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Evolve or die: 5 ways South Florida restaurants will get smaller, scrappier in 2021

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More fine-dining restaurants will die in 2021. Takeout food will blow up, restaurant menus will slim down, virtual eateries will multiply and outdoor patios – considered prime dining real estate – will expand. And don’t expect masks or sanitizer to disappear from dining rooms anytime soon.

How do we know this? Answer: It’s already happening. The pandemic has already caused over $1 billion in revenue loss in Broward’s hospitality industry, and the first widespread use of COVID-19 vaccines is months away. Until South Florida is inoculated, restaurants will get smaller and scrapper as they fight for survival.

We spoke to hospitality industry experts, restaurant owners, consultants and economics professors about how South Florida’s restaurant industry will evolve in 2021.

Here are five ways restaurants will rebound.

Chef and co-founder Michael Lewis says KYU restaurant in Wynwood has been able to survive the pandemic because his modern-Asian kitchen joined food-delivery apps and added outdoor seating.
Chef and co-founder Michael Lewis says KYU restaurant in Wynwood has been able to survive the pandemic because his modern-Asian kitchen joined food-delivery apps and added outdoor seating. (Susan Stocker/SouthFlorida.com)

1.

Fine dining: Adapt or die

More high-end restaurants are going to close unless they reinvent themselves.

Fine-dining spaces that depend on tourists and part-time residents – and most do here – will see fewer dine-in customers until a vaccine is widely distributed, says Michael Cheng, dean of Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management.

“Unless they’re flush with capital those fine-dining restaurants you haven’t seen open since March probably won’t reopen again because they didn’t try to adapt early on,” Cheng says. Fort Lauderdale restaurants Jackson’s Prime, Valentino Cucina Italiana and Chuck’s Steakhouse were early victims this spring.

“The pandemic was the final nail in the coffin,” adds Todd Herbst, whose West Palm Beach-based Big Time Restaurant Group runs Louie Bossi’s and Rocco’s Tacos.

The pandemic exposed weaknesses baked into the fine-dining business model, such as razor-thin profit margins, steeper rents and needing max-capacity dining rooms to barely survive. These costs are higher for fine-dining operators, says Michael Lewis, chef and co-founder of Wynwood modern-Asian restaurant KYU and a 2018 James Beard Award semifinalist.

“Food and labor costs are huge,” Lewis says. “A single change like a hurricane or a one-day power outage affects your bottom line for the whole year, much less an eight-month-long pandemic.”

To survive, more high-end eateries should upgrade to-go packaging and take risks with takeout, he says. Lewis says KYU did something he would have considered unthinkable a year ago: join UberEats. The delivery app now accounts for 10 percent of his business.

“My dishes are truly not meant for takeout, but we begrudgingly switched,” Lewis says. “I’m secretly looking forward to the day when I can stop it. But it’s a key to survival right now.”

Still, offering takeout can backfire. Packaging costs will be passed on to consumers, which can harm a restaurant’s reputation – especially if food doesn’t travel well.

“There is a risk, but if restaurant owners can’t afford to wait 12 months, they must act now,” Cheng says.

Server Nicole Cardozo of Ovlo Eats in Plantation packs a takeout order for a customer. Hospitality and tourism experts say more restaurants will place greater importance on pumping up takeout options in 2021 with upgraded drive-thrus and online-only restaurants.
Server Nicole Cardozo of Ovlo Eats in Plantation packs a takeout order for a customer. Hospitality and tourism experts say more restaurants will place greater importance on pumping up takeout options in 2021 with upgraded drive-thrus and online-only restaurants. (Carline Jean / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

2.

Food mobility: Virtual kitchens, better drive-thrus and takeout

Fast-food chains will tempt you with faster and more efficient takeout options and curbside pickup in 2021. Miami-based Burger King is testing 60 percent smaller dining rooms and a dedicated drive-thru lane for third-party delivery drivers. Fast-casual Chipotle Mexican Grill is rapidly adding drive-thru “Chipotlanes” to new and existing storefronts.

Your local Wendy’s is no exception. Eddie Rodriguez, whose JAE Restaurant Group franchises 161 locations from 比特币交易价格行情homestead to Orlando, will add curbside pickup to multiple locations by the end of December, and will test delivery-only Wendy’s buildings in 2021. The reasoning is simple: Pre-pandemic, drive-thru sales, on average, accounted for 67 percent of Wendy’s business. Today: 92 percent.

“The dining rooms are open but people aren’t going inside,” says Rodriguez, of Lighthouse Point. “People have changed their behaviors and food mobility is more important now than ever.”

More Wendy’s have joined delivery apps (UberEats, Doordash), while its own app now allows customers to schedule curbside pickups times. Parking lots at newer locations now include curbside pickup spaces. “The consumer pays in our case for the delivery apps,” Rodriguez says. “We’ve found that customers don’t mind paying two, three bucks extra for that convenience.”

In Plantation, Ovlo Eats co-owner Joshua Bernstein prepares the Ovlo Bowl with chicken. Six weeks ago the fast-fine restaurant created its first virtual restaurant, OE Bowls, a protein-bowl spinoff eatery designed to boost sorely needed takeout sales in 2021.
In Plantation, Ovlo Eats co-owner Joshua Bernstein prepares the Ovlo Bowl with chicken. Six weeks ago the fast-fine restaurant created its first virtual restaurant, OE Bowls, a protein-bowl spinoff eatery designed to boost sorely needed takeout sales in 2021. (Carline Jean / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Steve Stolberg started thinking outside the takeout box before opening his Plantation eatery Ovlo Eats in 2019. The menu offers only dishes – like grilled Atlantic salmon – that last 45 minutes in a container without losing heat or flavor. Today 80 percent of all orders are takeout, he says, and few customers visit the dining room anymore.

Surging COVID-19 cases and the push for stronger food mobility has made restaurant owners question the need for big dining rooms, says Tom House, a Fort Lauderdale restaurant consultant.

Instead, restaurateurs are carving out spaces that only exist online. National chicken-wing chain Wingstop is experimenting with so-called “ghost kitchens,” where meals are prepped in offsite food trailers strictly for food-delivery apps, no dining rooms needed.

Hunting for ways to boost revenues at Ovlo Eats, Stolberg opened a second restaurant in October called OE Bowls, a side hustle specializing in build-your-own protein bowls. But customers can’t visit it in person: This so-called “virtual restaurant” operates out of Ovlo Eats’ kitchen, and only customers who find it on UberEats and Doordash can access the menu.

“We don’t have to pay rent on another lease, which is nice, but we can still make money,” Stolberg says. “It also helps save on labor. We just use the existing staff.”

To avoid costly storefronts, more restaurant owners will test these online-only eateries in 2021 – but it depends on the cuisine and business model, Herbst adds. “My restaurants are more about the experience, and takeout is a small part of sales. But if you’re selling wings or pizza or burgers out of a virtual kitchen – things that can travel – this can work.”

But there will be a learning curve, Stolberg adds.

“To pivot from never having done takeout and not having the technology in place to handle it will be hard,” Stolberg says. “We were lucky. If we didn’t build our menu to travel or have an online ordering system in place, we’d have been dead in the water.”

Large patios, such as this Astroturf-covered one at Louie Bossi’s in Fort Lauderdale, will be attractive to diners who value safe dining in 2021, restaurant owners and experts say.
Large patios, such as this Astroturf-covered one at Louie Bossi’s in Fort Lauderdale, will be attractive to diners who value safe dining in 2021, restaurant owners and experts say. (Jennifer Lett/Sun Sentinel)

3.

Safety first: The new sales pitch

Brace yourselves: More mask and hand sanitizer stations are coming. QR-coded menus will be permanent fixtures. Customers will October FIU study about COVID-19′s economic impact on South Florida’s hospitality industry.

“For the foreseeable future, there will be fewer restaurant workers employed until we get back to normal, until enough folks are vaccinated,” Beckman says.

“Owners are super-concerned with payroll, which is hurting restaurants right now,” says House, the restaurant consultant. “It’s harder to justify servers, bussers, front-of-house staff, and it will get leaner and meaner next year.”

Papa’s Raw Bar co-owner Troy Ganter has reduced staff from 110 to 70 workers since March and closed Papa Hughie’s Seafood World, his father’s namesake landmark restaurant. “We had two restaurants that used to do $7 million a year,” Ganter says. “Now we have one and we’re on track to hit $4.5 million next month. This isn’t going away.”

Fast-food restaurants will be the exception in 2021, says Rodriguez, owner of 218 Wendy’s franchises in Florida, Texas and Tennessee. He says current workers will be shifted around as Wendy’s pivots to upgrading its drive-thrus.

“Instead of laying them off, you make them an outside order taker, or have them handle curbside pickups,” Rodriguez says. “You can’t cut back labor. It’s the opposite: We have to invest in wowing the customer with better service because consistency matters.”

James MacInnes, a bar manager at KYU restaurant in Wynwood Miami Florida helps set up an outdoor dining area in front of the restaurants on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Miami-Dade County restaurants have been ordered to close their dining rooms again due to a rise in new COVID cases. Restaurants can remain opened for take-out and outdoor dining only.
James MacInnes, a bar manager at KYU restaurant in Wynwood Miami Florida helps set up an outdoor dining area in front of the restaurants on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Miami-Dade County restaurants have been ordered to close their dining rooms again due to a rise in new COVID cases. Restaurants can remain opened for take-out and outdoor dining only. (Mike Stocker / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

5.

Dining in: It’s about dining out

Restaurant owners who pumped up their outdoor dining this summer aren’t about to give up their The Centers for Disease Control says dining rooms without six-foot distancing poses the highest risk of COVID 19 spread. FIU’s Michael Cheng agrees, adding that more customers in 2021 will consider outdoor seating a priority before deciding where to dine out.

“Consumers enjoyed the social aspect of eating out, but now it’s, ‘What is the restaurant doing to communicate that it’s safe?’ " Cheng says. “When I’m hungry I make my decision based on the availability of outdoor seating. If they don’t, then no, I’ll do takeout regardless of whether they’re wearing masks.”

Chef-owner Michael Lewis got lucky with his parking-challenged eatery, KYU. Wynwood’s Business Improvement District gave him permission to replace street parking on 25th Street with 30 outdoor seats in August, allowing him to hit full capacity.

“I mean, the patio seating isn’t ideal. The tables overlook Wynwood warehouses, not the ocean, but we added market lights and wired speakers and mister fans and it works,” he says.

Restaurant patios will be critical for survival in 2021, and Lewis recommends owners apply for special outdoor seating permits or “collaborate with neighbors who have patios and share,” Lewis says.

“We have to become germophobes to live a safer, happier life,” says restaurant consultant Tom House. “When a restaurant doesn’t emphasize that, they get crushed.”

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