Nostalgic for that gyro you ate 15 years ago? Lettuce is bringing back iconic brands.
Crain's Chicago |
Ally Marotti |
Jan 22, 2021
Original Article: "Nostalgic for that gyro you ate 15 years ago? Lettuce is bringing back iconic brands."
Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises has revived several of its extinct but beloved restaurant brands in recent months, hoping to tap into customers’ pandemic cravings for comfort food and nostalgia.
So far, the Chicago-based restaurant group has brought back menu offerings from Ben Pao, a Chinese restaurant that closed in 2011; Vong’s Thai Kitchen, which operated in River North from 2001 to 2009; Naoki Sushi, which closed before the pandemic and reopened as delivery only; and for a limited run last year, French restaurant Brasserie Jo, which shuttered in 2010.
Menu items from the restaurants have been available for carry-out and delivery only from other Lettuce restaurants.
The most recent restaurant to regain life is Papagus Taverna, a Greek tavern that has been closed for almost 14 years. Papagus’ food became available Thursday for carryout and delivery only, and is operating out of another Lettuce restaurant, Beatrix, in River North.
Bringing back Lettuce’s iconic brands provides an additional revenue stream for Chicago restaurants that closed indoor dining for almost three months, said Jerrod Melman, executive partner at Lettuce.
“There was just a little bit of excess ability to be working on this stuff because our dining rooms were closed,” he said. “It’s not like we’re making food for dining rooms full of people. The talent being around (and) the free time sort of intersected with us having all these cravings.”
Chicago and suburban Cook County are on track to resume indoor dining at 25 percent capacity tomorrow, according to state health officials. Industry operators have long said that their business models were not founded on partial capacity, but every little bit helps, and this move will likely save some on the brink of closure.
Restaurants have been scrambling to bring in as many revenue streams as they can this winter. Many have invested in igloos, heaters or other items to make outdoor patios viable during Chicago’s cold weather.
Some have launched stores inside their shuttered restaurants. A couple have launched COVID-19 testing facilities. Others closed entirely for the winter, hoping to reopen in the spring with fuller operations.
Bringing back old dishes is a smart pivot during the pandemic, said Lori Rakoczy, senior manager of research and insights at market research firm Technomic. Normally, limited time offers such as these include new or trendy foods, but the throwbacks are a novel approach to creating buzz.
“It could bring back old customers and drive traffic from new people interested in some of those things they used to offer,” she said.
Consumers’ cravings for comfort food spiked early on in the pandemic and have hardly dwindled, Rakoczy said. Lettuce’s offerings will play into that demand.
Most of the restaurants Lettuce has revived have been closed for more than a decade. But staff members that worked there are still employed with Lettuce and remember the recipes, Melman said.
Lettuce’s workforce has been roughly cut in half company-wide during the pandemic, he said. Every bit of extra sales help. On a busy week, Ben Pao, which is operating out of Hub 51 in River North, could bring in an additional 25 to 40 percent of revenue on top of what Hub 51 was doing, he said.
“They have definitely helped these restaurants stay afloat,” Melman said. “It keeps our cooks working, it keeps our carry-out folks working. They’ve been busier than we could’ve imagined.”