Cover photo: The XXL Butter Cake from State Fare Kitchen & Bar stays nice and chewy in a pizza box. Image of Anthony Rathbun.
At State Fare Kitchen & Bar, a brunch isn’t brunch if it doesn’t include the XXL Buttermilk Griddlecake, a mind-boggling 14 inches in diameter. When ordered from the dining room, this morning freak dwarfs his plate – you can’t see him below. Sprinkled with freshly fallen icing sugar and served with whipped butter and maple syrup, it’s as much a production as it is a menu item. It’s a festive recognition of brunch as an event.
So what happened when Covid-19 ended brunch as an event at State Fare, for a month and a half Houston diners were barred from eating at their favorite restaurants and instead started to order? Well, the innovation.
“We originally took (the griddlecake) and folded it in half, trying to put it in one of our containers,” says Justin Yoakum, director of operations at State Fare, which is managed by the hotel group. Culinary Khancepts. The container was a round, black, dishwasher-safe, recyclable “clamshell” shell, says Yoakum. “We said to ourselves: ‘What are we doing to conserve the essence of this pancake? “”
Put it in a fun big pizza box, naturally. Suddenly the gigantic pancake and all of its accessories (sealed in smaller plastic containers) were much more desirable to eat when they got home. Soon followed by the plain white buckets for fried chicken and fried seafood from State Fare at KFC. What about their burgers? Wrapped in foil like Wendy’s.
“We looked at who makes take out food very well, and that led us to your drive-thru places,” says Yoakum. “It was a question of ‘How do we cope?’ “
Although the pandemic has dramatically shaken Houston’s food and beverage industry – 2,000 Houston-area restaurants closed in 2020, according to the Greater Houston Restaurant Association – for restaurants lucky enough to continue operating, one of the quieter changes has been the growing reliance on take-out. and delivery packaging, and with that, a little ingenuity.
Nationally, take-out and delivery saw a 76% increase in weekly earnings in early May 2020 as Covid-19 raged, according to a UBS Evidence Lab study, and those gains have remained relatively high during the pandemic. Due to the increase in take-out and delivery services, restaurants have spent more on packaging – Houston’s Legacy Restaurants reports that it spent 100% more on packaging at some point in 2020 – and operators are quickly became more savvy. By investing in better packaging materials and showcasing everything, they get a better return on their take-out business.
At one level, the pressure for smarter packaging existed before the pandemic. Recyclable paper wrappers can be found at many Houston restaurants, including newer places like the tropical hangout Toasted Coconut in Montrose, hand-roll supplier Hando in the Heights, and Vietnamese restaurant Blind Goat at Bravery. Chef Hall downtown. What about those black polypropylene containers, which can be reused at home? They are common in more upscale UB Preserv and State of Grace establishments. CLICK Virtual Food Hall, which was founded in August 2019 to disrupt the Uber Eats-driven delivery industry, has invested in expensive insulated aluminum bags that prevent ice from melting and steaming hot foods, and look like something you would ship a fragile item in. at the Post Office. They also realized early on the importance of deconstructing the dishes to preserve freshness – order pho at any Vietnamese restaurant and you will also see it in action, as separate containers are provided for the broth, noodles, vegetables. meats and vegetables.
“The aspect of presentation that is really important in delivery is how you deconstruct it,” says Steven Salazar, co-founder of CLICK. “You put the breadcrumbs on the outside of the pasta instead of the top. You set the egg aside so that the customer himself pops the egg yolk. You have to test each dish.
El Patio in Montrose has also been interrupting complicated and potentially messy orders for years. Their nachos usually arrive in a Christmas bounty – single-use polypropylene plastic containers that individually hold jalapenos, guacamole, and tomatoes, and aluminum foil casseroles that keep the corn chips crisp, hot, and spread out. . “[Customers] I love that we take the time to make things easy to enjoy, like they are in a restaurant, ”says General Manager Zaira Wolff.
Rather, it is a new emphasis on branding that puts El Patio and others above the rest in the Covid era. Wolff says the shift to more take-out and delivery has underscored the need to let people know who they are as a restaurant. El Patio never lost an employee during the pandemic, as Wolff immediately shifted hosts and servers to takeout and delivery orders. The restaurant maintains its own delivery service and has used the brand to its advantage: employees wear black shirts with the El Patio logo on them and Wolff has the El Patio logo on them. all.
“Anything that has a tag is likely to be tagged on Instagram or Facebook,” says Wolff. “So it’s a good thing to put your label out there, especially with our margaritas. “
For restaurateur Benjamin Berg of Berg Hospitality Group, a change in the pandemic has been as much about the brand as it is about the quality of the packaging itself. “Before all of that, it was dog bags for leftovers. Not anymore, ”says Berg. Although he has laid off 350 employees at his company’s six restaurants in two cities, such as the casual BB Lemon, the red sauce spot BB Italia, and the more sophisticated affairs B&B Butchers and Restaurant and Annie Café and Bar, he has since hired about 75 percent of those workers. In December 2020, hoping to expand his brand, test future menu items, and tap the take-out and delivery business, he opened a CLICK-like ghost kitchen called Fair Food Co. in Uptown.
Here, Berg emphasizes the packaging: thirty minutes after being collected from the kitchen, BB Italia’s mozzarella sticks stay crisp and warm thanks to its Crisp Food Technologies Fry Baby container. The Fry Baby has raised airflow channels and ventilation in its lid to prevent food from overheating and soggy. All food is carried in a Berg Hospitality Group paper bag with its logo splashed all over it.
“It’s expensive,” says Berg. “But it’s our reputation and our brand that stand out. “
For restaurateurs, this can be more important than ever. The National Restaurant Association, in its 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry Report, found that about 65% to 70% of consumers are more likely to buy take-out now than before the pandemic. For the record, Houston operators are continuing take-out and curbside pickup options, even as the local Covid-19 incidence rate declines and indoor dining resumes. The good thing, at least for customers, is that more and more restaurants in Houston are paying attention.
In Memorial City, State Fare hosts the competition. “It just means more people are going to order to go there,” Yoakum explains.