Even as restaurants in Seattle begin reopening at a limited capacity in “phase two,” many that are sticking with takeout have gotten creative with their to-go approaches. Those services will likely continue to be front and center for the foreseeable future during the COVID-19 pandemic (currently, restaurants can open indoor seating at 25 percent capacity and outdoor seating at 50 percent, and the wisdom of dining in is still unclear).
Over the past three months, restaurants have tweaked takeout containers, added to-go cocktails, and developed take-home meal kits. It has been an effort to stay nimble during the pandemic, making sure the experiences they’re cultivating in the kitchen translate at home as they attempt to stay afloat economically.
At Central District’s Asian-influenced Reckless Noodles, co-owner Bryce Sweeney says the restaurant has changed some of its takeout packaging during the pandemic for a couple of the saucier dishes, including the ma la beef cheek noodle, a Szechuan peppercorn-laced heap of noodles. With the move to takeout only, the kitchen noticed the old container, a white box, often absorbed splashes of oil; they spent a lot of time reboxing the dish so it looked cleaner. Now, the restaurant uses a plastic bowl with a lid that works much better.
Sweeney says overall, the restaurant is spending more money on takeout packaging, which increases the restaurant’s overhead — all while sales have dropped. He says they’re committed to using compostable containers when they can, which are about 50 cents a piece; all told, in April, Reckless spent about $2,000 per month in takeout packaging compared to a few hundred dollars a month before the pandemic — when takeout accounted for just two percent of sales.
Reckless hasn’t raised prices on food, choosing instead to eat the temporary increase in overhead to ensure a better customer experience and to adhere to the restaurant’s sustainability principles.
“We are offering meal kits because we are doing our part to support the current stay-at-home mandate,” says co-owner Roz Edison, who is keeping dining in closed for now (although there are plans to open up some outdoor seating at Super Six soon.
“Particularly out at Ma Kai [on the West Seattle waterfront], we know that if we offered hot food to go it might encourage more people to meet, congregate and possibly expose themselves more than necessary. It is our genuine desire to be able to serve everyone from our traditional model at each location, but we are prioritizing the safety of our community over everything else.”
Nue, which serves a variety of global street food dishes from its Capitol Hill restaurant, has amended its menu to focus on selections that are the most “travel friendly,” and “will still be delicious when you get home.” The restaurant — which isn’t opening dine-in currently — has also flexed its creativity when it comes to its to-go cocktails, which must be served in sealed containers: Customers can choose cocktail kits with mixers sealed in vacuum pouches, and single-serve cocktails in a pouch or to-go cup sealed with a boba tea sealer.
The idea occurred to co-owner Chris Cvetkovich as he searched for a way to meet the state’s requirements of a sealed container for to-go cocktails. “I’ve seen a lot of places using mason jars, which are pretty damn pricey — not to mention almost impossible to find now — and don’t even meet the state requirements of being a sealed container. So this just seemed like a logical choice.”
For fine dining restaurants, takeout is anything but simple. For many, a multi-course meal — which may change daily — just isn’t replicable for takeout and delivery. Instead, these restaurants are either changing their offerings completely (like fine-dining establishment Canlis, which now serves family dinners and CSA boxes) or finding novel ways to serve to-go food that reflects their pre-pandemic menus.
At critically acclaimed restaurant Tarsan i Jane, where each night brought a multi-course, ever-changing chef’s counter-style meal, owners Perfecte and Alia Rocher wanted to come up with a way to bring some part of that experience into customers’ kitchens. They now sell “foolproof” paella kits and noodle kits, with vegetarian and meat options — and cooking instructions on the restaurant’s website. Each component of the meal is individually packaged to ensure it holds up well in travel.
“We closed Tarsan i Jane for dine-in service with the impression we would be able to return to our normal service several weeks later. When we realized that would not be possible, we knew we had to do something,” says Alia. The kits seemed like a good option for offering an experiential at-home meal that held up in transit. “We preferred to offer our guests food they could enjoy fresh as opposed to steamed in a takeout container.”
Archipelago, Hillman City’s intimate chef’s counter restaurant serving multi-course meals drawing from the owners Filipino heritage, recently started selling boxes of condiments, sauces, protein, and vegetables that are part-meal kit and part-CSA box, allowing customers to customize their meals and stock their kitchens.
The Balikbayan boxes are carefully packaged to “maintain their integrity in travel,” says co-owner Amber Manguid. The goal is for the boxes to eventually have all compostable, reusable, and recyclable materials, though that’s still a work in progress. “It’s hard to get some materials right now because of demand, but we’re moving toward sustainable options.”
Even when Seattle and King County eventually transitions to a less restrictive phase of Governor Jay Inslee’s economic reopening plan, restaurants are likely to continue doing a lot takeout business, continuing to tweak their menu and packaging options. Adjustments will still be vital.