NEW JERSEY — In the past few months, Stephen Kilroy has seen changes at his restaurant that he would have never anticipated.
Meal packages, a slimmer menu and made-for-takeout meals is not something the restaurant industry veteran is accustomed to.
“We’ve never experienced something quite like this,” the senior vice president of hospitality and marketing for Grain & Cane in Berkeley Heights said. “We’ve seen downturns in the past where we had to make some changes and adjust based on disposable income going down, but nothing at this level for sure.”
As the restaurant industry is among the hardest hit from the coronavirus pandemic, businesses have had to change their main offerings — either paring down menu sizes or thinking of new ways to serve meals, adapting to the financial and logistical challenges that have ravaged the industry in recent months.
Kilroy explained that he’s slimmed down the menu by around 20 percent and consolidated it to an all-day menu. The changes were done to ensure ingredients stay fresh and were not left unused or, worse, thrown away, as the restaurant navigated take-out only dining during the early days of the pandemic.
“By lowering the [menu] selection you increase the take on certain menu items to keep their freshness and not compromise anything by having too many items on the menu that are diluting quality,” he said.
Mo Atzbi, owner of Hailey’s Harp in Metuchen, said he cut menu items and switched to family-style meals and taco Tuesday kits since the start of the pandemic to adjust to takeout dining.
But the experience was a departure from the Irish pub atmosphere he was accustomed to.
“The Irish pub is not a takeout joint,” he said. “It's a place you come in, shake hands and enjoy the game. For months we had to pivot away from that. It’s coming back at 25% [capacity] but it's still not the same.”
Others experienced monthly menu changes based on what suppliers could provide when supply chains were shaken.
“When slaughterhouses got shut down it was hard to get beef and pork,” said Khris Reina, owner of The Oakley in Nutley. “Seafood is extremely hard to get fresh when you're not sure how much business you're going to have. We changed our menu month-to-month based on what we could get from suppliers and what we thought we could sell to customers.”
Reina said he no longer faces as much uncertainty from suppliers like at the start of the pandemic and, in some ways, said the restaurant would come out stronger post-pandmeic.
“The restaurant business is so bang-bang-bang, you don't have a chance to reevaluate your pricing, your payroll and your management structure,” he said. “We had to shut down, so when we reopened, we were able to revamp things. It was a dollar here and a dollar there, but it makes a difference in whether you are profitable or not since the margins are thin in this industry. I think we’re way stronger than we were going into March.”
Some restaurateurs said adjustments were here to stay. Kilroy said that takeout package meals were a success.
But for others, the changes were hopefully an aberration and not a part of the new normal.
“I hope these changes aren’t permanent,” said Atzbi. “We'll make these offerings for the foreseeable future, but it's not a part of our normal business plan.”
Atzbi said the appeal of the pub is the “craic,” an Irish term for good times. And as people face a worrisome year, he said, people needed that relief more than ever.
“We’re the local pub,” he said. “You have your work, your home and the place you like to go. That’s become more important than ever. People need a place to come out and be a part of the town.”
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