This post is sponsored by Tyson Fresh Meats.
Restaurants across the US are gradually starting to bring back dine-in service, and many of them must balance these efforts with elevated demand for off-premises orders. Showing customers that their restaurants are taking appropriate safety measures in the kitchen and dining areas is just part of the challenge for chefs, who must also allay concerns about safety issues along the food supply chain.
At Heritage Restaurant & Caviar Bar in Chicago, Executive Chef and President Guy Meikle pivoted to off-premises in the beginning of the pandemic by offering family meals. As stay-at-home orders stretched into the summer holidays, he expanded the Heritage at Home menu to include specials such as the Mother’s Day Super Pamper Package and various grilling packages for Fourth of July.
In this interview, Meikle explains how the pandemic has affected his business, what he’s doing to make consumers feel safe and the role that food suppliers play in boosting chef — and customer — confidence.
How has the pandemic changed your back of house operations?
The pandemic has changed my perception of what it means to plan a menu. I always approached it from the standpoint of what do I want to serve, and why? It usually breaks down by utilizing every flavor-building component that we can find in inventory first, and finding cuts of meat, or produce, that tell a story.
As supply lines into the city began to dry up, I started buying whatever I could and then figuring out what avenue of sales it was going to go into versus starting with a plan and then having to continually readjust. As the supply lines have become more balanced, it has become easier. However, the lessons are still retained as we remain bumpy on consistency of sales. When we were running takeout only, we had no way of gauging interest or forecasting since there were no reservations. Then we decided to use our reservation system, Tock, to pre-sell family meals and kits for holidays. This increased our revenue and our forecasting ability. We have also been engineering dishes for specific social media blasts; this has given us the biggest boosts as people are excited about anything new.
Have you been communicating with suppliers about safety measures they have taken? How do these conversations help boost your confidence in the product you serve to customers?
I work with larger meat providers for some products, and smaller ones for others. I can communicate directly with the farmer/supplier and check on the precautions and status of their staff. For the larger manufacturers and suppliers, I talk with our sales representatives directly about what the status of the plants are, what they are producing and how they are handling shutdowns and restarts. I work with Tyson Fresh Meats for all of our beef and pork needs. They use two different programs that help give the consumer — both in foodservice and retail — the confidence you need. First, the FarmCheck program that validates all the farmers that provide product to Tyson Fresh Meats. That is something that not a lot of people understand: When you are using Tyson product you are essentially supporting small businesses. They consolidate 11,000 small independent ranchers across the US, use an external certification program and organize the product into brand-specific silos with rigid criteria. I can tell you first hand that Chairman’s Reserve, ibp Trusted Excellence and Open Prairie product are some of the highest quality I have ever worked with. Knowing what products come from specific plants helps in menu planning. Turning to frozen products is also an alternative, because in the hands of a skilled chef/cook, it still can be an amazing product. It boosts confidence in our customers as they know that we hand-manufacture all our products. Being in an open kitchen, patrons can see the care, discipline and sanitation that we put into our production.
What beef and/or pork dishes have been most popular among the Heritage at Home offerings?
The smoked pork Polish sausage and the smoked beef short rib.
The Polish sausage is made with pork cushion and ground pork, both from the ibp Trusted Excellence product line. The smoked pork Polish sausage and all of the dishes we use it for are popular because of several factors. One, the nostalgia factor. Everyone remembers the snap and smoky savory flavor of sausage just off the grill. Two, this is a unique item that you can’t get anywhere else, and it hits everyone’s punch list for a cool sausage. We infuse the sausage with kimchi, which helps the curing process and adds a spiciness and funkiness. We serve the sausage as a takeout option for grilling at home, as a sandwich with kimchi mustard, crispy onions and purple sauerkraut, and in our Family Meal Program as a part of shrimp boils and gumbos.
For the smoked beef short ribs, we use bone-in short rib plates, and then cut them down into individual rib sections. We take the time and effort to cure, smoke and process these whole bone-in beauties so customers don’t have to. If you can heat these up in 30 minutes, and look like a star, why wouldn’t you?
Do you plan to add new dishes to the Heritage at Home menu to keep up with continued demand for off-premises?
We have added some raw/brined items. We are trying to be a community resource and give patrons one spot where they can get a meal for now and items to use for the future from a place they trust. We find our audience growing as the world is slowing down. Guests seem eager for new experiences and new places they have not tried/always wanted to try. Life was fast, and “gambling” your time and money on an unsatisfying experience was a letdown. Now, people seem more forgiving and willing to try new things. We will see how the demand for at-home items holds once dine-in and patio dining become stronger.
How will you transition from off-premises to dine-in as Chicago restaurants reopen, and how do you plan to communicate to customers that it’s safe to return to the restaurant?
We send out weekly newsletters with our offerings. We waited several weeks to even open the patio. We are communicating it’s safe through our PR team, social media and direct mail, and our procedures are documented and posted for guests. We are glad people want to visit, but also glad there is still demand for at-home cuisine!
Guy W. Meikle is the executive chef and president of Heritage Restaurant & Caviar Bar, a hidden gem located at 2700 West Chicago Avenue. Born and raised in Chicago, he has worked in highly regarded restaurants, catering and consulting businesses for more than 25 years. Heritage Restaurant & Caviar Bar is a love letter to Chicago and to the people who immigrated there to build it, where Meikle works with his outstanding culinary and service team to create an approachable and fun caviar experience. Beyond the caviar experience, diners will find imaginative and delicious brunch, dinner and happy hour menus. Heritage Restaurant Partners combines a team of more than 15 partners who consult and develop projects internally and for major national brands. They are currently the R and D Team for Spice Mode Foods and represent on the Corporate Chef level five organizations including Avocados from Mexico and Tyson Fresh Meats.