take-out model- often involving a devils bargain with online delivery brokers. There is no shortage of business owners that would be content to see “GrubHub” change its name to “Omertà.”
Others offered “meal kits” for sale directly, or set up online platforms of their own to manage curbside takeaway. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission even stepped in and relaxed some of their laws to allow the home delivery of beer and liquor- the better to keep the states many breweries and distilleries in business.
Some especially clever businesses took advantage of their ability to order supplies at wholesale prices and set themselves up as small grocery stores, reselling their stock to customers when the shelves at supermarkets ran bare. If you really need toilet paper, you don’t care so much if the cafe down the street doesn’t buy the fancy stuff for their bathrooms- it’s there and it’s cheap.
It was chaotic to be sure- uncertainty is bad for business. Kitchen folks thrive in that atmosphere though. We have a knack for taking things minute-by-minute, pivoting and course-correcting at the drop of a dime. Not all businesses would- or could- weather the new requirements. Those that did, however, saw what was available and trialed new systems to offer some flavor of the dining scene Portlanders love.
I have tried it- and it tastes like the future.
I started the afternoon by wandering down to my favorite food pod. Brian, owner of the Captured Beer Bus, had chosen to simply stay closed for the majority of the lockdown. It was only in the last week or so he decided, as a self-described “last resort,” to can draft beers to go. He came up with a special, offering a slight discount for buying a four-pack. This was the first day he was authorized to sell beer for on-site consumption again.
With the majority of the food trucks back in business (already set up for a “carry out” model as they are,) sitting and having a beer in a mason jar again was as damn near “normal” as I’d seen in months. Granted, Brian couldn’t simply refill my jar with a new beer and we’re still waiting on Saint Burrito to re-open, but that should happen in the next week ago. Sitting in the sun with a cold beer was better for my mental health than any loaf of banana bread.
As I sat and drank, my friend Andre- on break from the cafe next store- flagged me down and asked if I’d seen what they were doing the next street over. I shrugged- I knew that Ankeny Tap and Table had been doing limited carry-out and at home meal kits. Across the street, Gorges Beer Co. (which had opened three days before lockdown started) allowed you to buy beer by the can on their website and pick it up from their shop at an appointed time.
Andre laughed and said, “Man, they closed up the whole street! You gotta go have a look!”
Going around the corner, I saw that Ankeny Tap and Table had indeed blocked off car traffic, and celebrated “reopening” by turning the entire street into their dining room. Picnic tables with nailed-on numbers and laminated instruction cards were safely scattered in the sun.
”Instructions?” Yes. Ankeny Tab and Table, the taco kitchen above them, and Gorges Brewing had teamed up to use existing technology and create a new kind of sit-down experience.
The idea was, on the face, very simple- “What if you ordered curbside take-away… and didn’t go anywhere?” On seating myself at an available table, the laminated sign displayed a QR code for me to scan with my smartphone. On scanning, the phone automatically opens up Ankeny’s online ordering site with up-to-date menus for appetizers, drinks, main courses, and sides. Each menu selection has it’s own checklist of add-ons and substitutions- no different than you might ask a server. I asked for a simple blackened chicken club, no slaw, and a vodka tonic to drink.
On making my selection, the website simply asks me to “checkout.” I pay online, include tip, and- where it says “Special Instructions”- I write “Table 5, Red Hawaiian Shirt.”
Bing. Sent. Within 15 minutes, a masked waiter comes up and sets down my cocktail and sandwich. Welcome to the future- that’ll be $20.
While I certainly hope we can get back to the personal connections that restaurant-going offered in the past, the fact that I just sat down, tapped a couple things on my phone, and not only really good food but alcohol was just placed in front of me… feels kinda cool.
My sisters laugh and remind me that Apple has used this self-same service model in their stores for years, including identifying customers in the store by their clothing. Given the current plague-ridden climate, extending that system to the dining world truly seems like the next logical step. There are glitches and bugs to be worked out, of course- not least is how to serve customers who DON’T have smartphones.
For right now, though, I’m pleased to be able to let technology and ingenuity aid us where biology fails- especially if that means I can have a cocktail and watch the familiar bustle of a busy restaurant again, even from a social distance.