Takeout is the unsung hero of independent restaurants. An underestimated player, wearing the big No. 86 jersey and riding the bench, looking longingly onto the court of our dining rooms, watching all those lucky ceramic plates swing into action from the expediter to your table. It awaits the glory of being “picked up” by its new owner, having its name written on its lid, and being carefully placed into a crisp paper bag with all of its friends, some slightly larger, with even the rare aluminum species making an appearance. Finally stapled shut with care and whisked away to nourish a family. Just what it was born to do.
But it’s the beginning of the fourth quarter, restaurants are considerably behind on the scoreboard, and we’re all one player short. The entire industry looks over to that corner of the dining room, on that forgotten side of the bench, where the under-appreciated plastic containers are neatly stacked. In that moment, the dining rooms are so quiet you can hear water boiling from the kitchen. The containers stand up and the coach calls them in with a hearty, welcoming wave: The takeout container is about to live its destiny in real time.
The popularity of takeout — the necessity of takeout — has skyrocketed overnight. Now, it frequently exceeds the indoor sales revenue of restaurants like mine. Many of us chefs have come up in this industry with little to no respect for the to-go container and would rather let it collect dust than use it for our precious cuisine. And now look at us, searching through our lifetime of training for ways to compose yummy orders of meats, fish, vegetables, and starches that hold better for longer periods of time, bringing you ever closer to the experience of eating in our restaurants. All to survive and to please our respective communities.
In these times, ordering takeout doesn’t just support a restaurant and its employees — it goes much deeper. Restaurants need takeout to continue to exist as the pillars of our communities we aim to be. These obligations, blended with a huge potential for upward financial trajectory, are on my mind as an owner/chef. At MIDA, we rely on a whole lineup of players: our suppliers, the truckers, the farmers, the vintners (who in turn rely on the bottlers and their distribution partners), and so many others.
But the true sign of our success over this next year won’t just be limited to the cuisine side of the story or our ability to source great products — it’ll be our financial health. The MVP helping us meet the bottom line this year and every year is the all-important accountant, an “assistant coach” role played by an outsourced company, a small team, or by the owners or chefs themselves. They’re sweating on the sidelines, forecasting for the near future and adjusting the next proposed play based on past mistakes. What can be paid now? What can wait? One wrong move can put an entire business and its employees in jeopardy. This goes for everyone in the industry, from meat packers to local farmers, who have similarly thin margins. Fuel, truck, and equipment costs align closely with the daunting expenses of labor, food, and taxes on an independent restaurant’s profit and loss statement.
The unwavering support of our purveyors has gotten us through this past year’s struggles as we navigated how much funding to hold for rainy days ahead or how much to allocate to the produce companies who do so much to keep us going. Some purveyors have personally driven over orders to help us out, doing everything on their end to keep our needs met. Restaurants around the city, country, and world are held up by the relationships they keep in this industry, friends who occasionally grant a reprieve for a week or two in desperate times. Our purveyors may not work at MIDA, but they sure play on our team and cheer us on.
For instance, at MIDA we go through two entire wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano every week. That’s 160 pounds of perfectly aged cow’s milk, costing us $1,600 a week to serve a 56-seat dining room. I think about the producers of the Parmigiano-Reggiano in Bologna and Parma, Italy, who’ve also been hit hard, and the worldwide impact that not ordering “the king of cheeses” would have. It comes down to what the sports world calls “bench strength.” Our bench consists of our employees who take the floor every night, yes, but also the larger, less visible team that makes the sacrifice to help us get food to your table.
For MIDA or any hospitality business, there are many internal and external factors that need to fall into place (along with some serendipity) to have a profitable and healthy business. Sheer will and resolve are no longer enough. Food that satisfies our soul and our curiosity? It won’t take you the distance. Consistent press and exposure? You could still come up short. Affordable value for an outstanding product? That’s imperative. Team building and virtual hugs? Now and always!
We’re heading into overtime — we’ve exhausted every strategy in the playbook. We’ve given all that we’ve got and still we’re being tested like never before. But this industry is full of great comeback stories.
There’s no better team I’d rather play alongside. To the local government, farmers, fisherman, cheese shops, the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, charitable partners, media, and especially the MIDA team and community, we’ve got this. Let’s go!