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La Trattoria Idea: “Nonna Wall” of Photos

Ritorno Ristorante in Oakville, ON has decorated an entire dining room wall with framed photos from guests of their mothers or grandmothers. Owner Julia Hanna dedicated her “Nonna Wall” to “honoring the women in our lives who fed and nurtured us, putting their own wants and needs aside.”  For every framed “nonna” photo guests donate, the restaurant donates a meal to a local family in need!  Knowing that their “nonna” is part of the restaurant helps customers feel especially close to Julia and her team!

Julia Hanna, Owner
Ritorno Ristorante
Oakville, ON

Menu Anchoring

Menu engineering can influence how guests perceive a restaurants’ offerings.  That is why Jon Doemel strategically added a $50 all-meat pie called the “Meatpocalypse” to his menu.  While he doesn’t sell many of these pricy pies, Jon believes that anchoring the high end of his menu with super-premium priced items (like “market price” lobster or a $150 bottle of champagne) subtly elevates guest perceptions of the rest of the menu.

Jon Doemel, Owner
Oshkosh, WI

Feeding Families, Funding Restaurants

Dave Kuban at Dave’s Planet Pizza continues to help connect generous, community-minded guests with opportunities to support those in need. Recently, he partnered with a local non-profit called “Filling in the Blanks” which distributes donated gift cards to hungry neighborhood families. For donors who wish to remain socially distant, Dave is also accepting donations via Venmo.

Dave Kuban, Owner
Dave’s Planet Pizza
Norwalk, CT

Setting Every Table

As his ristorante returns to 50% in-dining, third generation owner Len DiBella wants it to feel warm, inviting, and “full” despite 50% occupancy limits. To avoid leaving “unavailable” tables baren (or removing them), Len’s team dresses them with tablecloths, plates, and even bottles of wine, as if special guests are soon to arrive. Each is marked with a fun sign like “Reserved for Marlon Brando.” Len even “seats” several celebrities (cardboard cutouts) including Danny DeVito and Nicolas Cage throughout the restaurant. While the difference seems subtle, pleased guests say seeing the restaurant fully set just feels more “normal”. Mission accomplished!!


Leonard DiBella, Owner
​​​​​​​​Luigi’s Restaurant
Old Saybrook, CT

Custom Painted Screens Help Distance Tables

To help COVID-sensitive diners feel more relaxed in their cozy trattoria, the Fancelli family created portable screens to separate individual tables. The screens, which were attractively hand-painted with Old Country scenes by a local artist,also make each table feel more romantically intimate! BRAVO!


Steve and Elaine Fancelli, Owners
Lola and Giuseppe’s Trattoria
Gahanna, OH

Walk Up Window Sales

To reduce his team’s Covid-19 exposure, pizzeria owner Derrick Tung has kept his downtown Chicago dining room/open woodfired kitchen closed to customers, opting to instead focus on contactless pickup and delivery. To help offset lost dining room sales, without bringing customers inside, Derrick installed a sidewalk-facing service window and began offering oversized NY style slices and bottled beverages to passers-by. Incremental walk-up sales have already paid for the window and are contributing nicely to the bottom line.

BONUS IDEA – to encourage new walk-up customers to return more often, Derrick’s team gives away random playing cards with each purchase. If at the end of the day, their card (dated and stamped with the restaurant’s logo) matches one randomly drawn by Derrick on Instagram, they win a free pizza!

Derrick Tung, Owner
Paulie Gee’s Logan Square
Chicago, IL

All hands on deck during this time of need

Prior to Covid-19, the DeFranco family successfully catered dozens of upscale weddings and other special event for decades. But as all of their bookings cancelled, the DeFrancos quickly shifted mindsets to selling family-sized replacement meals directly from their rural catering kitchen.

One thing that sped their successful transition was Joe DeFranco’s email newsletter. For years, he had used it to share short stories with friends and catering customers about what it was like to grow up in his father’s Italian butcher shop. KEY IDEA – Communicating genuinely entertaining content over the years gave customers a reason to look forward to each edition.

Along with family stories, Joe began using his newsletter to describe the latest Italian comfort meals available for touchless pickup, directions to their farm, and Covid-19 precautions the family is taking (including sanitizing any cash they receive) to protect their customers.

Even their granddaughter Tatiana has been helping transition to takeout. KEY IDEA – Tattiana decorates each cardboard rectangle (cut from ingredient cases) the family places in bags under sauce and soup containers to keep them steady for the ride home. Her hand-colored pictures include her own homey messages like “Stay Safe!”, and “Grazie!”

Joe and Joelene DeFranco, Owners
DeFranco and Daughters Catering
Bangor, PA

Drive-in Movie Night

Covid-19 forced restaurateur Jon Doemel to close his dining room and increase off-premise sales. To give local families a fun, socially-distant outing, Jon hosted a “drive-in movie night” in his restaurant’s large parking lot. For $24/car, families watched cult-classic “The Goonies” from their vehicles. Jon’s masked employees sold pizza, canned sodas, and other movie snacks from outdoor tables. The restaurant even provided outdoor handwashing facilities and porta-potties. To broadcast the soundtrack over car radios, Jon bought an inexpensive FM transmitter on Ebay.

Jon publicized the event, which sold out, a week ahead of time on Social Media. The $24/car covered the film’s broadcast rights, projector and screen from a special event company, and portable restrooms. Meanwhile, food sales were brisk and profitable! Jon plans to soon repeat the successful event by showing Superman!

Editor’s note – Showing classic films on portable screens or the side of a building can also transform socially-distant patio dining into teatro alfresco!

Jon Doemel, Owner
Oshkosh, WI

Visually Reinforce Hygiene Online

Here is food for thought as restaurants move forward. Even after lockdowns ease, some, but not all, guests will remain hyperaware of whether restaurants appear to take food safety (including pandemic masks/ gloves/ distancing/ obvious wipe-downs) seriously. This includes how they see you and your team behaving in online pics. Whether in person or online, consistently demonstrating that you take distancing and other safety protocols seriously helps put their minds at ease. It may not seem fair, but to a safety-sensitive customer, seeing a small visual cue, like gloveless hands touching food, risks losing their confidence and future patronage.

Employee Appreciation Day

When C19 hit Ohio, the loss of dining room traffic was tough for pizzeria owner Steve Cocca Cocca’s Pizza . But thankfully, his takeout and delivery demand eventually bounced back. But by then, 25% of his staff had left for various reasons. Short-handed in prep and delivery, Steve kept newly-idled servers employed by offering them kitchen and driver positions. Ever since, everyone has worked really hard, adapting to new roles and responsibilities without complaint.

Steve wanted to do something tangible to thank them. So he told his team that Saturday, May 16 would be “Employee Appreciation Day.” He would pay their regular wages that day, but all sales would go into a pot split by the team. He challenged them to spread the word to make the event as big as possible.

Employees made signs, posted announcements on Facebook, told their friends, etc. Then, that Saturday, they worked harder than ever before. Thanks to their efforts, orders tripled as loyal customers thanked their continued hard work. One customer even contributed an extra $100 to “the pot.”

Employee Appreciation Day far surpassed Steve’s hopes. His team had “owned” the event and reaped the rewards. But most importantly, finding a way for customers to express the depth of their appreciation helped Steve’s team feel truly loved by their community.

Steve Cocca, Owner
Cocca’s Pizza
Boardman, OH

Introducing Socially Distanced Dining

Amadeo Amelio and his family have Pomodoro Grill an upscale table-service ristorante in Vero Beach, FL. Regulars come back time after time for their favorite fresh seafood, veal, or pasta entrée prepared to order.

During lockdown, Amadeo adapted curbside takeout. But as Florida began to partially “reopen”, Amadeo wanted to rethink his dine-in service in order to maximize guest enjoyment, while ensuring team and guest safety.
To reduce unnecessary human contact, while still allowing guests to enjoy an intimate dinner with minimal distraction, Amadeo wanted to control the flow of people coming into the restaurant.

To promote comfortable distancing, he removed half his tables and spaced-out the rest. Then, to meter guest flow, the restaurant began taking a limited number of reservations for each of three dinner seating’s at 4:30 pm, 6:00 pm, and 7:30 pm.

Guests are not expected to wear masks at their tables. But Amadeo’s team remains fully masked and gloved at all times. To prevent cross contamination between tables during dinner service, servers rewash hands and put on fresh disposable gloves between visiting each table.

Arriving guests can access touchless hand sanitizer. Laminated menus and pens are set aside for thorough sanitation before reuse.

So far, guest reaction has been positive. The 1.5 hour period is long enough for them to relax and enjoy their meal, while still allowing Amadeo’s team adequate time for a complete bleach solution wipe-down of all surfaces, including tables, chairs, door handles, etc.

Amadeo’s regulars who want to see his family’s restaurant succeed also seem to genuinely appreciate the obvious extra effort being taken on their behalf!

Amadeo Amelio, Owner
Pomodoro Grill
Vero Beach, FL

Streamlining Menu for Short Staff

When C19 hit, pizzeria owner Adam Tucker was suddenly left short-staffed. (Several members of his already lean staff began self-isolating for health reasons.) Because his business was already built around takeout and delivery, Adam was well-positioned to adjust to consumer “social distancing.”

The bad news was that, despite sales being down a bit, Adam’s now extra-lean crew was straining to keep up with the orders they did have. Furthermore, there was no way of knowing how long “social distancing” would remain “the new normal.”

That is when Adam decided to proactively reconfigure his business approach to adapt to changing consumer behavior.
KEY IDEA: Given the unsustainable work pace and sales declines, Adam took a hard look at his menu mix from a profitability vs. labor-intensity perspective. If he had to move forward with a leaner kitchen crew, he wanted to streamline his offerings to only sell items (like pizza) which were popular, profitable, and time-efficient to produce.

On the other hand, he stopped selling cold sub sandwiches and custom salads, which were less popular, low margin, and time-consuming to prepare.

Dropping low profit, high labor items life easier for Adam’s time-constrained team and helped restore profitability to sustainable levels. Managing ingredient inventories is also far simpler without having to worry about rotating bread, lettuce, and other high perishables.
Adam Tucker, Owner

Mifflin Pizza
Mifflinville, PA

How to Pivot when the environment changes

Prior to C19, Jonathan and Brianna Cowan had realized their dream of creating an intimate dine-in wood fired pizzeria featuring upscale adult mixology and a variety of tapas style dishes to be shared communally among friends.

Then thanks to C19, dining in was suddenly out and dining out was in. Rather than passively waiting for “normal” to return, the Cowans recognized that social distancing might be around for quite a while. So, they rethought their business model and decided “to become the best dang takeaway restaurant we can be!”

They wanted to give their ultra-premium pizza a suitably upscale presentation in customer homes. They also wanted to minimize the heat loss that occurs when relatively skinny pies are sliced before boxing.
Their solution was brilliant. To slow cooling, they began boxing their pies uncut and reinforced this as a point of differentiation with their customers.

To give customers an “upscale slicing experience,” they began giving customers attractively packaged “Takeaway Toolkits” with every order.
Each Toolkit contains a sturdy metal pizza cutter engraved with the pizzeria’s logo “to keep your pizza hotter/crisper while in transit,” reheating instructions for leftovers, red pepper, Parmigiano, and napkins.

While providing a sturdy stainless-steel cutter with every order might seem costly, most customers will stop taking new ones, once they already have one or two at home. Engraving the cutters also provides a lasting reminder than pizza from the Wooden Paddle is truly unique.

Jonathan and Brianna Cowan, Owners
Wooden Paddle Pizza
Lemont, IL

Adapting to Succeed

Located in Hong Kong, the upscale Black Sheep Restaurant Group has dealt with C19 longer than most North American restaurants. To help other restaurateurs benefit from their experience, they created a Covid-19 Playbook of “best practices” from re-opening to what “next steps” to consider if informed that a recent guest was likely contagious.

Here are some key ideas.

  • Distancing – We are only setting every other table but are looking at more long term changes and will remove tables. We believe physical distancing is going to be part of the ‘new normal’ for the foreseeable future.
  • Storing guest masks – Offer a hygienic option for guests to store their masks in during the meal. We use a small paper bag with a sticker, but even an envelope works.
  • Tableside sanitizer – You can never have too many wipes or hand sanitizers available, ideally something on every table.
  • Spotless appearances – Guests are very sensitive to hygiene and anything that even looks messy will translate to unclean in their minds, so everyone’s uniforms, hair, nails, any surfaces guests can see, it all needs to be tidy and spotless, now more than ever.

While we don’t necessarily agree with all of their suggestions (some are pretty extreme), reading the rest of their C19 playbook might spark some valuable “what if?” ideas of your own.