Nick Kokonas on dealing with Covid-19

The Chicago restaurateur tells Tina Nielsen about launching Alinea to go and what Covid-19 means for restaurants

On March 8, Nick Kokonas, the co-owner of The Alinea Group in Chicago, wrote a warning on Twitter.

“The hospitality sector is about to get crushed,” he tweeted. “4-5% of GDP is restaurant sector and we’re just beginning to see the effects of travel restrictions and quarantines. Hotels and restaurants will be the second wave of businesses needing help, especially mom and pops with low margins.”

This was just as the Covid-19 crisis was starting to look like a lot more than a blip in the US and was set to have profound impact on the country’s – and the world’s – economy. As a former derivatives trader, Kokonas was not surprised when things took a turn for the worse.

“I spent a decade of my life trading my own money.  You look for situations in that line of work where risks are asymmetric. Watching what was happening in Italy (and continues now unfortunately) it was easy to see that it was only a matter of time before it came to our shores,” he says. “The US is not China, but it isn’t even South Korea – we are governed much differently and independently. So it was easy to see that a) it was likely to happen, b) it was horrific c) it would decimate the hospitality industry here.”

Contingency plans

Alongside chef Grant Achatz, Kokonas owns three restaurants, Alinea, Next and Roister, as well as avant garde cocktail bar The Aviary. His experience meant that there were contingency plans in place for different potential scenarios.

They included “everything from the legalities of optimising our employees’ benefits through a furlough to rent abatements, mothballing the restaurants, setting up kitchens either for to-go food or, if need be, to feed the community if things get really bad,” he explains.

Pretty soon after restaurants shuttered for dining in Chicago, Alinea launched its to go service, not something anybody would ever have expected to see from Chicago’s only restaurant to hold three Michelin stars. “About a week before the shutdown we considered take out as an option so long as it was safe for our employees and customers,” says Kokonas. “We were up and running three days after the governor of Illinois mandated shelter in place. We want to feed our communities and get our team members back to work.”

Alinea sells a weekly pick-up item, charged at $34.95 – the first meal was a beef short rib wellington with mashed potatoes and a crème brulee to follow.

The to go service has been very popular, Alinea sold out 3,500 beef Wellington meals, spread over seven days in the four hours they were for sale on Kokona’s restaurant booking platform Tock, which has also pivoted during the crisis to offer restaurants a chance to change their proposition. Similar initiatives were launched at Roister and Next.

Supporting the team

Of course, scaling back from full dining rooms and extended menus to the to go offer has meant downsizing staff too. “It was terribly sad to furlough employees, but we gave everyone a $1k stipend and benefits,” says Kokonas. “We immediately started figuring out ways to re-hire staff or at least some of them. Any profits that exist from our to go menus will go back to the employees as a whole group – ownership and management is taking no salaries or profits. We will support the team and get through this stronger.”

All told, 40 of 300 employees have been hired back about, something Kokonas hopes to ramp up if they are able to do so safely. “Everyone who works for our teams understands the mutual sacrifice and every employee is being paid identically regardless of their former positions,” he says.

Safety remains the priority – the teams who are working on site have mandatory temperature checks before entering work and hourly hand washing monitored and logged. Safe spacing and distance are implanted and all staff wear kitchen gloves, including FOH people taking food out to cars as well as contactless pickup via two way text messaging built into Tock to Go, which Kokonas spent more time on than he did on The Alinea Group TAG related food.

Simple and delicious

Switching from an ambitious 15-course tasting menu, served in an elaborately planned setting to a one-dish take out is a new experience. Kokonas says that one of the challenges has been to keep things simple. “We had to dial back the ambition of our team in terms of doing wild, creative food,” he says. “Simplify and make it delicious was the constant mantra. Comfort food at a reasonable cost. The rest is just production; really not much different and certainly not more difficult.”

As far as the future for restaurants and foodservice operators is concerned, what does he think it looks like?  “Who knows? I’ll say this – a lot of operators were running way too tight to the bone every month and not keeping proper cash reserves, not running tight operations,” he says. “That’s going to change quickly simply because many will not survive and those that do hopefully have learned how critical that is.”

Beyond that, he concluded, we’ll have to wait and see. “No one has any idea what the rebound looks like because we are not yet in the worst part of this crisis in my opinion. I think that’s several weeks away.”

Tina Nielsen

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