GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids’ San Chez restaurants are joining the meal kit business, which is booming because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
From April 1 through June 30, meal kit delivery behemoth Blue Apron reported its sales rose 29% over the previous fiscal quarter and customer revenue hit a five-year high. From March 30 to June 30, Berlin-based HelloFresh saw U.S. meal orders nearly double, according to its quarterly investor report.
Starting Tuesday, San Chez Bistro and ROAM by San Chez will begin taking orders for family meal kits that will be available Friday. Each meal will feed up to four people. Customers need only order and pay online or by phone, pick up their kit at the restaurant, and heat and eat the prepared meals at home.
San Chez owner Cindy Schneider says the meal kits are meant to give fatigued families a break from cooking while a bolstering business hit hard by pandemic restrictions and fears.
“It’s been a terrible roller coaster, but my sister told me the only ones that get hurt on a roller coaster are the ones that jump off, so we’re staying on,” she said.
In the first week, ROAM will offer a vegetarian version of shepherd’s pie called forager pie. The take-and-bake kit comes with salad and rolls. San Chez Bistro is planning Spanish twist on classic comfort foods for families to kick off the long Labor Day weekend.
People who savor the experience of dining at San Chez and ROAM needn’t worry – Schneider says both restaurants will continue to welcome guests, with proper safety measures in place.
“People love to dine out,” she explained. “It’s a community thing here… it’s just a celebration that makes you feel good about life when you dine in our restaurants.”
REBUILDING AFTER RIOTS, COVID-19 CLOSURES
With the help of a skeleton crew of managers, San Chez Bistro and ROAM were ramping up takeout-only service when the riot happened in late May.
Rioters set fire to a dumpster outside the bistro, which charred the nearby brick wall. Schneider says insurance covered the restaurant’s share of damages, including replacing the loading dock, fixing the exterior doors and changing out the second story floors, which were damaged by water used to squelch the flames.
The restaurant reopened after several days of renovations, but with many people still working from home, lunch business has plummeted. And with ArtPrize scrapped this year, both San Chez Bistro and ROAM are bracing for more losses in September.
Schneider told News 8 last week that sales are well below 50% of what they were before the pandemic. She has shortened business hours and menu options to reduce food waste.
“It’s rough. We were really on a good roll January, February and the first weeks of March,” she said.
Part of the challenge is capacity restrictions that have halved the number of guests who can dine indoors. San Chez Bistro can hold 125 guests and Roam can welcome 35 under the executive order aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus.
But Schneider is thankful for July order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer mandating masks at businesses, which was a requirement at both restaurants earlier when they reopened in May after a nine-week shutdown.
Concerned about the popularity of shareable plates during a pandemic, Schneider introduced entrees at San Chez Bistro. However, she says people are still ordering tapas for the “little pod of people” they’re eating with and opting for the indoor dining experience.
Schneider says the pandemic has also led to other challenges: unreliable food supplies, a run on hand sanitizer dispensers and exponentially higher prices for necessities like disposable gloves.
NEW RESTAURANT ON HOLD
Schneider had been planning to open a third restaurant long before the challenges of 2020. Now, she says plans to open Beacon are delayed until early next year, at the soonest.
Specializing in coastal food and seafood boils, Beacon will take over the former overflow area of San Chez Bistro. Schneider said last week about 80% of renovations to the space are done. However, the area will temporarily revert to overflow seating for San Chez Bistro starting Nov. 1 to accommodate about 50 more customers.
Right now, San Chez Bistro can seat 16 guests outside. ROAM has outdoor seating for 24 people in a social zone along Monroe Center. But changes are coming as cooler temperatures near while capacity restrictions are still in place. Schneider says winter seating plans are in the works.
The restaurants’ survival plans also include applying for every possible grant and loan and advocating for the approximately 87% of employees retained to give them the best paycheck possible.
“We’re doing everything we can to stay above the water,” Schneider said.
While ROAM has only been around since March 2018, Schneider says it is “holding its own.” She says San Chez Bistro has survived for 28 years and isn’t going away now, either.
“Every day is a new conversation, every day is, ‘How are we going to get through this?” Schneider said. “We’re going to make it. We’re confident we’re going to make it and be better hopefully at the end of it.”