'Keep ordering the food from us': restaurants adjust to takeout life

A chef At St. Clair College in Windsor, Ont. whips up a batch of stir fry on April 29, 2021. (Rich Garton / CTV Windsor)

In this lockdown, the third so far in Ontario’s attempts to quell the COVID-19 pandemic, many restaurants are struggling to keep the doors open.

As many turn to takeout they’re forced to consider a number of things to ensure customers keep coming back for more.

Carmine Incitti and his team at the St. Clair College Centre for the Arts offer dining for large gatherings, catering to thousands of guests at a time, but that hasn’t been the case for more than a year.

“You’re not cooking for thousands of people, you’re cooking for two, three four, maybe 10,” says Carmine Incitti, the executive chef at St. Clair.

It’s a significant down-shift both in the preparation process as well as staffing levels.

On a busy night, 30 people would typically scramble across the kitchen. But right now, the restaurant, which is only offering pick-up service, is coping with just three to four cooks.

“It’s still cooking, but in a different way,” says Incitti, who has revamped his typical menu to feature food items that have better staying power. He does this so his meals taste as good for takeout as they would, plated in the banquet hall.

“A lot of the products that we sell are like lasagnas and pastas with a lot of sauce,” he says. “We try to stay away from the breaded items.”

They’re also incurring greater costs — to purchase take-out containers that ensure freshness.

The executive at Grill 55 agrees, the struggle is real.

“The business is so bad because sometimes we get more orders, sometimes we don’t get any orders,” says Nehru Natkunam of Grill 55. “And plus we have the prep done already too, so there’s a lot of food waste.”

Natkunam says his non-pandemic staff of 16 is now just a couple people strong. He’s still cooking and says stirfrys and pastas travel best for take-out, but admits some popular food items don’t.

“French fries get soggy most of the time,” he says.

Even in the meal prep, chefs are forced to think about what will happen to the food ad how long it may be between when it’s done cooking and when it’s delivered to someone’s home.

“If anybody orders a medium steak, we try to cook it medium rare. Because by the time it gets there, it’s medium,” Naykunam says.

While both chefs admit take out isn’t a substitute for the dine-in experience, they’re imploring customers to continue supporting small local restaurants to ensure they’re around for years to come.

Chef Incitti says its also best to shift your take-out so it’s not always on the weekends, and regardless of where you eat the meal, one convention should remain the same.

“Give a good tip,” he says. “Give a good, good tip because they’re working hard and struggling like everyone else during the pandemic.”