In chaos, there is opportunity11/4/2020
In Blake Edwards’ 1959 film “Operation Petticoat,” a devious junior officer played by Tony Curtis seizes a moment of war panic to acquire some things of value. “In chaos, there is opportunity,” he says, driving off on a looting mission.
The food industry has a long history of re-invention during times of chaos. The restaurant industry, as we know it, evolved out of the French Revolution. Previously, there were inns for travelers with food and livery services, but they were almost always owner-operated. Before the Bastille came tumbling down, most cooks and chefs worked for royal families and institutions like armies. At Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, I was told that the Ottoman sultans employed some 10,000 chefs. As Renaissance paintings reveal, phenomenal dishes were being created, but mostly just for the rich and privileged.
After Robespierre and his blood lusty pals began wiping out the royals of France, the Committee for Public Safety worried about what to do with the many unemployed cooks. They also fretted about angry mobs becoming dangerous because of food shortages. The solution was to create marketplaces with cooks serving prepared food for fees.
During the Great Depression, my maternal grandparents postponed their intended move from Clay County farmland to larger places because it was safer to raise four kids on the farm, where they could be food self-sufficient. Herbert and Lou Hoover advocated for more corned beef hash, chicken and noodles, and beans with franks to stretch proteins into more meals. Diners also became an American institution during the Depression because breakfast became the most important, and least expensive, meal of the day.
World War II changed the food scene more than any other event. Shortages and rationing made coupons popular. Americans in the African theater would discover the wonder of pizza as they moved north through Italy. Fanta was invented in Nazi Germany. The orange soda pop offset the shortages of oranges and orange juice. Artificial flavors were to become more successful than Hitler’s other plots to dominate the western world.
Also, the war’s end ushered in a period of agricultural upheaval, with industrialization. Farms, particularly in Iowa, gave up on the kind of diversity that kept my grandparents alive in Clay County during the Depression. Orchards, niche crops, livestock and vineyards were sacrificed to the great god of row cropping corn and soy beans. GMOs gained momentum after the Vietnam War, when Richard Nixon needed to find a way to produce cheaper food. So did high fructose corn syrup, which came with staggering increases in obesity and diabetes.
That was then; this is now
Most friends in the food industry are distraught these days about the future of the business. Luck and kind souls have a lot to do with it. For every owner I hear about being charged full rent by intractable landlords, I hear about a landlord who is forgiving rent for months when the businesses were not allowed to open. With $40 billion of real estate bonds in foreclosure as of October, it’s easy to understand both sides of this horror. Hotels are the hardest hit sector, by far. It’s so bad for them that one hotel owner told us banks won’t extend loans anymore because of the high risk.
Iowa Restaurant Association President and CEO Jessica Dunker admits there are valid reasons to worry.
“Since St. Patrick’s Day 2020, when restaurants and bars were closed by edict, mostly till Memorial Day, our industry in Iowa has lost $750 million. We estimate that by St. Patrick’s Day 2021, we will have lost 1,000 places across the state, permanently.”
She went on to explain that the number 1,000 would be about 15 percent of Iowa’s venues, and that we would be better off than most all states if our losses are limited to that.
“In my 10 years at the Iowa Restaurant Association, prospective members have often asked me, ‘What do I get for my membership?’ I have always taken the time to talk about our money-saving and networking programs but have most emphasized our legislative and regulatory advocacy. If you have called our office in the past four months to get clarification on a mandate, ask a question about the PPP or CARES Act, share your concerns with one of our Senators or Congress people, or ask about unemployment benefits, you have experienced firsthand what a $35 per month membership pays for. If you sat in on a Zoom call, downloaded information from our website, or called for a contact or phone number for a state grant or tax deferment application, you have experienced firsthand what a $35 per month membership pays for. If you have taken advantage of what the Association has offered in the past four months without paying the $35 per month, it’s OK. Our interest was in helping the industry — member or not. However, now we must ask you to join.
“Like you, we have laid off employees and cut expenses. We have lost revenue-generating events and classes. We are not funded by the National Restaurant Association. We are funded by the $35 per month memberships of your peers in Iowa’s hospitality industry,” she said.
Dunker is convinced that most restaurants and bars in Iowa, the ones that heed recommendations about social distancing, mask wearing employees and disinfecting tables and chairs after turning tables, are much safer than private parties and other less careful places.
Keeping it safe
Table 128 in Clive is an excellent example of this. Plexiglass barriers have been installed between tables, and the number of tables has been reduced. It’s a surprisingly smart look, “COVID–mod.” At most Full Court Press restaurants, similar care has been taken. Booths are separated by plexiglass that extends high enough to protect any adult from those in the next booth. That group of 17 restaurants has expanded patio space where possible. Rita’s Cantina built a super new patio this year for instance. Ingersoll Tap also installed plexiglass between the bar and bartender.
Dunker and IRA lobbied hard to allow restaurants and bars to utilize surrounding space for outdoor seating. Some smaller town restaurants have even moved into streets. The city government introduced “Dine Out Des Moines,” a permit program that allowed business owners to convert outdoor space into patios.
Outdoor dining space has been a godsend to many places in town. Places with lots of it — Gilroy’s, Eatery A, Centro, Exile, Hessen Haus, Malo, The Beerhouse, El Patio, Jasper Winery, Mullets, Ernie’s Boondock, The Hall DSM, Trellis, 1908 Drafthouse, Wellman’s Pub, Club 525, Tangerine at the Des Moines Art Center, Café Baratta’s in the Iowa Historic Building, The Chicken Orilla, Trostel’s Greenbriar, Smash Park, and Iowa Taproom — have been doing better than most places without it. Tiny Bartender’s Handshake built an outdoor space behind their venue. Jesse’s Embers set up picnic tables in their parking lot. Gilroy’s also added outdoor seating in the parking lot. Americana did, too. Django found a little space outside.
With November ushering winter to town, fewer people will feel better about eating outdoors rather than inside. Surveys show that more people think outdoor dining is safer than indoor. The studies on whether it really is safer are conflicting. The Centers for Disease Control does recommend dining outdoors. Europeans, New Yorkers, Texans and Californians have embraced winter outdoor dining for decades, with covers, space heaters, wind breaks and hot toddies. Western Europe has a much milder winter than Iowa, and the American South and California don’t really have a winter. Still, look for a few places to invest in space heaters, outdoor fireplaces, windbreaks and other things to extend their patio seasons. Think of things you have seen tailgating in kinder Decembers.
Takeaways from take away
Take-out is the rage that is here to stay. It’s been conquering market share for decades. Most drive-by equipped fast food joints announced their business had become primarily take-away in the 1990s. Now it is overwhelmingly so, as many fast food joints don’t even offer sit-down now.
Fast food is tweaking menus. Popeyes announced it will bring back its Cajun turkey dinners for the holiday season. Also, that New Orleans chain will serve raspberry cheesecake fried pies. Popeyes chicken filet sandwich was the most successful new product in the industry last year. Arby’s began selling prime rib cheesesteaks, and Hardee’s introduced three new prime rib offerings — a burger, a breakfast biscuit and a burrito. Chick-fil-A brought out chocolate fudge brownies and tested honey pepper pimento chicken in some markets. A visit to my local McDonald’s revealed no regular hamburgers on the menu, except for the kids’ menu. With limited seating, all places seek to increase the per order revenue.
Dairy Queen introduced pumpkin cookie butter shakes. Dunkin’ Donuts offered Halloween decoration kits this year along with ghost pepper donuts. Blaze Pizza partnered with Nestle to give away Nestle Crunch bars on Halloween. Hormel began selling bacon-scented face masks. KFC developed a new dipping sauce for their tenders. It’s described as “sweet, tangy and smoky.” They also offered fries for the first time. With great fanfare, Chipotle brought back carnitas and began testing cilantro-lime-cauliflower rice. Del Monte, the fruit maker, has invented a pink flesh pineapple. It’s called Pink Glow.
Domino’s brought out chicken taco pizza. McDonald’s announced all day breakfast was returning with a new line of fresh bakery items. Wendy’s introduced a pretzel, bacon, cheeseburger. It’s surprising to see fast food joints, even with drive-through, closing. But that’s become a real thing here.
Less is more
The sit-down and independent world is not as interested in bringing out new menu items. In fact, the trend there is to reduce the size of menus. Table 128 had a 15-item menu, for lunch and dinner, in October. Lucca used a menu with 15 items, too. They were doing far more carryout than dine-in orders when I visited. Eatery A, which is now open for lunch, had 23 items plus side choices. Most places reduced hours, but the patio at Eatery A is so popular they extended their hours to include lunch. Brandy Lueders told us that her take-out-only place, The Grateful Chef, is doing so well with limited menu and limited days of operation that she hopes to open a second place, perhaps in Colorado.
Amazingly, a lot of new places have opened since St. Patrick’s Day, while even more have given up. St. Kilda’s, which had opened a store in the former Starbuck’s (Iowa’s first) in the Temple of the Performing Arts, closed from virus fatigue and was replaced by Northern Vessel, previously a cart. A state-of-the-art Kum & Go opened downtown. The Panera at 10th and Walnut closed, citing a lack of downtown workers. Santino’s, a marvelous Chicago restaurant, opened a store in Urbandale’s Tuscany Plaza, a real estate development that was stalled by real estate meltdown of 2008. Unrvled opened in West Des Moines, with mostly carryout barbecue. Capriotti’s, a Las Vegas based sub chain, opened in Clive with wagyu beef, whole, house baked turkeys and homemade meatballs.
Kelly Sharp closed her wine bar Vino 209 with this statement: “While the requirement for restaurants to close earlier this year created extreme hardship for many small businesses, it is impossible to succeed while operating at half capacity. We’ve recognized that business can’t continue despite the best efforts of our dedicated staff and the support of loyal customers.”
Ruby Tuesday filed for bankruptcy and said goodbye to 185 restaurants. Price Chopper announced it was closing its store on 86th in Johnston. A press release said the virus was not a factor, and that they could not survive because one major access road after another had been closed for highway reconstruction.
Joe Tripp had one of the most drastic ideas for staying in business during the pandemic. He temporarily converted his Harbinger into Basic Bird with carryout-only Korean dishes like fried chicken, bipimbap, kimchee, dumplings and pork belly. Tripp says he is looking for a separate venue for Basic Bird when protocols allow restaurants to serve full houses.
Some places have upgraded their carryout style. Bubba’s packaging is so nice I feel like giving it away as Christmas presents. I recently was offered an opportunity to buy “designer paper napkins” at $12 for 13 napkins. This isn’t for everyone because cost cutting is important, with margins being eaten up for delivery services, which usually charge both the customer and the restaurant.
Growth in chaos
Dogtown, Highland Park and Beaverdale saw a spike in new construction and renovation. Rico’s, a sports bar specializing in fried foods like wings and fish, opened in Dogtown featuring Raider games. Lucky Horse Burger and Bar opened in the former Crazy Horse Guitar store, also in Dogtown. So did Dough Co, a pizza place that sells slices and pasta.
About $1.4 million will be invested in the 125-year-old building that’s home to Chuck’s Restaurant to fix a falling roof and exterior wall, upgrade mechanical systems, improve the façade and renovate upstairs apartments that have been vacant for several years. The project is a partnership between the restaurant’s owner, Emily Jones, Neighborhood Development Corp., and Invest DSM, a nonprofit designed to make investments in four target neighborhoods to improve housing stock, increase amenities and attract new businesses. The renovation is one of several high profile changes in the historic Highland Park and Oak Park neighborhoods, where Invest DSM has spent nearly $750,000 on upgrades and special projects in the past year.
The Sixth Avenue business district in Highland Park has been a major focus, including a complete overhaul of the venerable Highland Park Bakery, the planned Slow Down Coffee Co. in the space formerly occupied by iconic Hiland Park Hardware, which closed last fall, the opening of a modern- day general store called Des Moines Mercantile, and façade improvements at Ichi Bike.
Old-fashioned butcher shops are coming back. The Sioux Center News reported on a new business that is planning to market cattle raised in northwest Iowa, in Waukee. Two brothers plan on opening the meat store with conservation conscious business practices. “The connection to Waukee is that we plan to sell our beef at the business I am starting here in Waukee — Old Station Meats,” explained Nick Lenters.
Fareway plans stand-alone meat market
Fareway Meat Market in Beaverdale would be the first of its kind in the Des Moines area. The store will offer a full-service meat counter, artisan cheeses, high quality wine, top shelf spirits and craft beer, as well as prepared barbeque and other carry-out food. It will replace the U.S. Bank on Beaver Avenue, which closed last year. Fareway is planning to demolish the former bank building and build a 7,800-square-foot meat market that would be closer to the street. About 30 parking stalls would be behind the store, and a small patio would be located on the northwest corner. The company hopes to break ground in 2021. This will be the fifth meat market for Fareway, which operates 123 stores in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota.
Hy-Vee, a humble “friendly smile in every aisle” company, went Hollywood with two expensive celebrity moves. They partnered with the Wahlberg family to convert their rather new Market Grill cafés into Wahlburgers. Then they hired Patrick Mahomes, the hottest sports celebrity, as spokesman. ♦