In the mornings, restaurateur Brian Poe fields requests from his neighbors on the North Shore: a specific cheese, hard-to-find meat, maybe some herbs. It’s no problem for chef Poe, because he has access to products that are unavailable to mere civilians.
But he’s not taking dinner orders: He’s delivering groceries with his new venture, Crane River Cheese Club. His Bukowski Tavern in Cambridge recently closed. His Boston spots, Parish Café and the Tip Tap Room, are on COVID-19 hiatus. So for now, he drops off gourmet deliveries and swaps recipes on front stoops. He’s even looking for permanent retail space.
“What are my options? I can ride around with my dog and worry, or I can ride around and deliver food,” says Poe. “I’m beyond happy. It’s a breath of fresh air.”
It’s a far cry from Friday night in the Back Bay, but it’s also emblematic of what hospitality needs to mean now: reaching guests by any means necessary and putting your own dreams on hold — or rethinking them entirely.
There was a time when some in the culinary world were criticized as inflexible. In 2014, GQ’s Alan Richman coined the term “egotarian cuisine” to describe restaurants where chefs cooked for their own pleasure as much for a customer’s; who would have balked at substitutions or modifications, let alone changing a whole concept.
No more. Not during COVID-19.
“It’s not about my ego and my vision,” Poe says.
Chefs say that creative visions have been replaced by bare economic necessity: If people want groceries, they’ll offer groceries. They say that chefs who would have never thought about selling frozen meals, to-go barbecue, or even groceries are pivoting because they have to.
After all, customers are reluctant to visit indoor dining rooms, and patio dining can’t go on indefinitely. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association predicts that roughly 3,600 of Massachusetts’s 16,000 restaurants won’t survive the pandemic, and MRA president Bob Luz suspects that the number will increase when cold weather hits.
And so Highland Kitchen, a comfort food hangout and tiki bar in Somerville, is temporarily switching identities. It’s now called Highland Chicken, specializing in takeout fried chicken sandwiches. Fine-dining restaurant Juliet in Union Square is hosting online tapas parties and teaching people how to fillet at home. Café Du Pays, once a cozy spot for wine and rabbit au vin outside of Kendall Square, has turned into Vincent’s neighborhood grocery. It sells breakfast tacos, bags of crostini, and used LPs.
“Most of us aren’t going to make it. That’s the ugly truth,” says Evan Harrison, who runs Café du Pays and now Vincent’s. With COVID-19 — and maybe after — customers will want different things, he says, such as streamlined menus and takeout options. Forward-thinking chefs are getting into the game now, even if it means abandoning their initial plans.
“The chef who is ego-driven, who has this one narrow view of what the experience should be and conducts it every level of the way, that is long gone,” Harrison says. “Guests want the main course, dessert, a to-go box, and to pick it up at the front door. A lot of places are going to do that.”
In the Fenway, restaurateur Tiffani Faison has reinvented her stand-up bar, Fool’s Errand, to host pop-ups like a farmers’ market and to-go breakfasts. It had served toasts, tongue, and fortified wines.
“I’m not going to die on a hill of how precious and perfect my food is,” Faison says. “I want to do things that fill us, and fill our tanks, and give people delicious things they want to eat.”
There’s a bright side to this scramble: a refreshed brand of hospitality that’s plainly focused on anticipating a guest’s needs.
“We talk to our regulars in the neighborhood. It’s not just, ‘What do you want to see?’ — although sometimes it is that pointed,” Faison says. “But in conversation, we’ll have a guest say, ‘I wish such-and-such was in the neighborhood.’”
Ask, and you shall receive. For example, diners can book a private meal cooked by Faison and collaborate on their own personalized menu.
Poe enjoys fielding odd requests at his provisions business, too.
“It’s almost like the old butcher shop days,” he says.
At Alcove in the West End, owner Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli writes personal thank-you notes on each of his takeout orders. He’s added a kids’ menu and a lunchtime grill. His offerings are more “curated” now, he says, focusing on what he knows his guests want, including sauces to go and even raw cookie dough.
It’s not the leisurely, sit-down restaurant that he anticipated.
But there are pluses, such as more neighborhood activity, because locals avoided the TD Garden throngs when sports were in session.
“This freed us up to look outside of the box and to make sure what we were doing was genuinely for the neighborhood first and foremost,” Schlesinger-Guidelli says.
Next up is a marketplace with frozen meals, meats and honey, and a wine-of-the-month club.
Outside of Cambridge’s Inman Square, Puritan & Company’s Will Gilson reached out to regulars when his restaurant closed to ask what they needed.
“We went through our computer system and sent direct e-mails: ‘How can we help you? What would be beneficial?’” he says. Guests were charmed. Next he’s launching Puritan Provisions, a neighborhood shop serving coffee, sandwiches, bagels, and sauces.
“I don’t want to be another name in Boston Hidden Restaurants,” he says, referring to a local blog that tracks restaurant openings and closings. “I will do whatever it takes to not be that.”
A few blocks away, Josh Childs turned his Somerville sports bar Parlor Sports into Starlite Snack Shack. In warm weather, guests can stroll up to a window to order hot dogs and soft serve. (What happens when it gets cold is a different story.)
“It was out of necessity,” Childs says. “The bigger picture is, I’m worried about the industry as a whole. But the kind of silver lining of all of this is, if we make it through, we’ll be strong. We’ll streamline — not cut corners, but create a fun, interesting product on the fly.”
Right now, creativity and open-mindedness are key. It’s about serving what sells.
“We’ve been throwing a lot of darts. Sometimes you come up short, and sometimes it feels good,” says Gilson. “Our mantra right now is, ‘make it to May.’”
“Your vision is to serve people. That’s your vision,” Poe says.