Marin County fine restaurants weigh cost-benefit of going take-out only in pandemic lockdown
UPDATE, March 30: Into the second week of a radical shift to to-go-only sales under large-scale shelter-at-home orders, two southern Marin County upscale seafood restaurants are showing the tough decisions many owners and managers are having to make in continuing to operate with 120 fewer workers and a dramatically different marketplace.
The county’s order took effect March 17 to slow the coronavirus pandemic, but The Trident waited until March 20 to reopen for take-out and delivery orders to see how similar neighboring restaurateurs were handling that transition and to plan menu changes that would “travel well” to customers’ homes.
“Last weekend, we had some sunshine, and people were out walking,” said Rick Enos, general manager, on Thursday. “We had a good weekend, compared to where we were before with take-out.”
At Fish Restaurant, sales have been brisk for the fresh seafood customers are taking home to cook, but to-go orders from the adjoining fine-dining establishment aren’t enough to cover expenses but enough to minimize losses, according to co-owner Kenny Belov. He had to let 40 hourly employees go but looks forward to hiring them back when the shelter orders are lifted.
“We’re going to stay on it and keep going for the sake of the community,” he said Thursday.
But at the seafood wholesale business he co-owns on San Francisco’s Pier 45, proprietors and management of TwoXSea are having to get more creative with marketing and sales, after 95% of the company’s revenue base — upwards of 250 Bay Area fine restaurants, family eating establishments and hotels — pretty much dissolved in the past two weeks.
“We’ve taken a step back 10 years to when we started this company as a garage band and had to figure out things as we go and play any show we can get,” Belov said. “We’re adapting to the situation in front of us. We have a valuable protein and we’re in a large area where people need to eat. My job is to figure out how to get it into people’s hands we would not normally have gotten it into in the past.”
The remaining 5% of typical wholesale for TwoXSea are grocers. Though their sales have ramped up as consumers stock up for home sheltering, it hasn’t come close to replacing the restaurant sales. So the Belov and a manager have gotten behind the wheels of two of the six daily-delivery vans — and the other owner driving a third van when needed — to deliver seafood from supplier West Coast fishing boats and the company’s own brand, McFarland Springs Trout, to grocery stores and now to homes, a first for the company.
“We got rid of the fancy tour bus, and we’re back in the station wagon,” Belov said, continuing the garage band metaphor. “It’s no longer the chef audience we’re after. It’s the consumer.”
Right now, the grocery store and emerging consumer deliveries in the North Bay, San Francisco and East Bay are literally keeping the company’s trout brand alive. The partners of TwoXSea operate a 100% vegetarian-feed fish farm near Susanville in Northern California, and the operation requires a certain rate of harvest to keep the population of fish healthy, Belov said. Current sales are allowing that to continue.
At The Trident, any of the sales over the first weekend of the shelter order came from people who saw the take-out sign out front then stopped in, with little coming from the updated restaurant website or listings with delivery services DoorDash (currently not charging restaurants), Uber Eats (fees of 20%-30%) and Dine In Marin ($7-$9 per order for member restaurants and 22% otherwise), a new local venture started during this crisis.