Local chefs, restaurant owners reflect on pivoting from dine-in to takeout, delivery
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Any business that’s continued functioning at any level through the past two months has learned to reinvent and adapt their model to follow COVID-19 safety measures. Among those businesses that have experienced this change most intensely are small, local restaurants.
Julie George made the call to close dine-in service at Joki, the casual Japanese comfort food restaurant on Yampa Street, days before the state mandated it to do so on March 17. She and her team took three days to figure out the restaurant’s new, takeout-only model, and then, they were ready to reopen.
“Our world got turned upside down, but I think we acted pretty quickly,” George said.
Right next door, at Mountain Tap Brewery, Rich Tucciarone was appreciating the fact that his brewery/restaurant is independently owned and a single location, with the nimble ability to make decisions among the small team, implement them quickly, then, if necessary, make adjustments.
Up on Lincoln Avenue, Joseph Campbell and his team were figuring out their next steps with their sister restaurants, Mambo Italiano and Bésame. They decided that, since Mambo’s pizza and pasta are generally more takeout friendly than the Latin fusion food of Bésame, they would temporarily shutter service at Bésame and focus on takeout service at Mambo.
Who’s in the kitchen?
When it became clear the pandemic and its impacts would include restaurant revenue taking a drastic dip, many restaurants cut their staffs to skeleton crews, which also allowed more space for remaining workers to spread out to the recommended 6 feet social distance.
Where a pre-pandemic dinner shift at Mambo would have featured seven workers on the line plus a dishwasher, it now has half that number.
“When things get busy, it’s challenging to get everything done with three or four,” Campbell said. “But we’ve managed to do well with it.”
“I miss my cooks, my front-of-house staff and servers,” he said. “We’re a family, so it’s hard to all be away from each other. I’m looking forward to having everyone back together.”
Over at Joki, George and her team reconfigured several elements so the entire kitchen could be run by a lean one to two people.
“We were thinking about the health of our employees and the health of our customers,” she said.
At Mountain Tap, Tucciarone and his team have established work zones to minimize overlap — one person handles the phones and point-of-sale system, another takes care of the bar and one to two more are in the kitchen cooking.
Fawn Racoma promotes increased physical distance among her staff at Seedz and Rootz by way of scheduling. For example, the worker who preps ingredients does his work in the evening, when the restaurant is closed and fewer workers are present.
No matter what or where local chefs are cooking, they’re careful to keep their mouths and noses covered with a mask — though most aren’t enjoying it.
“Wearing a mask is sweaty,” Harwigs owner and chef JJ Jenny said with a laugh. “I have more pimples now than I ever would’ve expected at my age.”
A 12-hour shift in a hot kitchen with a mask on is hard, said Joki’s George. But as for other protective gear and practices — wearing gloves, washing hands constantly, sanitizing surfaces frequently, “It’s not a huge leap at all for people in the restaurant industry,” she said.
“We’ve always had a big focus on cleanliness,” Mambo’s Campbell said. “Now, we’re just focusing on it even more.”
As food supply chains across the world began to feel the impacts of COVID-19, the team at Joki was finding that accessing some ingredients was increasingly difficult. Oftentimes, they weren’t available, or if they did get delivered, the quality wasn’t good. At the same time, the price of certain proteins was skyrocketing.
So when Joki began restructuring itself as takeout-only, a priority was to streamline its international menu to feature items made with more of the same, readily available ingredients. Not only does this strategy help ensure necessary ingredients will be available, it also cuts down on waste.
“We call this our test kitchen,” George said. “Now, we’re getting to the point of nailing it.”
At Seedz and Rootz, a food delivery driver avoids potential contact by not entering buildings and instead leaving goods outside the restaurant doors.
Over at Mountain Tap, Tucciarone hasn’t experienced noticeable disruptions in his supply chains, which he credits to the fact that many of his vendors are local or in-state. Tucciarone plans to keep in close communication with his vendors, though, so that should an issue start to arise, he’ll be prepared. He’s keeping an eye on reports of people hoarding flour and yeast.
Takeout only menu
Restaurants across town also have been grappling with which of their menu items work for takeout and which don’t.
Racoma, of Seedz and Rootz, decided that, in a time when many aren’t commuting to work, breakfast would be a less appealing meal to sell as a to-go. So she limited her breakfast menu by removing breakfast towers and sweets — items that are prepped in bulk, that would likely go to waste — and built up her lunch offerings with three new maki bowls: rice bowls with mixed greens, rice, veggies and proteins.
“Usually, I’d make my menu smaller for mud season,” she said. “But I’m sure people are sick of cooking, after weeks of cooking at home, so I thought it was important to have the menu especially creative and enticing. So, I rolled out the summer menu early.”
So far, she reports, the strategy has been working.
In its transition to takeout only, Harwigs also transitioned to a menu primarily featuring its Thai Tuesday offerings during the four nights per week that it’s open.
“Thai Tuesday is a locals favorite, it travels well, it’s fantastic for leftovers, and it’s more wallet-friendly,” Harwigs’ Jenny said.
He noted that while Harwigs’ typical fare of fine dining generally doesn’t travel well as takeout, he and his team have been figuring out how to adapt some classic Harwigs appetizers for to-go.
For example, a typically prepared French onion soup put in a to-go container and sent on a 20-minute drive would become a mushy mess, the temperature and texture ruined. But Jenny has figured out that if he packages the soup broth separately from the sourdough bread, gruyere and parmesan, as a deconstructed French onion soup that the customer combines in their own kitchen, the soup is a success.
“We’ll be adding some Harwigs’ favorites to the menu (in the upcoming days), so people can have a little more variety,” Jenny said. “And, selfishly, so the kitchen can have more variety, too. A change in menu keeps the brain thinking and challenged and gets us back to the roots of what we do: being creative with food.”
At Mambo, Campbell has tweaked his recipes to be better travelers in their takeout containers, often doubling the amount of sauce so the dish doesn’t dry out during its journey.
Over at Joki, George and her team revamped the menu by removing raw fish, poke bowls and handrolls, which don’t hold up well in to-go form. But they’ve welcomed some portable additions to the menu: maki rolls and onigiri rice balls — finger food — and bento boxes, which are “like an adult Lunchable,” George said.
Chefs have also been noting which foods customers have been especially drawn to in the past two months. A trend seems to be that diners are less interested in the fine and fancy, and more drawn to comfort foods.
“People have kind of shied away from appetizers and entrees,” Mambo’s Campbell noted. “They just want a big bowl of pasta to warm their bellies.”
He’s seen a rise in orders of more approachable items like fettuccine alfredo, rigatoni alla vodka, spaghetti and meatballs and a whole lot of pizza.
As glad as many local chefs and restaurant owners are to be operating through the pandemic, running as takeout-only has been emotional.
“As a chef, I put a lot of time and effort into how I want these dishes to present on the plate and into the cohesiveness of the whole thing,” Mambo’s Campbell said. “So to just put food into a to-go container and send it on its way — it’s a little heartbreaking.”
“My passion as a chef has always been to see the happiness of people eating together,” Seedz’ Racoma said. “To put (the order) in a box and send it on its way, not knowing if the customer is happy with it — that’s super emotional.”
“Just handing off the food and not being able to see each other smile (through our masks) — that’s hard,” Joki’s George said.
“It’s great to see a lot of regulars through takeout and delivery orders,” Mountain Tap’s Tucciarone said, “but it’s different from seeing everyone actually sitting here.”
Racoma notes that another challenge in a takeout-only establishment is the waste that’s part of the process.
“It breaks my heart putting food into a to-go box,” she said.
At Rootz, pre-pandemic, customers could bring in their own reusable containers for takeout orders, eliminating the use of a single-use vessel. Now, that’s not possible. Racoma tried using compostable to-go containers but found they’re not as secure as plastic ones. Racoma encourages people to keep an eye on whether their takeout materials are reusable or recyclable and to reuse or recycle properly.
In addition to ready-to-eat meals, many local restaurants have been finding success with make-at-home food kits. Joki has introduced frozen ramen kits, and Mountain Tap has developed its half-baked pizza kits, including a partially baked pizza crust and three sets of toppings, for families to cook at home.
“We know there are a lot of families with kids of all ages bouncing off the walls,” Mountain Tap’s Tucciarone said. “This is meant to be an activity to help bring families together.”
Drinks to go
Mambo has seen success in its new line of takeout cocktails.
“People have been buying cocktails for people behind them in line, as a pay-it-forward,” Campbell said.
Mountain Tap, which brews all the beers it sells in-house, has seen a lot of sales of growlers and crowlers and recently introduced half-size mini growlers that have been well-received.
“The mini growlers are super cute,” Tucciarone said.
Even with many locals experiencing pandemic-related hour cuts and unemployment, local restaurant owners have felt very supported by their local customers.
In the first few weeks of being takeout only, Joki introduced a punch-card — 10 future (dine-in) ramens for $100 — and George was heartened to see them sell well.
“It really felt like people were taking care of us,” she said.
George added that many customers are also asking her how, in addition to ordering food, they can help out the restaurant, to which George replies: spread the word. Joki opened in November 2019, barely five months before the March 17 takeout-only order.
“I feel cemented here, with these people who’ve become our community,” George said.
Seedz has also seen plenty of customer support, with gift cards selling especially well.
“I feel super fortunate to be in this community, where the majority of people really care about each other,” Racoma said.
At Mambo, Campbell has seen the same.
“I can’t stress enough how amazing people have been,” he said. “Tips have been incredibly generous, and we’re incredibly grateful.”
Tips on Mambo orders, Campbell noted, are pooled and distributed to former Mambo and Bésame staff who were laid off at the start of the pandemic and who need assistance with paying rent or for groceries.
“We’ve really come together, trying to take care of each other,” Campbell said.
Harwigs’ Jenny feels lucky to be living in Steamboat during the pandemic, where he sees people generally being respectful and caring to each other.
“We’re all struggling to figure out how to deal with this, and everybody is struggling,” he said. “The best thing we can do to get through this is help each other out and be supportive of one another, whether that’s bringing your sick friend soup or supporting small, local businesses.”
Even with restaurants’ revenue reduced, many local restaurants have figured out ways to give back to the community.
Mountain Tap extended its Token Tuesday program, which raises funds for different local nonprofits every month, beyond Tuesdays.
“Every day is Token Tuesday,” Tucciarone said.
For April and May, Token Tuesday beneficiaries are Advocates of Routt County, Boys & Girls Club of Northwest Colorado, Partners in Routt County and Planned Parenthood. This variation of Token Tuesday is also contactless for customers; Mountain Tap staff place tokens in the customer’s desired box.
Joki has kicked off its “Steamboat Strong” program, in which it welcomes nominations on social media of individuals helping the community and provides the helpers free ramen. So far, Joki has provided free meals to health care workers, grocery workers and Sidney Peak Ranch Equestrian Center workers, who are boarding horses whose owners currently can’t provide care.
“It’s been super nice to show people appreciation through our food,” George said.
While the past two months of takeout-only service has been stressful and difficult, local restaurant teams also appreciate what they’ve learned.
“On the business side, we’ve been dialing everything in to make things work, and that’s something we’re going to try to continue — to run a tighter ship,” Joki’s George said.
“In general, when you have a huge challenge like this, it forces you to be creative and super efficient,” Mountain Tap’s Tucciarone said. “We’ve definitely picked up on some efficiencies that we’ll use moving forward.”
In the next few weeks, Mountain Tap will release two new beers: Halaboration, a collaboration with Hala Paddle Boards, and Get Out in honor of Colorado Public Lands Day.
“Hopefully, we’ll tap Get Out around when restrictions are eased up,” he said, “so everyone can get out.”
Julia Ben-Asher is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.
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