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Restaurants Reinvent Themselves For Thanksgiving And Beyond: 'You Just Pivot'


Pivot is the word of 2020 for many restaurants trying to survive the pandemic year in any way possible. Well, Thanksgiving, as a holiday centered around food, is prompting many restaurants to find ways to reinvent themselves no matter their cuisine. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Yuko Watanabe describes her menu as Japanese comfort food, the sort of thing someone's mom would cook after school - lately, a lot of soup.

YUKO WATANABE: Ginger pumpkin soup, yellow tomato soup, chicken kale soup.

SELYUKH: Normally, people would slurp these happily inside her three Yuko Kitchen restaurants in Los Angeles. But when crowds vanished from the street and her phones grew quiet, something else took over the chairs and tables - a mini jungle.

WATANABE: I have spider plants, bamboo, Swedish ivies.

SELYUKH: Selling plants was her biggest pivot of the year, turning Yuko Kitchen into a place for nourishment of the body and the soul. Now comes Thanksgiving, a holiday when she closes her restaurants and normally doesn't do anything special.

WATANABE: And this year, for the first time, I make green tea cheese pie for Thanksgiving.

SELYUKH: Your classic Thanksgiving dessert, green tea cheesecake.

WATANABE: (Laughter) Yeah - Japanese twist.

SELYUKH: In a year of devastating shutdowns, few restaurants can afford to ignore America's big celebration of food. Even storied establishments were offering to cater Thanksgiving to go, like the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in California or the restaurant group serving the U.S. Senate and several Smithsonian museums in the nation's capital.

EDDY SANTIAGO: Fight or flight.

SELYUKH: Eddy Santiago is a general manager who helps run his family's Italian restaurants in Virginia - Giardino and Villa Bella.

SANTIAGO: You just pivot. How can you add value and keep your business afloat? If that means I got to make cannolis for a thousand people a day, then that's what I have to do.

SELYUKH: Whatever it takes to draw people to your restaurant and make their lives easier. Early in the pandemic, Santiago and his wife raided their party supplies, packing Dr. Seuss-themed gift boxes for families who come to pick up kids' meals. They delivered wine and beer, made grill packages for summer cookouts. Classic Italian appetizers for Thanksgiving were a no-brainer.

SANTIAGO: We don't do bird, so we're doing prime rib for five or for 10. That's, like, party of four or a party of eight plus a little bit extra.

SELYUKH: In Washington, D.C., the local steak and fries chain, Medium Rare, has been delivering free meals to older people, those most at risk for the coronavirus. And as Thanksgiving approached, something, gnawed on co-founder Mark Bucher.

MARK BUCHER: There's only one meal that we eat all year that's really impossible to cook for one person, and that's Thanksgiving. It's expensive.

SELYUKH: So Medium Rare offered free traditional Thanksgiving dinners to folks over 70 at home alone for the holiday. Bucher expected maybe a couple hundred orders around D.C.

BUCHER: We'll top out over 3,000.

SELYUKH: There's 3,000 people who are elderly and alone on Thanksgiving?

BUCHER: More, because we're getting requests from people an hour away that we can't get to. And just in five days, we've probably gotten two-dozen requests that we've had rescinded because they've either gone to the hospital or long-term care.

SELYUKH: The deliveries are paid for by a large GoFundMe campaign and Medium Rare itself. Bucher started the year with a decent cash cushion thanks to some careful business planning. For example, a limited menu of a lot of beef and potatoes allows for economical buying. He's doing another Thanksgiving special, his annual turkey fry, a free frying service to cut back on accidents at home or help those without the means to cook. For pandemic safety, the fryers are going outside this year. The event is now at the Washington Nationals baseball stadium. Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.