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Communal restaurants share struggles of adapting to COVID-19 pandemic

Restaurants where customers share food and cooking surfaces had to make major changes to adapt to the pandemic.
For communal restaurants, where customers eat from the same grill, plate or pot, things have been especially difficult during the pandemic.TODAY ilustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

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Throughout the pandemic, restaurants have been in a tenuous position: Experts largely agreed that indoor dining was unsafe early in the pandemic, capacity limits kept establishments from serving more than a few parties at a time and food shortages led to increased costs at some points.

For communal restaurants, where customers eat from the same grill, plate or pot, things have been even more complicated, as food options didn't easily translate to takeout and tables couldn't be easily rearranged for outdoor dining.

The operators of two restaurants spoke to TODAY Food about what it took to survive more than a year in the pandemic, the major changes they had to make to stay open and what their hopes for the future are.

The start of the pandemic

Alfred Lee and Tony Lau, the owners of K-Elements BBQ in San Francisco, California, said their restaurant had been open for three years before the start of the pandemic. With 22 tables inside and a nightclub feel, diners at the restaurant were able to grill their own meals using all-you-can-eat beef, pork and more. The restaurant focused on cultivating a social, friendly atmosphere, so things changed rapidly in the early days of the pandemic.

"I don't think we actually thought about having a future in this business at all," said Lau. "The model of the restaurant we had was completely reliant on the indoor dining. … We did not see a great future."

In New York City, 99 Favor Taste, a chain of five restaurants, quickly realized that change would be necessary. The restaurant offered both barbecue and hot pot, where diners cook food in a communal pot of broth.

"When the pandemic just started, we were concerned, we thought that the government was going to shut down indoor dining as it was getting worse and worse," said manager Joanna Lau, who spoke to TODAY via translator. "We were thinking about how to convert indoor dining to online ordering."

Transitioning to takeout

Since both barbecue and hot-pot dining require diners cooking food themselves, using raw meats and other prepared ingredients, it was difficult for both K-Elements BBQ and 99 Favor Taste to convert to a delivery model. Lee told TODAY that K-Elements BBQ changed its entire menu, staffing system and kitchen layout to start selling rice bowls and other meals, made with ingredients that they already had in the restaurant, online.

"That was completely different; our kitchen wasn't even equipped to handle that," he said. "If we were getting busy (with takeout orders), our staff was not able to handle that, because they weren't completely trained to do that type of work."

If things don't return back to normal, our business will never be back to normal at all.

Alfred Lee

However, the income from the sale of the rice bowls wasn't enough to keep the restaurant afloat, so, around June 2022, the pair began selling prepared meats that could be purchased in bulk.

"Just the sales our bowls wasn't even enough to cover utilities for the month," said Lee. "At that time, we had to lay off our entire staff except for one or two people, and it wasn't even enough to cover the salary. We had to dip into our savings just to pay for rent and pay for salary and all other expenses."

Lau said that period of the pandemic was "challenging," leaving the restaurant "struggling to survive."

In New York, 99 Favor Taste was able to set up ghost kitchens and sell meals across multiple delivery platforms, but did struggle to stay afloat. One of the chain's five locations closed permanently.

Both restaurant operators said they struggled with third-party delivery systems, who charge high fees, but were fairly reliant on them to deliver meals. Lee also said K-Elements BBQ dealt with virtual "dine and dash" scams where people would place orders, then say that they never received them, resulting in a refund.

"It wasn't worth it after all the fees that (delivery apps) take," said Lee. "And then on top of that, we lose all the revenue that we're supposed to make from the sale."

Transitioning to an outdoor setup

While both restaurants were able to return to semi-normal operations with their outdoor setups, setting up outdoor space came with substantial costs. Lee and Lau said their outdoor dining arrangement cost about $30,000. In New York, 99 Favor Taste opened outdoor dining at all of its locations and significantly expanded a back garden space at their Staten Island location; the projects cost more than $40,000.

While the cost was difficult to bear, Lin said it ultimately helped the restaurant.

"We were able to (set up) live music, set up a bar in the garden, and (have) a chill, interesting environment for people to hang out," Lin said. "That really changed people's dining experience and helped us a lot in terms of revenue."

Lin said that because the restaurant already offered individual pots where people could cook their meals, many parties weren't concerned about the setup of the food itself. The restaurant also implemented increased sanitization and cleaning protocols, something K-Elements BBQ said they also did.

While outdoor dining has been a significant help for K-Elements BBQ, the owners said it has its downsides: They need to hire more workers, which is complicated by nationwide staff shortages, and their club-like atmosphere couldn't translate to the outdoor environment. Because a ventilation system installed in the restaurant can't be used outside, smoke from the table grills can blow in the faces of customers, which can be annoying. However, the customer base seemed to expand: While the restaurant used to mostly cater to young adults in the 18 to 30 range, Lee and Lau said they had seen more families dining with them in their outdoor seating.

Lee said that, while it might have been easier to offer regular outdoor dining instead of the barbecue option, they never seriously considered doing so.

"We realized that if we were to change our model, I just don't know how we would go back to the old model," he said. "We didn't want people to think of the restaurant as a different type of place."

Reopening indoor dining rooms

Both restaurants said they were glad to be able to start opening their indoor dining, which they opened in late 2020 or early 2021, depending on state and local restrictions, but are still having difficulties because of capacity limits and mandatory distance between tables.

At K-Elements BBQ, the tables are bolted into the ground and connected to gas lines to operate the grill, so they can't be moved. This means that Lee and Lau can only use ten or 11 of their 22 tables, even though capacity limits are increasing, and as other restaurants are open for indoor dining, he's noticed that they have less people dining outdoors.

In New York, all four remaining locations of 99 Favor Taste have opened for some outdoor dining, and Lin said they have seen an increase in revenue "every single month" since that happened.

"As capacity increased, revenue increased," she said.

Hope for the coming year

While both K-Elements BBQ and 99 Favor Taste are able to keep their doors open for now, they're anxiously anticipating the coming months, and hope that the pandemic will continue to recede so that they can get back to normal business operations.

"If things don't return back to normal, our business will never be back to normal at all," said Lee. "Outdoor dining is great, it gave us a short lifeline in regards to helping us survive the pandemic, but but we hope everything will return back to normal."

Lin said, at 99 Favor Taste, they have always been "optimistic and positive about the end of COVID," but are hoping to use lessons they learned, like the benefits of outdoor dining, even as things return to normal.

"It has been a difficult time for the restaurant, for everyone," said Lin. "It has changed lives for everyone, but we would like to turn the crisis into opportunity now. In the future, we plan to do more sales online, marketing online. The pandemic, the crisis, has given us more opportunity for the future."