Area restaurants face multiple hurdles in adjusting to new trend

You would expect to find jumbo lump crab cakes at Banks’ Seafood Kitchen & Raw Bar, an upscale Wilmington Riverfront restaurant. Turkey meatballs in marinara sauce, however, might raise eyebrows. But those two dishes — along with fried chicken thighs — are on the new Banks’ Kitchen Commissary menu, which features fully cooked items to reheat at home. The program, which debuted the week before Christmas, also features sides, soups, desserts — even spice mixes.

Owner David Leo Banks has been considering the idea for some time. The pandemic pushed it to the forefront. “You can replace ‘going out’ with professional restaurant food,” he says. “You pick it up at the restaurant, take it home, pull it out of the oven and put it on your china — and it’s pretty damn close to what I would do for you.”

Iron Hill Restaurant and Brewery is offering an array of ready-to-heat meals. Photo courtesy Iron Hill

Thanks to COVID-19, takeout has taken a turn. Restrictions on restaurant dining have forced restaurants like Banks’ Seafood Kitchen to reevaluate their programs — or create one.

When Le Cavalier opened in the Hotel du Pont last year, takeout was a priority from the start. Pre-pandemic, it would have been offered but not promoted.

For a full-service restaurant accustomed to table service, executing takeout can be challenging. Fine dining, which revolves around creating an experience, can lose its luster in a plastic box. It costs money to do it right, and in some cases, restaurants take a loss. 

“We had to completely pivot our whole takeout operation,” says Carl Georigi, whose Platinum Dining Group has six New Castle County eateries. “Before it was a second thought. Now it gets equal billing.”

From the culinary icons in New York and California to Delaware’s independent restaurants, “everybody is trying to figure out how to do takeout and do it well,” says Ryan German, owner of Caffé Gelato in Newark.

Born Out of Necessity

For Delaware restaurants, the world shifted on March 16, 2020, when Gov. John Carney closed dining rooms to flatten the coronavirus curve. The next day, establishments could offer takeout and delivery. On June 1, restaurants reopened at a limited capacity — initially 30%; Gov. Carney upped the limit to 60%. When cases spiked in autumn, the capacity fell back to 30%.

The reduced capacity — and the hesitancy on some diners’ part to eat in a dining room — prompted restaurateurs to emphasize takeout. Admittedly, some eateries had an advantage.

Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House already had a brisk takeout business thanks to the abundance of Trolley Square-area residents. “We were set up for it,” says co-owner Xavier Teixido. “We had protocols in place.” For instance, the restaurant was on the Menufy online ordering platform.

Because Caffé Gelato had a stable takeout business and a thriving catering operation, the Main Street restaurant had the bandwidth to ramp up carryout operations.

Piccolina Toscana, meanwhile, had been offering prepared foods and carryout since 1992 from Toscana To Go. “People thought of us for takeout long before the pandemic,” says owner Dan Butler. “We didn’t have to ‘pivot’ to it.”

The shop initially had a different menu and staff. In 2010, Toscana To Go moved next door to the restaurant, and Butler took down a wall and enlarged the kitchen to combine them. Butler has increased the amount of prepared and retail items. “We don’t do eggs and carrots,” he says, “but we do have interesting sauces, spreads, crackers — things you want for your party.”

Groceries, however, were available at Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, which opened a “Craft Market” with fresh produce, dairy products, meats, toilet paper and paper towels. “All of these offerings allow us to keep people employed, help guests who are unable to or may not be comfortable with going to the grocery store, and the people who regularly deliver food to our restaurants,” Iron Hill CEO Kim Boerema explained in April.

Caffé Gelato in Newark still sells grocery items in its Marketplace. There isn’t as much demand for them as there was in spring, but the service still generates about 20 orders a week.

Harry’s Savoy Grill in North Wilmington offers frozen seafood and ready-to-cook meats with complementary sauces. Portioned fish — frozen at the peak of freshness — is also available at Banks’ Seafood.

Restaurant Quality — in a Container

In spring, many restaurants streamlined their menus to offer takeout-friendly dishes and accommodate a reduction in kitchen staff. “We probably made our menus up to 30% smaller,” says Gianmarco Martuscelli, owner of Klondike Kate’s, La Casa Pasta and the Chesapeake Inn.  “We cross-utilize more.”

Admittedly, some concepts fare better than others. “Mexican and Italian travel well, reheat well and keep well until the next day,” says Georigi, who has three Italian and one Mexican restaurant.

That isn’t necessarily the case at Eclipse, his flagship bistro in Wilmington’s Little Italy section. “The food is best eaten in the restaurant,” Georigi agrees. Similarly, steak is something that usually does not travel well. But customers are still ordering it from Redfire Grill Steakhouse in Hockessin, another Platinum Dining restaurant.

Items like steak stay on the menu because customers expect them. It doesn’t matter if the dish is designed for a plate. “Not only will it not look the same, but it won’t eat the same, especially if you eat it right out of the container,” Banks notes.

Restaurant employees may attempt to guide the customer. For instance, if you want a Redfire steak cooked medium-well steak and plan to reheat it at home, order it rare or medium-rare. Or, they politely inform the customer ordering nachos that she might get a few flaccid chips.

To make sure customers know what they are ordering, Vincenza Carrieri-Russo handles the phones at V&M Bistro in Brandywine Hundred.

Breaking Boundaries

V&M Bistro, which is known for veal entrees, has kept its dining room closed and pushed pizza, the family’s legacy product. (The Carrieri-Russos once had a pizza place in the Christiana Mall food court.) It might seem counterintuitive for an upscale Italian eatery to push tomato pie, but V&M’s pivot to Sicilian pizza has landed it in newspapers and Facebook pages.

Perhaps no takeout item has become as ubiquitous as the family meal, which gives pandemic-weary parents a welcome break from cooking. The meal might not fit a restaurant’s original concept. Corner Bistro in Talleyville, which has a French flair, has been selling family-sized lasagna, chicken piccata and chicken parmesan.

Caffé Gelato has tried to diversify its offerings as much as possible, providing take-home ingredients, prepared meals as well as on-premise dining. Photo by Jim Coarse

On Tuesday, for instance, Bardea customers can order a whole heritage chicken with Szechuan, lavender and honey-soy au jus. The $75 meal includes bread and a hummus appetizer with black lime and za’atar.

Depending on the dish, the meals can be more affordable than if you bought all the ingredients on your own to make them, notes German of Caffé Gelato.

German, who installed greenhouses for outdoor dining, has left few stones unturned in the quest to adapt to the pandemic. The restaurant sells home meals, which are available for delivery. For instance, on Mondays, you might order chicken caprese with a garden salad and mini cannoli. The price is $25 for two. Now German wants to put $39 high-end items, such as a rack of lamb or halibut, in the mix.

Savvy restaurants have become adept at promoting these offerings. Martuscelli, for example, uses his mobile ordering app to send out 20% discount codes for the following week. He’s partnered with area Catholic schools to deliver meals to parents picking up kids on a Wednesday. As the parents formed a carpool line, the sisters relayed the customers’ pre-orders to the restaurant staff, who brought out the food, he says.

All of this takes energy that is in short supply these days, Teixido says. “Restaurants are understaffed and under-resourced.”

The Cost of Takeout

Customers might think a restaurant saves money on takeout orders. Nothing could be further from the truth. While customers can order bottles of wine and cocktails to go, they aren’t making an impulse decision, such as opting for an after-dinner drink. Restaurants, therefore, are missing revenue opportunities.

The accouterments aren’t cheap. A bag alone might cost $5, German says. Cutlery with a napkin is another $1. Good packaging is also costly, and the prices are going up. In spring, Harry’s Savoy Grill’s takeout containers were better suited to leftovers. “It was horrible,” says owner Teixido. “We weren’t ready. But we found suitable containers for to-go.”

Biodegradable packaging, usually made with bamboo, has a higher price tag. “It’s good for the planet, but it’s not so good for profitability,” Georigi notes. The takeout trend makes the argument over plastic straws small in comparison.

Credit-card processors take a fee, and third-party delivery services snatch up to 30 percent of the order. “It’s a serious number,” Georigi says. “The restaurant is forced to either pass the fee onto the guest — which really isn’t fair — or absorb the cost.”

Between the staff, the packaging, credit card fees and the food price, no restaurant can make money relying on the vendors, says German. When the restaurant gets busy, it switches off the third-party apps. His staff will also deliver. So why use third-party apps at all? German does not want to risk losing customers.

Regardless of how a restaurant boosts its takeout business, it risks losing the sparkle that made it special.

“We are an experiential restaurant,” Teixido says of Harry’s Savoy. “You come here for us to make you feel important, right? And we pamper you. You expect everything to be on point. We lose control when we start putting complex food in a box.”

Owners like Banks realize that you need to meet the customers’ comfort level, and that may not include table reservations. “I’d rather be doing it the old-fashioned way,” he agrees, “but that’s not in the cards right now.”

Pam George
Pam George has been writing about the Delaware dining scene for more than 15 years. She also writes on travel, health, business and history. In addition to Delaware newspapers and magazines, she’s been published in Men’s Health, Fortune, USA Today and US Airways Magazine. She’s the author of “Shipwrecks of the Delaware Coast: Tales of Pirates, Squalls and Treasure,” “Landmarks & Legacies: Exploring Historic Delaware,” and “First State Plates: Iconic Delaware Restaurants and Recipes.” She lives in Wilmington and Lewes.

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