With Carryout Still The Safest Bet In Town, Some Kansas City Restaurants Have An Advantage — Here's Why
Restaurants that emphasized carryout before COVID-19 may be able to weather the pandemic without a major overhaul, but those more focused on dining rooms and bars are hustling to change, with no guarantees.
As stay-at-home orders across the metro begin to loosen, Kansas City's restaurant industry has seen a massive transformation, which will likely continue as uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 persists despite the gradual lifting of restrictions.
Some places have managed to hang on doing business mostly as before, with customers pulling up curbside for the same dishes they once enjoyed in the dining room or for traditional carryout. Others have shut down, laid off staff, or scrambled to reinvent themselves, cobbling together online stores, in-house delivery services, new menus and temporary brands.
The difference, in part, reflects how carryout-friendly the restaurant concept was to begin with.
Abbey-Jo Eans runs Happy Gillis Cafe And Hangout with her husband, Josh. Before the coronavirus pandemic, they served breakfast, brunch and lunch, but more than that, it was a place to just chill. People lounged on vintage couches while waiting for a table, or sat at the counter by the window, taking in the city scene. The food was just as eclectic; one popular brunch item included corn nuts.
Right away, Eans knew carryout wasn't going to keep Happy Gillis afloat.
First of all, brunch doesn't travel well. "It isn't even a necessary meal," she acknowledges. "It's more of an event. It's a luxury."
Eans also knew her customers came for the personal touches. She'd coached her employees in the art of breakfast counter gossip.
"Gossip is your best friend," she'd tell them. "If you find out that Susie got a new dog, tell the entire staff that she got a new dog so that next time, anyone can ask her about her dog."
That's not something you can pack up and drop in a car trunk.
"I just knew we had to make an immediate change," Eans says.
When the reality set in, Happy Gillis laid off staff and closed for a weekend to figure out what to do.
Since Happy Gillis is a family business, Eans tried to come up with something her household — three adults and three kids — could do without help. The goal was to make enough money to open the doors again someday, a modest goal in normal times, but an ambitious one under the circumstances.
Happy Gillis ended up quickly launching an online store for pre-order meal kits to be delivered, so that people staying home could still get help with the relentlessness of feeding families.
"I know that a lot of people don't love to cook," Eans says. "Not to mention all the people that don't know how to cook. The idea of being trapped in their house with their family that they have to provide for, I mean, people send me texts after I deliver, like, 'Thank you so much. This is one night of the week that I don't have to worry.'"
The Eans family delivers the meals in three separate cars, one kid per vehicle.
"The delivery piece of it is a bear," Eans says. "Every week Josh has to put in all the addresses, make pins, and then figure out who takes what routes and then we have to organize the cars. It literally takes hours."
As for the menu, Eans is having to figure out a whole new way of making and serving food. She delivers meals in a mostly-cooked state, and anticipating what customers will do from there is a new way of thinking.
"I need to give people pretty specific instructions cause I tend to think, 'Oh, just bake it until it's done, just check it and see.' And most people are like, 'What does that mean?'" she explains. "So I have to know exactly. You're going to cook this for 45 to 50 minutes depending on your oven."
Happy Gillis won't keep doing any of this when they re-open their dining room. All this effort is purely for survival right now.
"If we can't make it through this time," Eans says, "Happy Gillis won't reopen. Restaurants don't open on good will and hope, you know? They open on capitol."
In Brookside, by contrast, the Pakistani restaurant Chai Shai hasn't had to revamp much at all. The restaurant has taken the opposite approach of leaving everything the same, down to the hours of operation, to provide a sense of stability in uncertain times. Chai Shai can do that because carryout's always accounted for a sizeable chunk of the restaurant's business.
Owner Kashif Tufail says he opened the restaurant on a budget, with a dining room lacking stylish decor. "Literally, the entire place was from Craigslist," he says.
That's since changed, but ten years ago, Tufail didn't know if his physical space would attract people, so he pushed carryout hard. A hand-lettered sign outside the door let the whole neighborhood know that they could get Chai Shai carryout every night. "Never cook again," the sign read.
Ten years is a significant head start. Chai Shai's regular customers already know what to expect when they get their favorite entrees to go. And Tufail already knows how to package items so they hold up for the journey. Sometimes, he says, it's as simple as putting a hole in the box to let the steam out.
Other times, it's more complicated.
An early experience sending a customer home with a lamb sandwich still haunts him. The sauce on the lamb made the special bread it's served on soggy and the sandwich fell apart. Now, Tufail knows the sandwich has to be deconstructed for carryout, lamb in one container, bread in another. He's not having to learn that lesson while competing for carryout business with every other restaurant in town, at a time when restaurant food means more to people than a shortcut on a busy weeknight. Customers are turning to carryout to treat themselves under difficult circumstances and strapped finances. They might not come back if the experience disappoints.
Another benefit of being able to serve the same food as before is that his customers can tap into memories of life before the pandemic. Once upon a time, Tufail says, customers would have come partly for the food, partly to "leave the outside world behind for an hour."
Although people can't actually do that any more, Tufail thinks familiar foods can help them access the feeling of it.
"The only representation you have for yourself and your restaurant is the food that you do. And you hope that carries itself and it gives people an experience even when they get home" he says. "Maybe they think about your dining room and what it felt like the last time they were there and what the music was that they were listening to, what the service was like. Right? And maybe, that transports them a little bit while they're eating it."