Of the New Jersey restaurants that remain open during the outbreak (and the roster changes regularly), every menu is changing—chefs are adapting portion sizes, going family-style, and often slashing prices. We caught up with a few chefs and restaurant owners around the state to ask how they’re adapting their menus as the COVID-19 outbreak continues and restaurants do their very best to endure.
Marco Florio, Owner of A Toute Heure
Table Hopping: After announcing the dining room closure at A Toute Heure, you went to a special curbside pick-up menu. What is that reality like for you at the moment?
Marco Florio: It’s very surreal. But yes, there have been people ordering through the family-style section of the pick-up menu and also through the a la carte. Obviously there’s practically almost no revenue, but whatever dollars we can put together to keep things moving along—and obviously we’re looking to help the community at the same time.
TH: Have you had any issues involving getting product?
MF: There are ingredients out there. We’re utilizing what’s available, let’s put it that way, and being very creative with the available ingredients within our format and style—New American cuisine, our farm-to-table approach. The current suppliers and vendors still have the same availability, with some limitations. Right now, we’re operating, kind of taking it day by day. The intent is to be open as many nights as we can during the week and obviously during the weekend as well.
TH: What does curbside pickup look like for you?
MF: It’s a pretty ingenious scenario that kind of transpired with the curbside window that we utilize for summer outdoor seating. There’s a ledge below the window purposely put there for kitchen staff to deliver food for outside seating. We’ve been able to utilize that same ledge without anyone having to come inside at all.
TH: I saw on the restaurant’s Instagram that you’re offering free meals to those in serious need?
MF: I know for sure there are many folks that are in serious situations. Very serious, as in almost zero income. There is a need for a warm meal. At the end of the day we have to give back. There’s so many ways that we’re able to assist in times like this and if that can be one of them, then we want to offer a warm meal to anyone who’s in serious need of food at no charge.
TH: That seems like going above and beyond.
MF: I’m a father, I have children, I can’t even imagine this part chokes me up—the idea of someone not being able to feed their children. I don’t think we have a choice. We have to help.
Russell Stern of Stern and Bow
Table Hopping: I have to assume you’re not doing raw bar at the moment?
Russell Stern: We actually have been! We have so many so many people that have become real oyster fanatics from the restaurant, so we’re actually doing takeout and delivery of raw oysters. We put them on ice and we shuck them for them. There’s demand.
TH: What about the menu in general? Was it hard to adapt so quickly and so drastically?
RS: It’s hard as a relatively new restaurant… We’re trying to adapt ourselves to this format and what’s going on in the world, so we’ll do some items on our menu like the Hangar Steak, Snapper, or Wood-fired Chicken, but we’ll do it as a family of four meal, so it’s more economical. You don’t get four Hangar steaks, but a larger portion, a salad, a couple of sides. And it’s half the price it would be if you ordered four dishes. It’s people like me—parents with kids in any school, elementary, high school, even college. They need variety.
TH: Do you think supporting restaurants is kind of an urgent matter at the moment?
RS: We’re not looking for anyone to cry for us. On the other hand, yes, it is important. Today I’m home with my son. I’m gonna order food. I don’t want to go to King’s. I don’t want to go to Fairway. I want to order from a restaurant.
Chef David Burke of Ventanas, Drifthouse by David Burke and Orange Lawn
Table Hopping: What made you decide to stay open?
David Burke: We thought it was important to provide something for the community and keep as much of our personnel employed as we can. It’s very unfortunate we had to lay off people.
TH: What kind of meals made it onto the takeout menus?
DB: Right now the menus are in a little bit of a flux because we’re still learning what families really want. Some people want a steak… Some people just want cold cuts. So we’re trying to offer a little bit of both… At Drifthouse we’re actually doing a deal where if you buy $100 of takeout you get a $25 gift card. And Ventanas is 25% off your bill, for the first anniversary celebration. That’s going to last until we’re back in business.
TH: How is it working?
DB: Certainly curbside pickup is not a moneymaker for restaurants. It’s a little cash flow, it keeps some people employed, and it keeps your name out there. And it gives people something to eat… We’re certainly not in a position to fight like we did with Hurricane Sandy. Then, restaurants were open, producing income, able to donate more product. We’re in a less powerful position than we were.
TH: Have you had any issues procuring product?
DB: Just minor issues. We’re actually trying to do more grocery delivery, too. The lines at Shoprite, only 50 people allowed at a time, people are getting tired of that. We’re gonna go right online with it. The new menu’s gonna have paper towels, maybe toilet paper. We’ll be segueing into a grocery store and food pick-up.
TH: Is that another alternative to closing? Does that help delay, or avoid, temporary closure?
DB: We have to be flexible. We’re not in the takeout business per se. Right now, it’s like “What can we get you guys that’s gonna keep your family happy, coming back, more than once a week?” Closing is an option, but we hate to do that. We don’t like to be defeated. Chefs are like the piano players on the Titanic. We want to cook! We want to serve. That’s the restaurant mentality. It’s hard for us to see this happen. We’re usually the ones helping others in crisis. But you shouldn’t have to go out if you don’t want to. And we’re trying to get people to stay at home as much as possible. Jersey Strong, right?
Humberto Campos of Restaurant Lorena’s
Table Hopping: How has it been going with the transition?
Humberto Campos: It’s been nonstop. We’ve been super busy. The clients are regulars, people we’ve served over the past 15 years. They’ve been very, very supportive. Some people have been buying a couple thousand dollars’ worth of gift cards at a time, saying stuff like “We love you, we don’t want you going anywhere.” People are ordering out two or three times a week. The support has been tremendous.
TH: Has your supply chain been interrupted?
HC: Getting supplies has been a little challenging. A lot of those companies are struggling as well.
TH: What about your menu? Does it fluctuate often?
HC: We change the menu daily. I would say about 35 to 40 percent of it changes. We send out an email every morning at 10am. I had to whip up something real quick, decide what would travel well, things that would be affordable. We pretty much cut our prices in half with a lot of things. So we developed a menu around that price range. We do have a couple regular items from our menu… It’s a slightly smaller portion for a fraction of the prices. But you do what you have to do. You adapt quickly.
TH: Are you doing family style portions?
HC: We’re really too small for us to do that. We’re pretty much a la carte. And we’re open except for Monday. The hours now are from 11:30am to 4pm, we’ll accept orders, then we turn it off for the day. And then the orders can be picked up until 8 o’clock. Last Saturday was pretty crazy. We had to start cutting off orders at 4 o’clock because we had to turn so many people away, there were so many orders, it was too much. Which is great! We just physically can’t cook and pack that much food.
TH: Who’s cooking? Who’s at the restaurant?
HC: It’s myself, my dishwasher, and one cook. I get in around 10, the cooks get in around noon, and then we’re pretty much here until 8:30 or 9 at night, cleaning up, six days a week. My son is here to help. He’s going to be eight in May. He packs up the croutons for us. And Lorena is here taking orders on the phone with her brother. The two of them pretty much take care of the front, walk orders to the cars. We’re curbside only. And everything is paid in advance. That’s just the business from now on, until we’re told otherwise.
TH: What about diner response?
HC: Everyone’s not just concerned about us staying, they’re thankful we’re doing this, cooking and preparing food and packing it up for them. There was one couple that sent us a photo, they’d decorated the dining room and put a sign up in the background that says “Lorena’s.” People are showing u show the food traveled, putting out a nice bottle of wine. It’s sort of like sending Thank You cards.
Chef Josh DeChellis of Juniper Hill
Table Hopping: You’re doing curbside pickup between 1pm and 6pm. What is your menu like?
Josh DeChellis: It’s definitely a truncated menu out of pure necessity. The [rural] area we’re located in is not really ripe for takeout anyhow.
TH: How do you feel about choosing to stay open, at least for now?
JD: It could be the dumbest thing I’ve ever done, but to me it seems like necessity. It’ just like, look I gotta keep people employed. I’ve opted to pay all the employees their accrued PTO or earned sick leave immediately, so I need to subsidize that. I want to bring in money to keep key staff members. And there’s no shortage of places to get food. But our product’s a little different. I think the people that come here on the regular, it’s just how they want to eat.
TH: Speaking of, what is the menu like? Do you change it daily?
JD: We’re adapting it on a daily basis. We’re doing online ordering only. We’re not accepting payments of any kind at the restaurant to really respect social distancing, which seems to be crucial for flattening the curve, as they say. So everything’s online… The only physical transaction that happens is with a delivery to their car.
TH: I also saw on the Juniper Hill Instagram that people are “plating” their takeout food under #jhilltogo.
JD: We’ve seen people plating, yeah, it’s been kind of fun. We also have a Kid’s Menu available, which is really important for a variety of different reasons. It’s literally five dollars for a kid’s meal, which we normally do have. The economics are a little different than when we do takeout. I selected a few things from our list that I think would be kind of relevant to the menu.