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Amid coronavirus, Omaha restaurants adjust to the crazy world of takeout

Amid coronavirus, Omaha restaurants adjust to the crazy world of takeout

Restaurants and bars in Nebraska are finding new ways to reach their customers amid social distancing. 

Restaurant owner Kesa Kenny has recently been painting patio furniture.

The tables and chairs invite people to eat outdoors at her intimate cafe, Finicky Frank’s, on Calhoun Road off Interstate 680. She says the task is giving her lots of time to think.

And she has lots to think about.

“I am out here trying to think of ways to change our menu to improve it for takeout,” Kenny said. “It has been a game-changer.”

Kenny, who has owned and operated Finicky Frank’s since 2007, is not alone. Chefs and restaurateurs across the city have been adjusting to offering only takeout food during the coronavirus pandemic.

In mid-March, Gov. Pete Ricketts mandated that gatherings be limited to 10 people, effectively closing their dining rooms. On Friday, he said restaurants could reopen starting May 4 at 50% capacity if they limit parties to six or fewer and seat them 6 feet apart.

But takeout is expected to remain a major part of restaurant business under those circumstances. Restaurants, which had to revamp operations almost overnight, will face challenges as they change course again.

And not all will reopen next week. Chef David Utterback of Yoshitomo announced on Facebook on Saturday that the dining room at his Benson sushi restaurant will remain closed and he will continue with only takeout and delivery as long as it is financially possible.

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Kesa Kenny, an owner of Finicky Frank's, posts a photo to facebook to keep her customers updated on specials in Omaha on Wednesday.

A survey conducted April 1 through 10 indicated that 78% of Nebraska’s restaurants remained open for carryout, delivery or both and that the same number planned to remain open the next 30 days, said Zoe Olson, executive director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association.

The change was difficult, especially for those who primarily were dine-in only.

They had to figure out staffing and how many to-go containers they would need. They faced cost increases and minor food shortages and had to adjust food orders. Chefs were forced to retool menus for expedience, which often meant omitting signature items and compromising their vision for the food.

Chefs we talked with reported varying success. Some started offering takeout and then closed, and others, such as Blue and Roja, launched takeout late in the game. Restaurants in the Hal Smith Group (Charleston’s, Mahogany and Smitty’s Garage) plan to reopen with curbside pickup and delivery this week. Virtuoso Pizza by David Losole had been open, but a message on its answering machine now says it’s closed until sometime in May.

Kenny said she has been selling out of her popular pan-fried chicken dinners on Saturday nights but the rest of the week is sporadic. She recently quit serving lunches because traffic was so low.

“Takeout is barely paying for itself,” she said.

She cut her staff to herself, her husband and one other person who occasionally comes in to help.

Finicky Frank’s, in a small strip mall near the Mormon Bridge, doesn’t have the counter space to easily handle multiple takeout orders. Preparing for the Saturday night dinner special is a nightmare because it requires several separate containers to maintain the food’s integrity.

“You know that episode of ‘I Love Lucy’ where she’s working in the candy line? That’s my world,” Kenny said.

She says she doesn’t know how fast-food restaurants cope.

“I would love a week’s lesson at Taco Bell,” she said. “I need an education.”

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Kesa Kenny makes cilantro rice in the kitchen of Finicky Frank’s. “Takeout is barely paying for itself,” she said.

Yoshitomo’s Utterback said his business is down about 50% since his dining room closed but it’s enough to keep his staff of 20 employed. His conversion to takeout and delivery wasn’t as onerous as Kenny’s because he already was doing it on a small scale.

Perhaps the biggest drawback for Utterback — a 2020 nominee for the prestigious James Beard Award — is that he had to pare his menu to the most basic sushi. There’s little room to be creative when you need to make money, be efficient and can’t get exotic ingredients such as flying fish from Japan.

“Our focus has been on casual fine-dining. A restaurant that gets nominated for the James Beard Award isn’t a restaurant that sells California rolls all day,” he said. “I am infinitely thankful for the support, but I feel like I am just making cheeseburgers.”

Chef Nick Strawhecker of Dante said he’s also had to compromise on his menu, creating fewer specials than usual. He’s still serving locally sourced entrees such as roasted Plum Creek chicken and porchetta, pork belly rolled up with fennel and black pepper and roasted in a wood oven.

The transition to takeout has been smooth except for the first weekend, he said. It’s successful enough that he has retained all his staff and hired two more people, and made roughly as much revenue in March 2020 as he did in March 2019. Alcohol sales have been especially brisk.

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Kesa Kenny, the owner of Finicky Frank’s, takes an order in Omaha on Wednesday.

That’s tempered, however, by the temporary closure of his other restaurant, Forno, in the Blackstone District, he said. He had to lay off 20 people there.

He credits the success of takeout at Dante to an early plan and constant communication with customers through email and social media.

Paul McCrae, owner of The Corner Kick Street Tacos and Tequila Cantina in Millard, is using the web in a similar way to promote a weekly drive-in theater in his parking lot. That has increased visibility but not necessarily revenue.

“All we did is push the dinner hour back. People are eating right before the movie,” he said.

The restaurateurs are taking special measures to ensure the safety of employees and customers, and they no doubt will remain in place when dining rooms reopen, beginning May 4. Each day, Dante workers take their temperatures as soon as they arrive and sign a document that they haven’t knowingly put themselves at risk of catching COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Both Utterback and Strawhecker said third-party delivery services are necessary but can cause problems when customers order through their websites and not through the restaurants. It’s hard to manage workflow when it’s interrupted by unexpected orders, especially when they’re supposed to be done with a short turn-around, they said.

“That’s why we don’t do it (delivery) on weekends anymore,” Strawhecker said.

Delivery services also charge restaurants between 20% and 30% commission.

Restaurant owners interviewed said they think takeout will remain important even as things start to open up again.

Utterback said carryout was becoming more popular even before the pandemic and that dining habits will continue to evolve.

“Some of these changes are going to be permanent,” he said. “It’s not the last time we’ll do this. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) is talking about it (coronavirus) coming back.”

Strawhecker said he was more worried about how to handle reopening than he was about takeout. The switch back, he said, “will be like opening a restaurant again.” He sees carryout as a component of his operation for the foreseeable future.

For Kenny, Ricketts’ announcement ended weeks of wondering how long the dining room would be out of service. Now she’s pondering how much staff to bring back and what will happen when she reopens.

She’ll take it day by day, the same way she has handled it up to now.

“I wanted to go home and just wait it out, but my husband said, ‘Nope, you’ve got to show them you’re still here,’ ” she said. “A lot of my customers are older people, and I appreciate their thank-yous, kindness, caring and compassion. They are risking their health by coming in to get a Reuben.”