For as long as he has to, Clarity chef-owner Jon Krinn is dumping the luxury approach at his essential small plates restaurant in Northern Virginia. A kitchen that used to turn out $88 tasting menus full of international ingredients like wild Scottish wood pigeon is now focused on supporting local purveyors, and Krinn is turning to comfort foods like pho, smoked pork shoulder banh mi, pupusas, and four-cheese focaccia pizza to keep his business afloat on curbside pickup while the coronavirus outbreak decimates the hospitality industry.
“You can’t just take fine dining and put it in a bag,” Krinn says.
The chef’s pivot, certainly not unique in the area, is intended to give regulars a reason to order pickup from the 5-year-old restaurant a few times a week. Virginia is observing a “stay-at-home” order through June 10, which means a dine-in ban could last months. So Krinn is serving lunch for the first time at his strip mall gem in Vienna (442 Maple Avenue E). Virginia craft beers from Solace, Port City, and Aslin are for sale in 32- and 64-ounce growlers. Krinn even launched a new website for the to-go business.
“My first inclination was to start a completely new business,” Krinn says. “If you truly have some ‘clarity,’ which why I named it that, a successful pivot means I need to align the product with the environment and needs and desires of the community.”
The chef says he learned a painful lesson from 2010, when he had to close modern American Inox in Tysons Corner amid the Great Recession.
“I had a large, beautiful restaurant with no business. I lost it,” says Krinn. “I had some very serious financial and life decisions to make — one of those was to develop a set of skills that enabled me to make better decisions in the future so it wouldn’t happen again.”
To help the restaurant adapt, Krinn bought a Traeger patio smoker. Now he’s smoking a rotating list of specials like half-racks of St. Louis-style ribs glazed in pineapple reaper pepper barbecue sauce ($18). Whole baby Spanish octopus gets cooked sous vide overnight before hitting the smoker.
Even with a 70-person staff, Krinn says he hasn’t had to let anyone go or cut any hours. His main mode of promotion is posting on Facebook.
Clarity’s strategy now is to lean on family and staff for recipes. Krinn’s wife is Vietnamese, and his pho had to be approved by her and his mother-in-law before he could put it on the lunch menu. Honduran line cooks are overseeing zucchini, bean, and cheese varieties of pupusas that are available for lunch and dinner.
“I said, ‘Why didn’t you do pupusas a year ago? This stuff is fantastic!’” Krinn says. “They say ‘You never asked.’”
Krinn’s dad is Clarity’s resident bread maker. He’s using rice flour to make banh mi buns, baking off cinnamon rolls, and producing gluten-free bread for retail loaves.
A pure and Unstoppable Force and my ultimate inspiration and role model. My Dad, Dr Mal Krinn, just god damn get'n it done, right in the face of all this (but behind our glass wall and socially distanced). Experimenting with rolls for my Banh Mi project that we are starting tomorrow. Always attacking the new and unexplored. Share to anyone that needs a pick me up. Note: his puffed cheeks are like Michael Jordan's tongue waggle #donttryjustdo #bestdadever #ifyoucanthangjustwalkaway #gonnagethroughthisPosted by Jonathan Krinn on Friday, March 27, 2020
One of Krinn’s most recent hires is a cook who came over from a Spanish restaurant, so they’re tasked with making vegetarian and smoked duck paellas starting this week.
Krinn says he’ll likely make takeout a permanent fixture when Clarity gets the go-ahead to reopen in full.
“There is going to be a new normal,” he says.
Krinn did lose one restaurant to the recession in 2010, but he’s weathered tough economic times. He opened Falls Church standard bearer 2941 in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks of 2001.
“In my experience this is not the time to panic,” Krinn says. “As a small business you just do it.”