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Adapting The Restaurant Dining Experience To A Long-Term Pandemic

Jeff Virojanapa is the owner of two restaurants—White Orchids and Notch Modern Kitchen and Bar—in and around Allentown, Pennsylvania.

White Orchids Thai Cuisine in Lehigh Valley has been around for 13 years, and we just recently opened up Notch Modern Kitchen and Bar, which is modern American with an Asian twist. We opened that about 10 months ago. So with COVID and the shutdown, just like everybody else, we really had to adapt. Each restaurant was kind of a different kind of beast to tackle.

As soon as all restaurants were forced to shut down and do takeout only, we sat down with our core team at each of the restaurants and decided where we were going to go. The team decided that we wanted to try takeout only, even though we never really had any. We went from a full sit-down with almost zero percent takeout, to maybe 25 or 30 percent of our sales as takeout during the shutdown. Even though it was a tough situation for everybody, being able to go through it without completely shutting down allowed us to try different things, to try to be creative. We redid all our menus at both restaurants, just trying to tweak different recipes and stay relevant. We were able to serve drinks to-go curbside, weekend drink kits, and weekend food kids just to offer people something different every week, which seemed to help out.

We were able to donate a lot of meals to hospitals and assisted living homes that were hit by everything. We were able to partner up with Lehigh Hospital, which is the big health network here, and they donated about 50,000 sanitizer pens to add to all our takeout orders for both restaurants. It was a “reopening of the valley” kind of thing that we worked on.

When we first shut down, we just had our managers and our sous chefs and head chefs. That’s what we ran with until each business started picking up some takeout. As business increased, we were able to bring people back here and there—eventually about half the staff about both restaurants.

One of the biggest things we had to do to be effective was make people feel safe. In the restaurant scene, people always talk about how the three key things are good food, good ambience, and good service. With this landscape now, I think that safety and comfort are the new fourth thing. We’re in the “green phase” now in Pennsylvania. The big priority is doing different things to try to keep people from having to worry while they’re out.

Social media has been just an amazing player right now. On both restaurant sites, instead of showing food, we’ve been showing different ways we can help out families and make people feel comfortable. When we were just offering curbside, they could purchase entrees for the family and the kids can eat for free. That was a big hit during the shutdown.

For dining, we’ve added distance between the tables. We’ve used those tables that we’re not serving as a personal server station with all the glassware, takeout containers, and hand sanitizers at the table just for that party. We do QR codes for our food menus. We have hidden menu items, like our lunch specials and drink specials, on the QR codes to encourage people to use them. We do have disposable menus as well, but I think that offering both is great for the comfort level. People can use the QR code to go pay the bill. That’s really been a great thing.

Differently colored gloves—black for servers, blue for bussers—let guests know who’s touching what. Photo: Courtesy Jeff Virojanapa.

When we first moved to green phase, the bar was open for several weeks. We had four really nice wood partitions on the bar to separate guests. Service people are all wearing masks and gloves. At first, we were having a tough time getting the same amount of same-colored gloves. So we said, “Okay, we have this many black gloves and this many blue gloves. Let’s just differentiate the two.” In the dual-glove system, service people bringing out fresh food or fresh drinks have on black gloves. Anybody bringing back dirty dishes has on blue gloves. That’s a way to visually communicate what we’re doing.

We’ve built up a really great following at White Orchids for over a decade. The changeover there was a little bit more seamless switching to takeout. The tough part with White Orchids was when we were shifting gears to having guests at the restaurant again. The inside of the restaurant was takeout containers and PPE materials and boxes of stuff everywhere. To have guests dining there again was a transition—keeping the takeout volume going while having guests inside.

At Notch, it was almost a reinvention of what we wanted to start off doing. Before the shutdown, we added a nice chef’s table. We relied a lot on corporate dinners for private dining rooms. Now it’s a lot of refocusing on being a nice restaurant, but also being geared towards families. Our patio dining has been very popular.

QR codes allow for contactless viewing of menus as well as payment. Photo: Courtesy Jeff Virojanapa.

A lot of this stuff won’t go away anytime soon. All the different safety precautions are going to be with us for a long time. We got these bar partitions installed in the restaurant, and four days later they shut down all the bars again. But I think that will be useful down the line. QR codes were all the rage a while ago, but never really came to anything. Now it seems like that technology works and doesn’t really cost that much to implement.

The shutdown has changed the narrative with tips. Before, all of the servers were taking their own tips at the end of the night. When we shut down and ended up doing 50 percent of our sales through takeout at White Orchids, we very quickly noticed there were a lot of tips supporting the employees packaging up all the takeout. When we reopened a little bit for outside dining, we generated some tips that way, but especially at White Orchid it’s not as strong as our takeout tips. So we switched over to a pooled tip system at both restaurants because everyone’s working more as a team than as single units. Some days, our hosts wear the blue gloves and bus the tables. Sometimes the hosts are the expediters. Everyone gets to wear different hats, and if somebody leaves a hefty tip for takeout, that gets distributed to all the staff.

A team-focused environment is what’s going to get a lot of businesses through these things. We need more people to bus tables and take away dirty dishes than we need servers that actually take care of tables. We’ve shifted hiring a little bit in that aspect as well. That’s something I think is going to change across a lot of different restaurants.