Over the past year, Rochester’s restaurant owners have pivoted, again and again, as mandates around the coronavirus pandemic have changed.
Some of the changes were short lived. Several restaurants offered groceries, for example, but those efforts came to an end as soon as supply chain issues were resolved.
But as restaurants return to some level of normalcy, some of those changes will have a lasting impact on how Rochesterians purchase their meals and enjoy them in restaurant dining rooms.
We’ll be using more technology
Since its opening day in January 2015, Swiftwater Brewing had been using the same point-of-sale system for its tasting room and kitchen.
Within days of the closings in March 2020, the brewery launched its first online store using the popular Square point-of-sale system. The transition required troubleshooting and customer education. “A lot of that investment in education and learning would have happened eventually,” Cook said. “What would have taken five years, we did on a Monday night.”
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Although the brewery reopened to indoor customers in early March, it will continue to have an online store forever, Cook said. “That’s not going away.”
Many other restaurants and breweries have added online ordering, and that number is expected to continue to increase. The research firm Incisiv predicts digital sales will reach 54% of all restaurant sales by 2025.
Cook can even envision a time when customers will place orders on their phones rather than going to a counter or waiting for a server. “Going forward, we’ve just developed a lot more tools that we can use to adapt to whatever happens next and whatever trends people are looking for in the future,” Cook said.
We’ll be getting more food deliveries
Before the pandemic, Trish Aser had never offered delivery at her restaurant, the Brown Hound Downtown at the Memorial Art Gallery. But when her restaurant had to close during the pandemic, she considered delivery apps like GrubHub, DoorDash and Uber Eats.
When she found that the services charge 25 to 30 percent of the sale, “I was just astonished,” she said. “I was like, ‘how does anyone do this?’”
Monroe County has since capped the fees delivery apps can charge to restaurants to 15%, but that didn’t didn’t change Aser’s stance. In addition to the cost, she isn’t comfortable with people she doesn’t employ handling her food. “That’s just risky. I would prefer to have more control over the process.”
Instead, she secured the insurance needed to have employees to offer delivery. It proved to be a tough sell, because people habitually use the apps. She now offers delivery on weekends and doesn’t anticipate stopping that service now that she started it.
The story is similar at The Northside Inn, a longtime Italian restaurant in East Rochester. When its dining room closed in the spring, Don Verni, co-owner signed up with GrubHub and also started offering its own delivery within a four-mile radius.
But now that business is picking up in its dining room, it has become increasingly challenging to offer takeout, delivery and dining room service concurrently. “There’s only so much food you can put out of the kitchen,” Verni said. He has turned off GrubHub for the past two weekends. “I don’t want people waiting over an hour,” he said. Given the large chunk of the sale it takes, it will be the first to go, he said.
With fine dining, we’ll get twists on takeout
When renowned Napa Valley chef Richard Reddington and Dennis Wilmot opened REDD in 2019, they envisioned an unpretentious, comfortable restaurant that served Reddington’s well known fare, including signature dishes like lobster risotto with lemon confit and watercress, and pork belly with apple puree and soy caramel. Takeout was not a part of the picture.
But when takeout became the only option during the pandemic, the restaurant devised a menu of dishes that would hold up well in transit, like its addictive wings with Thai chili glaze — not its lobster risotto.
The takeout menu will continue to be offered, Wilmot said. Some dishes, like a burger and fried chicken, will be constants, but others will evolve with the seasons. “We make sure whatever it is we’re offering the guest is the best it can be,” Wilmot said.
A survey by consulting firm Technomic found that 41% of restaurant operators added curbside pickup in response to COVID-19. But not all restaurants are as enthusiastic about its prospects in the future.
“For fine dining, takeout has been a nightmare,” said Greg Johnson, co-owner and chef of The Cub Room, 739 S. Clinton Ave. While the restaurant will continue to provide takeout to customers who request it, he is looking forward to getting back to focusing on serving beautifully plated dishes
“In order to get back to what we love, it can’t be takeout,” he said.
We’ll be dining outdoors more
Restaurant owners have always known that when the weather is warm, Rochesterians will flock to outdoor patios. And when restaurants were able to reopen only for outdoor dining, they maximized the space where they could put tables and chairs.
The City of Rochester and the New York State Liquor Authority made it easier for them by enacting temporary regulations that gave restaurateurs more options for outside, and waiving permit fees.
Railroad Street became a one-way street leading into the Rochester Public Market, allowing expanded outdoor seating for Black Button Distilling, Rohrbach Brewing Company, Boxcar Donuts and Bitter Honey. On Gibbs Street, Ludwig’s Center Stage Café set up tables in a parking spot.
Marty’s on Park created an intimate space for 20 in an alleyway next to its building, and owner Marty O’Sullivan plans to do it again. “I think people like to be outside anyway,” he said.
The city’s planning department will continue to encourage outdoor dining and is open to experimentation, said Dorraine Kirkmire, manager of planning for the City of Rochester. “Whatever happened last year, we’d like see expanded this year,” she said.
“We love the idea of people being outdoors in the public realm,” she said. “That’s what contributes to the vitality of the area.”
Among the restaurants that plans to expand its outdoor presence is Max of Eastman Place, which has a courtyard facing the Eastman Theatre. This year, owner Tony Gullace plans to “pump it up,” expanding the area for dining, adding a portable bar and bringing in some musical entertainment.
The Bround Hound Bistro had been considering adding outdoor seating since New York started allowing dogs on patios in 2015.
“We were always thinking about how to use the MAG outside spaces,” Aser said. “There’s so much opportunity and it’s full of art and sculpture.”
The restaurant found a pleasant, level spot under trees near the building, and the MAG invested in heaters for cooler weather.
“The city was very accommodating,” Aser said. “They made it pretty easy for us to do it.”
Our outdoor dining season will be longer
At Richardson’s Canal House in Bushnell’s Basin, summertime is the busiest time of year. Its idyllic outdoor patio, adjacent to the Erie Canal, is usually open from Memorial Day into September.
Last year, chef and owner Matt Hudson erected a 30- by 70-foot tent over the patio and invested in extra propane heaters. He was surprised when his customers kept returning to the tent into November. “Before COVID, I would not have believed people would have eaten outside in sub-50 degree weather,” Hudson said.
Hudson closed the restaurant for the winter and spent the time completing projects on the historic building. When it reopens in mid-April, the outdoor patio will be larger, and the 30- by 70-foot tent and propane heaters will return. Two additional tents will go up as well. His plan is to keep the tents up until the end of October. “We’ll see where it goes from there,” he said.
Extending the season even further are the plastic igloos have been popping up around Rochester and nearby towns. Among them are 24 greenhouses, just big enough for a single table, provided to restaurants by the city of Rochester, who teamed up with the organizers at ROC Holiday Village.
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Restaurateurs say these have been well received. Josh Miles, who owns Bitter Honey, Branca Midtown and The Revelry, said he they have been popular enough that he plans to bring them back next year.
We’ll move away from white tablecloth
In November, Max of Eastman Place closed completely. It wasn’t economically feasible for the 19-year-old fine dining restaurant to offer its menu to go, said Tony Gullace, owner.
During that time, he transformed the restaurant from a white tablecloth environment to a more casual bistro. While the menu continues to have a fine dining approach, he has also added more casual dishes like a burger and an omelet, both of which have been well received. Moving forward, the restaurant’s approach to service will continue be less formal.
He sees the pandemic as merely accelerating a trend that was already happening. “You have to adapt to the times or else you’re not going to be around,” Gullace said. “White tablecloth in this town is a dying breed.”
Our menus will be streamlined
At The Cub Room, Greg Johnson used to change the menu every four months or so. During the pandemic, the restaurant switched to a smaller menu, sourced more local proteins and changed the menus from week to week. When Nantucket Bay Scallops became available at a good price, for example, he was able to add them quickly.
“It’s actually more fun this way,” Johnson said. The frequent changes spur creativity and excitement among his staff, he said. He expects to continue with a more streamlined menu and more frequent changes.
The Cub Room was many restaurants who made similar changes. One of the top trends for 2020 was streamlined menus, according to a National Restaurant Association survey.
At Max of Eastman Place, Gullace pared down its extensive wine list to one page of wines by the glass and another by the bottle. “It’s much easier to maintain, especially as far as cost of goods and inventory,” he said. “I’m not tying up tens of thousands of dollars in inventory.”
We’ll buy food from machines
One of the more creative pivots can be found at McCann’s Local Meats.
Owner Kevin McCann could have kept his butcher shop open as an essential business, but decided to close in March 2020 out of safety concerns. During that time, he got a chance to implement some changes, including online ordering, that would have been more difficult during the unrelenting flow of day-to-day business.
The pivot that garnered national attention was a large refrigerated vending machine just inside front door of the shop. Since it opened in June, its nine levels of revolving shelves have been stocked with the shop’s most popular items. It accepts credit cards and Apple Pay, but no cash.
McCann continues to have it stocked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and some customers use it regularly. “It’s just another option for our customers,” McCann said.
We’ll be dining in new sorts of spaces
The pandemic has even caused pivots for restaurants that have yet to open.
Chris Grocki, a Rochester restaurant industry veteran, runs the Historic German House, a wedding and event venue in Rochester’s South Wedge. In 2020, he began work on a new restaurant in the building’s lower level, which was previously home to ButaPub. He had gutted the space with an eye to opening an “underground gastro-lounge” with a focus on wine in 2021. But the nest egg he had set aside for the new restaurant dwindled as he paid the overhead on a large space sat idle.
He finally came to grips with the idea that the restaurant is not going to open in 2021, and maybe won’t even open in 2022. “It killed me inside a little bit,” he said.
He is philosophical about the delay. “We can think more now,” he said. The plans for the space have been reconfigured for what he thinks will be new norms of social distancing. “I feel as though there’s going to be more consciousness about being packed too tightly with other people,” he said. “We have to be aware of this in a dining space – and know that this certainly can happen again.”
Reporter Tracy Schuhmacher focuses on food from many facets. Send story tips to TracyS@Gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram as @RahChaChow. Thanks to our subscribers for supporting local journalism.