Cover picture: The XXL buttermilk griddle cake from State Fare Kitchen & Bar stays nice and fluffy in a pizza box. Image by Anthony Rathbun.
At State Fare Kitchen & Bar, a brunch is not a brunch if it does not contain the XXL buttermilk griddle cake with a diameter of 45 cm. When the monster is ordered in the dining room this morning, it puts its plate in the shade – you can’t see it underneath. Dusted with some freshly fallen powdered sugar and served with whipped butter and maple syrup, it’s both a production and a menu item. It is a solemn recognition of brunch as an event.
So what happened when Covid-19 ended brunch as an event at State Fare while guests in Houston were banned from eating in their favorite restaurants for a month and a half and instead ordered out? Well, innovation.
“We originally took (the griddlecake) and folded it in half to fit in one of our containers,” says Justin Yoakum, operations manager at State Fare, run by hospitality group Culinary Khancepts. The container was a round, black, dishwasher-safe, recyclable polypropylene “clamshell,” says Yoakum. “We thought, ‘What are we going to do to get the essence of this grill cake?’ ”
Put it in a big, fun pizza box, of course. Suddenly the giant pancake and all of its accessories (sealed in smaller plastic containers) were much more desirable by the time they got to the house. Simple white buckets soon followed for State Fare’s fried chicken and fried seafood à la KFC. And their burgers? Wrapped in foil like Wendy’s.
“We looked at who’s really good at to-go dining, and that led us to your drive-through places,” says Yoakum. “It was about ‘How do we adapt?’ ”
Although the pandemic has turned the Houston food and beverage industry upside down – 2,000 restaurants in the Houston area closed in 2020, according to the Greater Houston Restaurant Association – for restaurants fortunate enough to continue operating was one of the quieter changes, the increasing reliance on takeaway and delivery packaging, and with it a little ingenuity.
According to a study by the UBS Evidence Lab, takeaway and delivery saw a 76 percent weekly revenue increase through early May 2020 when Covid-19 raged, and those profits remained relatively high during the pandemic. As take-away and delivery services have increased, restaurants are spending more on packaging – Houston’s Legacy Restaurants said they would have spent 100 percent more on packaging once in 2020 – and operators have quickly become more savvy. By investing in better packaging materials and branding everything, they are getting a higher return on their take-away business.
In a way, there was a push for smarter packaging before the pandemic. Recyclable paper packaging can be found in numerous Houston restaurants, including newer venues like the tropical hangout Toasted Coconut in Montrose, hand roll supplier Hando in the Heights, and Vietnamese restaurant Blind Goat in the Bravery Chef Hall in downtown. And those black polypropylene containers that can be reused at home? They’re common in the more upscale UB Preserve and State of Grace. Founded in August 2019 to revolutionize the Uber Eats-powered delivery industry, CLICK Virtual Food Hall invested in expensive, insulated aluminum foil bags that prevent ice from melting and steaming hot food – and like something you put a breakable item in would send at the post office. They also realized early on the importance of disassembling dishes to preserve freshness – order photos at almost any Vietnamese restaurant and you’ll see this in action, as separate containers are provided for broth, noodles, meat and vegetables become.
“The aspect of presentation that is really important in presentation is deconstruction,” says CLICK co-founder Steven Salazar. “You put the breadcrumbs outside the pasta instead of on top. They lay the egg separately so that the customer pops the yolks themselves. You have to test every dish. “
El Patio in Montrose has also been breaking up intricate and potentially messy orders for years. Your nachos usually arrive in a Christmas bonus – disposable plastic-polypropylene containers that individually hold jalapenos, guacamole, and tomatoes, and aluminum foil pans that keep corn tortilla chips crispy, warm, and spread out. “[Customers] We love that we take the time to just enjoy things as if they were in a restaurant, ”says managing director Zaira Wolff.
Rather, it is a new focus on branding that sets El Patio and others apart in Covid times. 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 switched hosts and servers to take-away and delivery jobs. The restaurant has its own delivery service and uses the branding to its advantage – the staff wear black shirts with the El Patio logo and Wolff has the El Patio logo stamped on everything.
“Everything that has a label is susceptible to being tagged on Instagram or Facebook,” says Wolff. “So it’s a good thing to get your label out, especially with our margaritas.”
For restaurateur Benjamin Berg from the Berg Hospitality Group, postponing the pandemic was just as much about branding as it was about the quality of the packaging itself. “Before that, it was dog bags for leftovers. Not anymore, ”says Berg. Although he’s on leave of 350 people in his company’s six restaurants in two cities – like the casual BB Lemon, the red sauce eatery BB Italia, and the fancier B&B Butchers and Restaurant and Annie Café and Bar – he has had about 75 percent of the total since then these workers. In December 2020, he opened a ghost kitchen similar to CLICK called Fair Food Co. in Uptown in the hope of expanding his brand, testing future menu items and tapping into the takeaway and delivery business.
Berg attaches great importance to packaging: thirty minutes after being picked up from the kitchen, the mozzarella sticks from BB Italia stay crispy and warm thanks to the Crisp Food Technologies Fry Baby container. The Fry Baby has raised airflow channels and vents in the lid to keep food from getting overheated and soaked. All meals are transported in a Berg Hospitality Group paper bag with the logo speckled everywhere.
“That’s expensive,” says Berg. “But it’s our reputation and our brand that are out there.”
For restaurateurs, this is perhaps more important than ever. The National Restaurant Association found in its State of the Restaurant Industry Report 2021 that around 65 to 70 percent of consumers are now more likely to buy takeaway than they did before the pandemic. Anecdotally, operators in Houston continue to offer roadside pickup and drop-off options even as the rate of local Covid-19 incidents decreases and indoor dining resumes. The good thing – at least for customers – is that more and more restaurants in Houston are paying attention.
Over in Memorial City, State Fare welcomes the competition. “It just means that more people will be ordering,” says Yoakum.