Bars and Restaurants Are Getting Creative with DIY Dinner and Cocktail Kits
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The resiliency and resourcefulness of the hospitality industry is both tested and demonstrated across the country as restaurants and bars come up with ways to rethink their businesses. One popular new idea is selling DIY food and cocktail kits. A lot of restaurants are jumping on board this idea, offering hand-cut and hand-rolled pasta kits at Felix in Los Angeles, ramen kits at Oisa in Boston, and even free pizza dough to distract bored kids stuck at home from Mici in Denver. Creating a compelling food or drink kit takes some creativity; here's how a few people did it.
At the Spanish wine bar Canela in San Francisco, chef/owner Mat Schuster used to offer paella only for Sunday brunch or by special order. But when dine-in service ended, he saw an opportunity. “[Paella] takes up to 45 minutes to make, so we can’t do it when we’re busy,” he explains. “When we started slowing down, we realized we can do it all the time and it’s different from what everyone else is doing.” They came up with $25 paella DIY kits, with a choice of seafood and chorizo, seafood and chicken or a vegan base, plus Spanish rice, vegetables, broth, and a recipe card. “We realized people are going to be spending a lot of time at home, and they’ll want to do things that are more in that experience realm,” Schuster says of the kits that come with pre-seasoned broth and portioned-out ingredients. He's even started offering the option of a paella pan for home use. Aside from paella, Schuster and his team are working on other kit concepts, from a brunch kit complete with fresh fruit, pancake batter and a dozen eggs (a hot commodity in San Francisco right now) and a sangria kit using mason jars they had on hand.
“It’s very MacGyver,” he says of his push to take chances during this unprecedented time for the industry. “We’re not trying to spend money we don’t have and we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but we’re looking at the resources available and we’re going on the fly. That part has been really fun and creative, but of course, also horribly stressful and nerve-wracking. But the idea and collaboration process and the challenge of it have been really inspiring. We have ideas pouring out of our heads, more than we can really manage to do.” Aside from the kits, Schuster and his team are also offering grocery boxes with meat, produce and basic provisions like stock. “I don’t want to go to the grocery store right now, so I thought, how can we give some money to our purveyors, keep my team members in a few hours and also stay connected with neighbors and community and keep the momentum going? This isn’t the caviar or truffle time, but people want a good-quality product that they see value in and have fun with. The barrier to entry with food isn’t huge; we can buy some supplies and see how it goes. If they like it, great, if not, we can go back to the drawing board—tool it into something else, try it and see how it works, and go from there."
Kyo Pang and her partner, Moonlyn Tsai, have worked to keep the momentum going at New York City’s Kopitiam. The two soley operate their to-go window from noon to 2PM and 6PM to 8PM to offer takeout and delivery of partial menu items and colorful batik fabric-wrapped DIY kaya toast and nasi lemak kits. “We were talking about selling kits a while ago,” says Pang, who often hears from their customers how they crave Kopitiam’s food at home. “The food we do is comfort food and if Kopitiam were a person it would be your grandparent.” Pang says she sees the kits as a way to connect with customers, offer some comfort at home and give them something to do with their families. “Having kits reminds us how our mother or grandmother used to make just simple toast for us,” she says, adding that they remind her of how she started the shop with just hand-pulled Malaysian coffees and a few simple menu items. “We’ve gone pretty far from where we began, but it’s a good reminder of where we came from,” she says. Pang and Tsai are also working hard to secure more product and import more batik fabric from Malaysia to keep the kits in stock, and are going to start offering coffee kits with proceeds going to their staff. They rely heavily on their Instagram account as way to keep customers posted on updates, fundraising and donation efforts and food availability. “We’re able to connect with our customers even more closely; they are like family right now,” says Pang. “Everyone is supportive and asking us what they can do, and telling us they miss us and want us to stay healthy.”
Bars are also getting into the DIY game. At The Violet Hour in Chicago, cocktail kits are usually reserved for the holidays or offered as an extension of their cocktail classes. The owners revisited the concept when Illinois changed the law to allow restaurants and bars to sell alcohol to-go, and is selling DIY Old Fashioneds (with housemade syrups, full bottles of spirit, tools and recipe cards) and Negroni kits (with a choice of gin, rye or mezcal) available for pickup; they'll add delivery this weekend. They’ve seen great demand in kits and are planning to add batched cocktails to-go and virtual cocktail classes. Still, bartender Abe Vucekovich says the transition hasn’t been easy.
“The biggest challenge is running a different type of business and reimagining what The Violet Hour is," he notes. "It’s difficult to think of The Violet Hour without all the wonderful people who work here—their smiles, their compassion, how much they care about their craft and each other. It’s difficult to know what they and all hospitality people are going through right now. What keeps me going are the folks who are donating because of these kits, and keeping The Violet Hour going to make sure they all have a place to come back to.”