Behind the Bar: Keeping Hospitality Alive at Home

Greg Engert, beer director of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, explains how their business—with 16 bars and restaurants plus a brewery in the D.C. area—is adapting to weather uncertain times.

Greg Engert Oct 8, 2020 - 8 min read

Behind the Bar: Keeping Hospitality Alive at Home Primary Image

A host greets guests on the patio of the Grand Delancey in New York City. Photo: Courtesy Neighborhood Restaurant Group.

Last issue, I wrote about the pandemic, sketching out ideas of a new normal and prognosticating about a future I hoped would be short-lived. (See Sketching Out the new ‘Normal’ for Hospitality.) As time has gone on, so has COVID-19, and each day brings further evidence of the unbridled nature of the virus. Business conditions remain bleak for breweries, bars, restaurants, and retail shops.

Reopenings have yielded limited on-premise opportunities. The public remains wary of the disease and cautious with their finances. Landlords are losing their patience, and changes to government assistance programs threaten to dismantle our industry once and for all. The heat is on, and it outlasted the summer.

My company, the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, has applied for each and every grant we could find, received PPP loans, negotiated with our landlords, and done just about everything to extend the lives of our businesses and keep as many of our employees at work as possible. We have survived, so far, and—while we know that our company and our furloughed employees will need more assistance—we have found some success during this disaster that keeps me hopeful.

Adaptations

We have fully embraced outdoor dining while, so far, completely foregoing indoor dining. All of our research leads us to believe that outdoor dining—with six-foot distancing, limited interactions, and masks, masks, masks!—is the safest and most effective way for us to offer the on-premise experience. Proper distancing has certainly reduced our patio seating capacity, but by working with local officials and neighboring businesses, we have been able to extend into sidewalks, street-side parking spaces (to create “parklets”), and parking lots.

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Early on in the pandemic, guests were willing and able to support many of our businesses in an effort to help keep them alive. This generosity has proven less sustainable in the long run, especially as some are facing new financial concerns of their own, new activities have beckoned to others, and—over time—some guests just don’t find value in stripped-down drinking and dining or in delivery or carryout. Getting guests to spend with us has been challenging, but through a host of initiatives, pivots, and nuanced approaches, we’ve made some inroads.

The On-Premise Escape to Normalcy

Guests who dine and drink out right now are looking for the classic bar and restaurant experience—the one they have had and hope to have again. They are looking not just for the “old days,” but the opportunity to transport to a place where they can forget, if briefly, about the everyday. We have found that the more we can transform the ramshackle spaces and the more we can create an experience in spite of the obvious restrictions, then the more we can succeed with our guests.

The primacy of airborne COVID-19 transmission is now well-known and—while cleaning and sanitizing procedures should remain ample—we feel more comfortable adjusting our approach to on-premise service. While we began the crisis by exclusively employing compostable cups, plates, and cutlery, we now give each guest the option to use glassware, plates, and silverware rather than disposable. That service component—along with laying down turf, hanging plants, stringing lights, running outdoor wireless speakers, and setting tables with succulents and votives—has gone a long way toward creating a familiar and transportive environment.

With limited seating comes limited revenue, and keeping labor costs in check has never been more important. We initially thought that eliminating table service in favor of line-oriented, stand-up counter service would be the way forward, but our outdoor space limitations have just not supported that approach; socially distanced lines consume far too much of the room we need for the few tables we are allowed. Moving to a model where all staff are servers, bartenders, food runners, bussers, and hosts has helped keep labor in check, even with more typical table service, as has slimming down on-premise menu offerings and attending to as much prep work as possible (such as pre-batching all cocktails on offer).
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While keeping our table-service model has maintained a sense of tradition for our guests, we have been eager to experiment with nuances of service. Chief among these has been our adoption of mobile-ordering technology. Through services such as Toast Order & Pay, Bbot, and GoTab, guests are able to use a cell phone to scan tabletop QR codes not only to view menus, which already cuts down on printing costs and administrative duties, but also to order and pay via their mobile device. Contactless payment has been widely appreciated, and service interactions—while maintained—are limited.

Through this kind of technology, we have been able to maintain a sense of normalcy for the guest—via table service and server interactions—while maximizing the number of seats, trimming down labor, and keeping the safety of our staff and our guests as our primary focus. We have also seen check averages go up and table turn times go down as guests acclimate to a service model where their next drink order can be placed—and then received—quicker than ever. And our staff still provides a comforting level of service in this environment, helping guests navigate the technology as well as our offerings and layering brief tableside narratives into the on-premise experience as guests’ comfort level and interest allows.

Send Hospitality Home with Them

Modifications to local alcohol laws, enacted at the beginning of the crisis, remain as important and impactful as ever. We have had great success expanding our carryout options to increase the check averages of both on- and off-premise guests. I would encourage bars, restaurants, and taprooms to build a retail beer, wine, and spirits menu to this end—and bottle some house-made cocktails while you’re at it. I’d also suggest expanding retail beyond booze to feature all manner of provisions and sundries that could make your establishment as much of a one-stop shop as possible.

We all need to embrace the new facets of our businesses. While we didn’t dream up most of our establishments as carryout-and-delivery hubs, it is important to take pride in the new path. Double down on sharp-looking and sustainable packaging. Include personalized thank-you notes and some small bonus gifts for your regulars and best guests. Consistently seek feedback and be quick to iron out issues. Make sure dishes translate in to-go containers, so that guests are excited to see and eat the food that’s been transported. In short, keep upping the hospitality game with each new endeavor.

We have to continue to make it new since new products, features, and experiences will draw guests back to our businesses. Creating new brews has never been more immediately impactful, and social-justice projects coupled with virtual collaborations have brought fresh vigor to can and bottle releases. Take-home experiences, such as Zoom tastings and pairing events, remain dynamic modes of guest engagement and brand-building.

These are uncertain times in our industry. We all need to keep working to get our guests to fall in love with what we do, who we are, and what we stand for. Through innovation and dogged resilience, I am cautiously optimistic for the future. We have made it this far. We are not going anywhere.

Greg Engert is beer director of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, whose bars and restaurants include ChurchKey, Rustico, and the Bluejacket brewery, among others.

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