KC restaurants rally and respond to pandemic pressures

 In Blogs

Talk about pouring salt in the wound.

Even as we grapple with the endless COVID ripple effects, we’re forced to ingest regular news of yet another Kansas City restaurant closing its doors.

This pandemic has no doubt been rough on our eateries, with nearly half of the 15 million food service employees in the U.S. losing their jobs this spring. While a good handful have been able to return, many of those cuts are permanent—just like some of our favorite haunts (RIP: Nara and Webster House).

Yet, Kansas City doesn’t let much stand in the way of our food obsession, and where there’s a will (and a hunger), there’s a way. Our local chefs and restaurateurs are getting creative, plating new offerings that might just benefit both diners and owners alike.

Pandemic pivots pay off

Curb-side pickup or, even better, delivery to your home—from City Barrel? The Crossroads brewery and restaurant was forced to pivot when the coronavirus hit—and customers have loved it. Restaurants around the city and the nation have found clever ways to stay connected to their customers, and they’re reaping the rewards (or at least keeping their doors open) because of it.

This growing popularity of what’s known as “off-premise dining” is how many restaurants are staying afloat among the evolving safety precautions, local regulations and public fears. In fact, Toast reports that traditional in-house (on-premise) dining has plummeted since March (no surprise there), but off-premise – which includes takeout and delivery – has shot up. Isabelle Hahn explains in On the Line:

“Until very recently, off-premise dining often was largely regarded as an add-on, a strategy to supplement on-premise sales, to expand a restaurant’s reach and build rapport with a new digital customer base. With the spread of COVID-19 resulting in widespread restrictions on restaurant operations, off-premise dining has now shifted from a bonus dining experience to the only dining experience.”

Buffalo State Pizza

Buffalo State Pizza in the Crossroads

Restaurants are also finding new ways to use the space around their building to expand access to customers while maintaining safety for patrons and staff. Buffalo State Pizza in the Crossroads, for example, was recently granted permission from the city to transform the parking lane of Wyandotte Street in front of the restaurant into a 20-person patio. The downtown Made in KC Café on Baltimore did basically the same thing.

In many cases, restaurants made a pivot to focus on items they could easily and safely sell, even if they couldn’t invite diners into their establishment. The Antler Room, for example, has always been known for its wine selection, so co-owner Leslie Newsam Goellner rolled out “Leslie’s Liquors,” a wine shop offering the same high-quality bottles to go—a new revenue stream the owners plan to continue even as traditional dining returns.

Some of these new business models, created as a temporary answer to COVID, have proven surprisingly successful and could stick around long after the pandemic.

Will leases loosen?

While the closures and furloughs are certainly hard on the local economy, they can potentially create advantages for future restaurant owners and operators, such as move-in-ready spaces, cheaper kitchen equipment, and potentially favorable lease terms. These new advantages can open the door to new, innovative restaurant concepts to enter the market.

Aside from temporary fixes such as percentage leases, many experts believe that restaurant leases in the years to come may begin including language that protects owners from a similar type of pandemic event or city-mandated closure. This is being addressed both in new leases and also in insurance clauses (business interruption), as many businesses were surprised to find their insurance didn’t cover situations like the pandemic. We may very well begin to see that change.

Reimagine the future of restaurants

“We just want to get back to normal.” It’s a sentence that’s likely been uttered countless times around the world, and all of us undoubtedly yearn for a night out at our favorite restaurant, followed by drinks with friends at the hot new bar. Yet, the pandemic is making an indelible change on nearly every aspect of our lives, and the restaurant establishment is no exception.

But the old normal isn’t what restaurant owners should necessarily be shooting for, writes Matt Higgins in Entrepreneur:

“Now is the time all leaders should resist the reflex to preserve the status quo. There’s no going back, because every business was built for the time before COVID-19. Rebuilding that business is like rebuilding a relic. It’s time to let go and create something new.”

Restaurant Row at City Center Lenexa rendering

Rendering of Restaurant Row at City Center Lenexa

It’s in that spirit I’m excited to see what’s next for the Kansas City restaurant scene. And we might get to see some of those first ideas start cooking in Restaurant Row at City Center Lenexa. With construction ready to commence, the new development provides a blank slate for some of our talented restaurant owners to build the next generation of food establishments. This cluster of four buildings opens to a public “plaza” gathering area and includes free-standing and multi-tenant options—the perfect place to create something new incorporating the lessons we’ve learned this year. And that’s a good starting point, Higgins writes.

“’How can I rebuild my business as fast as possible?’ It’s the one question all founders and CEOs are considering right now. And it’s the wrong one,” he says. “Instead, we should all be asking, ‘If I were starting my business today from scratch, what business would I build?”

I’m confident our local food scene will not only recover in the years to come, but may possibly bake into something we can’t yet imagine. And I can’t wait to take a bite.

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