In an effort to bring desperately needed revenue into restaurants that have been hamstrung by the novel coronavirus, some D.C. chefs and owners have joined a new online platform that lets them sell access to creative, exclusive meals set to take place whenever people can safely gather again.
To entice potential customers, the digital IOUs for sale on Save DC Eats will let buyers redeem lavish in-home dinners, whole animal roasts, and — in one case — private throwback meals from a nationally acclaimed restaurant that no longer exists.
The online marketplace launched last week using a Save the Eats model that started in Philadelphia. One of the first extravaganzas listed was a $3,000 pig roast (Southern or jerk-style) for 10 people cooked by Chris Morgan and Gerald Addison, the opening chefs at Maydan who were weeks away from opening their own live-fire restaurant in Navy Yard when D.C. instituted a dine-in ban. Amy Brandwein, the chef-owner of Italian standby Centrolina who was just nominated for a James Beard award for the fourth year in a row, is selling a six-course dinner with wine pairings from female producers for up to 20 people ($6,000).
The most intriguing option so far may come from Emilie’s chef-owner Kevin Tien, who’s in the running for local Rammy awards for Chef of the Year and New Restaurant of the Year. Tien is selling a $200 private dinner for two full of dishes he used to serve at Himitsu, a one-time national darling that mixed Tien’s penchant for Japanese and other Southeast Asian flavors with his Southern upbringing and Latin American chops.
Tien was surprised to see that he’s already sold about 20 of the dinners, but it’s too early to pick dates for them.
“For me, I knew that people love Himitsu so much, so I just wanted to be able to give them a unique and special thing,” Tien says. “I haven’t made anything from Himitsu since I opened Emilie’s, so I figured that was something extra special.”
Another interesting option comes from vegetarian Mexican fast-casual Chaia, which is selling yoga classes that end with tacos. Other restaurants have simply posted gift cards. Seng Luangrath and Bobby Pradachith, the mother and son team who run essential Lao restaurant Thip Khao, are selling in-home dinners, cooking classes, or bartending classes for 10 people.
Morgan, the former Maydan co-chef, became the D.C. liaison for the project after connecting with the Philly-based tech entrepreneurs behind the platform. After they vetted him, he created a massive contact list to solicit restaurants who want to join. With D.C. restaurants scrambling to stay afloat — D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said this week only 60 percent of them are still operating, and the ones that are only raking in about 20 percent of their typical sales — Morgan found his emails weren’t often returned. He had better luck cold-calling chefs.
All D.C. area restaurants are eligible to post a listing. They just have to fill out a form online and create a web page for their event on their own website or with a service like Eventbrite. Morgan and Co. have resources on the IT side to help there, too. Restaurants keep 100 percent of the money they raise.
“The best part about what we’re doing right now, in my opinion, is we’re not touching the money,” Morgan says. “You raise the money, all the money goes to you, and you can do whatever you want.”
The initiative can be a way to bring in money for undocumented workers who are ineligible for public aid. The money can also go toward rent or supplies if that’s what restaurateurs need. By contrast, federal stimulus money from the Paycheck Protection Program is only “forgivable” — a grant versus a loan — if restaurants rehire their full workforce and use 75 percent the money for payroll.
With a network of chefs across the country, Morgan is helping Save the Eats expand to other cities. There are already branches in Baltimore and the Twin Cities. New York, Austin, and Chicago could be coming soon, and Morgan says he’s in talks with Top Chef alum Joe Flamm to put on a collaboration dinner in the District.
In addition to the much-needed money, Morgan says committing to put on an event also helps provide a sense of optimism in a devastated industry.
“We hope that it’s pseudo-motivating to be like, “Hey, remember the there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”