“Back to normal” has been the guiding speck of light at the end of a long tunnel for many in the restaurant industry, but some restaurant operators have abandoned the pursuit of normalcy and instead are reimagining their businesses for a world shaped by the pandemic.
The economic destruction caused by the crisis, as dismantling as it has been for restaurants around the country, has created a surprising environment for ingenuity. With little left to lose, restaurateurs are attempting new menus and new business models by way of the restaurant pop-up. These concepts are gaining traction as restaurant operators seek ways to reach more customers without expanding their physical footprints or tacking on expenses.
According to a recent survey from the Texas Restaurant Association, 55% of Texas restaurant operators say their expenses are up compared to this time last year despite operating at half capacity or less. High rents, takeout packaging, and food cost increases are making it progressively difficult to run a restaurant, making pop-up concepts even more appealing.
Sloane’s Corner in downtown Dallas’ Arts District reopened its dining room last week along with a new pizza concept. Pizza Leila is the passion project of Sloane’s chef, Ji Kang, and an effort to add a new revenue stream to a restaurant that relies greatly on foot traffic from the now mostly empty office buildings around it.
Kang, who came to Dallas by way of New York two years ago, always dreamt of his own pizza concept, and the stars aligned when he and Sloane’s owner Tim McEneny realized they needed a food offering suited for takeout and delivery to make up for the lack of dine-in customers.
“We’re doing about 25% to 30% of the business we used to do, especially during lunch,” Kang says. “We relied heavily on catering before COVID-19, so we built out a small catering kitchen, and it actually worked out perfectly for us now. It would be dead space if we weren’t using it for Pizza Leila.”
To distinguish Pizza Leila from the other pizza offerings in the city, Kang decided to create a Sicilian pizza concept reminiscent of the thick grandma squares at Prince Street in New York. The pizza, pillowy slices of focaccia topped with Italian classics like porchetta and artichokes, is sold by the pie as well as by the slice.
Pizza is a big focus for a lot of restaurants right now, as it travels well. Restaurateur Nick Badovinus is even operating a new pop-up called the Pizza Parm Project out of Neighborhood Services restaurant. Their tagline says they’re selling pizzas, “cuz you’re hungry, it’s delicious, and we’re desperate.
A few miles down the road in East Dallas, chef Donny Sirisavath of Khao Noodle Shop quietly launched a new pop-up concept last month called Khao Len, which means “little brother.” It was designed to be the chef’s next brick-and-mortar restaurant, but COVID-19 derailed those plans and it was reimagined as a bi-weekly pop-up at the noodle shop.
Every other Sunday, Sirisavath and his team offer a new dish emblematic of his upbringing as a Laotian-Texan, like a ribeye burger on a scallion brioche bun with jeow bong ketchup, or Lao barbecue with coconut roti. The dish is teased on social media days before and is the only menu item available the day of the pop-up.
Each Khao Len dish takes about two weeks to develop and perfect, but it provides an additional revenue stream and also allows Sirisavath and his staff to flex creative muscles and play around with new flavors –– much needed levity during a time steeped in worry over whether the bills will be paid each month, Sirisavath says.
“It gets our creative juices going again. We’re starting to get more motivated to do something new, but this is also a time when people want to eat something comforting and more relatable, so that’s part of the reason why Khao Len is going to be a success,” he says. “Sometimes you just want a burger or barbecue, and these are things we all eat, so it relates to everyone.”
The concept is designed to contrast to the delicate Lao plates and noodle bowls of Khao Noodle Shop. Sirisavath says Khao Len could still one one day become its own restaurant, but for now it’s coming into its own as a social media-driven pop-up.
The state of Texas recently allowed to-go alcohol sales, which has instigated other creative pop-ups like Ritas & Queso and its new sister concept, The Grape Ape.
“Trying to figure out how to use the four walls [of a restaurant] is a huge challenge right now. We’re at 50% capacity, but landlords don’t want 50% of their rent,” says chef Julian Barsotti, co-founder of the two meal kit and alcohol delivery concepts. “You have to find a way to create streams of revenue.”
After restaurant dining rooms were shut down, Barsotti, the Dallas chef behind Sprezza, Nonna, Fachini and Carbone’s, partnered with his friend Glen Collins to start Ritas & Queso in April. What started as a temporary frozen margarita and Tex-Mex delivery pop-up took off and turned into a permanent venture, and now Collins and Barsotti have launched The Grape Ape, an Italian take on Ritas & Queso with frosé instead of margaritas and marinated olives and salamis instead of chips and queso.
In addition to antipasti, The Grape Ape also offers baked ziti and 200-layer lasagna meal kits for delivery or pick-up. They use space in Barsotti’s restaurants to prepare the food and drinks, and employ restaurant staff that would otherwise be out of the job as delivery drivers.
“We were just adapting to environments we already had,” Barsotti says. “We had Fachini, where you’ve got incredible chefs and great employees, and we thought we’d try to figure out a way to utilize what we got there.”
Collins, the marketing and strategy brains behind the two brands, says they created and structured the pop-up concepts for a COVID-19 world, but in a way that will hopefully ensure their success beyond the current climate.
“We’re always thinking about ways that we can evolve what we’re doing and thinking about how the business can coexist in a normal dining out environment,” he says. “I think everything we’ve done with the business has been resourceful, so if the sea changes a little bit, we’re not going to be taken out at the knees because we’ve made some huge investment. It is truly a digital thing that snapped into an existing brick and mortar model.”