By: Brian Canlis, Canlis Restaurant – Seattle, Wa.
Like many of you, my family, my colleagues, and I have been in a state of shock.
Our restaurant, Canlis, is in Seattle which, as you probably know, was the first U.S. city to be hit by the coronavirus (COVID-19), with more cases to date than any other metropolis in the United States. The hospitality business here has been devastated in ways that our colleagues are just now feeling across the nation and around the world. There’s no denying that a pall of grim helplessness has settled in.
If there’s a slim, silver lining to getting hit early, it’s that we are able to share a little perspective with our colleagues who are reeling after the fast-moving events of the last few days. Because, while we remain shaken, we have managed to snap out of the stupor of surprise that initially overwhelmed us.
My colleagues at Team Welcome encouraged me to share what we’re doing to adapt to this moment with the community, and I’m happy to do it. We’ve had a good two days, just when we know full well that most of you reading this have had two of the toughest days of your careers. And we don’t know what tomorrow will bring for any of us. We’re still scared. But the hope is that the story of what we’re trying to do will spark positivity and ideas for those of you reading it. Nothing would make us happier.
The fear hanging over the country is palpable. And let’s be honest: as much as we fear for our lives and the lives of those most at risk, we also feel economic fear. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of. We’re worried for our jobs, our businesses, our families, and our futures.
Those things deserve our concern. They trigger our most primal desire to protect ourselves and the ones we love.
But fear can also paralyze us at the exact moment we need to think and take action if we want to survive.
The moment we broke free of our collective haze and decided to confront this new, if temporary, reality, came when our chef Brady Williams looked out over our increasingly empty dining room one night, and quipped, “We should just open a drive-through.”
He meant it as a joke, but a joke in normal times can be worthy of consideration when the world turns upside down. Canlis is actually set up for a drive-through because we have a porte-cochère outside our entrance. By definition this is an area through which cars pass to discharge passengers, or in our case, guests. And it only takes a small modification to shift from guests out of cars to take-out boxes into cars.
And so, we decided: Why not temporarily turn our restaurant into a takeaway spot?
As soon as we gave into the idea, we felt our outlook change. We poured ourselves a glass of wine and gathered to brainstorm what else we might be able to do to temporarily reinvent ourselves by offering hospitality at a distance, to provide what people crave while also honoring the need for safety and peace of mind.
As my brother and business partner Mark said, “Seattle might not need fine dining right now, but it still needs Canlis.” And we need them.
As a result of that empowering brainstorming, we decided to try two other adaptations: we’ve turned our bread kitchen, situated in our parking lot in a converted shipping container into an open-air bagel cafe, inviting people to grab and go in the mornings, or linger and eat in the security of their cars. (Our expediter Melissa happens to be a bagel genius who once ran a bakery in New York City’s East Village.) At night, instead of delivering food to guests in our dining room, our service team members get in their cars and shuttle family-style three-course dinners from our restaurant to people’s homes. The meals are simple—one recent night’s offering was our Canlis Salad, duck cassoulet, maple-glazed carrots, and chocolate ganache cake—but lovingly prepared, and you can reserve a delivery time the way you normally book a restaurant table.
We don’t know if this will work, but the feeling of taking this situation head-on and trying to problem-solve instead of remaining passive has been transformative. On a wave of media attention, our first two days have been successful, and guests supporting us means that we are able to support our local and industry economies—every cassoulet sold also helps support Sea Breeze Farm, who provide our duck, and Olsen Farms, who provide our pork. Same for the vegetables in our salads. And so on. (We’re also working on a community component of this program, developing merchandise and a frequency program that will benefit local hospitals. And to share our learning with our colleagues, we’re already collaborating with the team at Tock to help create new software that will give other restaurants online tools for incorporating, or converting to, home delivery.)
Things feel different at Canlis, at least for the moment. And that’s no small thing. Our team has shown up during the planning week for these changes, eager to get to work and serve our guests, and without the fear of being let go hanging over them like a cloud. And that’s a good thing. Seattle has enough clouds.
What’s been surprising, and amazing, is the response. Guests skittish about dining out are excited to engage with and support us. Industry friends and even friends in other industries have told us that our verve has spun them around toward the light, and made them realize they don’t have to give in to fear. That we all can, and must, fight.
Of course, not every restaurant has a porte-cochère, or a former bagel-maker, at their disposal. But that’s not the point. The point is: we’re in a battle for our collective professional lives, and I’m here to tell you that with a little cleverness and open-minded thinking, there are ways to temporarily reinvent yourselves to adapt to this moment. And there’s a world outside your doors eager to embrace and learn from the example you can set.
I was born into this industry but like so many of my professional brothers and sisters, one of the things I love about it is the myriad personalities it attracts. The free spirits. The creatives. The former wild childs. Before many of us were working in restaurants, we were throwing the best parties, creating the best theme dinners, and winning the Halloween costume contest.
It might not feel like it, but this is the time to get in touch with that part of ourselves, bring it into our businesses, and offer it to our guests and our communities.
What makes this moment so surreal is that it comes with the disruption of a natural disaster, but without the devastation to property and utilities. The threat is real, but we still have our stoves, our dining rooms, and our teams. Finding new ways to use them might just be the thing that saves them, and ourselves.