Our Restaurant Adjusted Quickly to the Crisis, But the Future is Still Uncertain
Paul Fehribach is the chef and co-owner of Chicago's Big Jones, where he features Southern heirloom cooking with a focus on sustainability grown heritage and heirloom crops and livestock, sustainable seafood, and historic receipts from the Southern culinary literature. He is the author of The Big Jones Cookbook: Recipes for Savoring the Heritage of Regional Southern Cooking.
I know that many restaurants nationally were a bit blindsided by the shelter-in-place orders and the shutting down of eat-in service, but here in Illinois, we were among the first to do it after our city and state governments warned us it was a possibility. We were grateful to have honest information coming out locally about what could happen here, so we had some time to get our heads around it. The last two weeks before the official order, it was clear that business wasn’t going to be good. Figuring out how to cope with that was a process we at Big Jones had already begun.
The need for change—big change—in the industry has been festering for some time, but this is a shock to the system. All we can hope for ourselves is that the changes we have been able to make—in conjunction with the support we hope we will eventually receive—will mean that we can survive to re-open after the order is lifted, and be able to rebound. So many restaurants will not, which is why the entire system will now be forced to change some fundamental operational patterns if we are going to come back strong and sustainable.
Big Jones, our restaurant in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, has always showcased our fine-dining approach to Southern heirloom cooking, with a focus on sustainably grown heritage and heirloom crops and livestock, sustainable seafood, and historic receipts from Southern culinary literature. We have always prided ourselves on a dining experience that merged the best of a Southern hospitality approach to service with an elevated take on the foods of the South.
For me, it was about how to hold on to the inspiration of both of those things, while letting go of the personal touch that has always been a hallmark of the Big Jones experience. Even though we had been offering takeout and delivery for some time, we definitely wanted to make clear to our customers that this was a new iteration of who we are. So we launched Little Jones, a scaled-back pop-up version of the Big Jones menu.
From an R&D perspective, it has been exciting. We took the opportunity to try some things we’d talked about for years—pimiento cheese tots, curly seasoned fries, a poor boy menu. The idea was to make the menu more whimsical and fun for dark days. Some dishes, like the Hoosier tenderloin sandwich, were conceived to move highly perishable inventory. I’d say only about 10 percent of the menu are things we’ve never done, but the core of our new menu focuses on dishes we’d only run as specials before. And while we have worked with third-party apps on delivery in the past and continue to allow those platforms, we launched our own delivery program, in no small part because it has allowed us to keep more people employed during this tough time.
So far, our food supply chain has been fine, but one of the surprising challenges to this change has been the packaging supply chain. On the one hand, we’ve done carry-out for some time, but it was only a sliver of our business. We have always used all compostable, renewable source packaging, with the exception of one foil container, which is of course recyclable. We have been able to continue to do that.
But we have also struggled to find new packaging for items we never offered for takeout in the past. Since we are allowed to sell bottles of wine and alcohol—and since we have always done a great brunch business—we wanted to be able to package our house-made Bloody Mary mix, Chatham punch, and house-squeezed orange juice with bottles of vodka or sparkling wine. I couldn’t envision charging what we would need to charge for that and have the mixes arrive in plastic deli containers; that is just not the Big Jones aesthetic. Since we have been bottling our own hot sauces for years, I contacted the company we work with for those bottles and ordered large format bottles for these brunch beverage kits. Normally, they would arrive next day, maybe a day later. But this time I kept getting notifications that they were en route but with no indication of where or when they might arrive. There was no effective communication from the company about the status of our order, and after much time passed, I finally had to just call the company and cancel the order. So far we haven’t been able to find a solution, so we are not yet able to offer the cocktail kits.
We are just now seeing how this crisis is shaking out in terms of our business. There was an initial burst of support during the first week of the shelter-in-place order that had us at about a third of our normal receipts, but it has since settled into being about a quarter of our usual business, and our staffing levels have followed suit. The crisis has underscored the importance of tipping right now. Historically, people always tip less for pickup or delivery, and we are hearing from friends and colleagues that with no-contact pickup and deliveries—and the elimination of seeing the face of the person connected with your meal—has severely impacted how much people are tipping. Sometimes they are not tipping at all. We have been very grateful that our customers have not been the ones who are taking that approach. Tipping was huge and very generous the first week, and has now settled down somewhat, but it is still at an exceptional level. Tips are comprising over 10 percent of checks, including for simple pick up orders, where before it was maybe just a token amount. People are grateful to have us here to serve them, and we are grateful to be able to do that, so it has been a good balance.
But the longer this goes on, the more challenging it will become. We know that many people are going to start to be concerned about the long-term financial ramifications of the shutdown orders. Many will be worried about whether their own jobs are truly secure as companies will have to make second and third rounds of layoffs and furloughs if this continues. While we are grateful for the current amount of business we are getting, we know we cannot necessarily count on it being sustainable indefinitely. We are reevaluating nearly daily to figure out how to keep as much of our staff employed as we possibly can, and to continue to provide the comfort of great food cooked with care and passion to our customers.
This ongoing conversation about who and what we are right now has also prompted me to think about the restaurant operations, and what might end up being permanent changes moving forward. We don’t believe business is going to recover to the old normal for at least a year, if not years. So for us, our commitment will be on focus and execution. We will maintain a menu that is takeout-friendly, because we also have to face the reality as an industry that people are going to be gun-shy about gathering together for a long time even after the shelter-in-place orders are lifted. We are just hoping to be here to discover what the new normal will be.
As told to Stacey Ballis.