The to-go containers filling up recycling bins across D.C. come at a steep price to restaurants. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants have been packing up their goods for customers to open at home, turning the takeout box into a high-demand, high-ticket item. While legitimate fears of spreading the coronavirus and consistently shifting restrictions for on-site dining have decimated business, restaurants that have adapted to the new demands have found that just hanging on requires all sorts of new expenses.
“It’s unbelievable,” says David Deshaies, the chef-owner behind popular brunch and dinner spot Unconventional Diner in Shaw. Without a doubt, he says, operating costs are higher now than they were before a public health crisis that’s stretched out for nearly a year. Deshaies shared several of Unconventional Diner’s expenses with Eater, offering a glimpse of the financial burdens restaurants face. Here’s a breakdown of various areas that have required emergency investments.
Deshaies says the restaurant invested $70,000 in packaging alone between March 2020 — when D.C. ordered its first temporary dine-in ban — and October. Now the business spends $4,400 a week to support pickup and delivery sales. Deshaies says the total exceeds 5 percent of his weekly sales of around $80,000, including:
- $2,000 a week on biodegradable boxes from Eco-Box
- $1,500 on deli containers and aluminum containers
- $700 on brown paper bags
- $200 on stickers
The cold winter months have brought even greater challenges as Unconventional Diner and other restaurants attempt to keep customers warm and safe at streetside tables in the chilly weather. Costs include:
- $17,000 for seven large tents
- $3,000 for eight gas heaters at the other restaurant Deshaies oversees, Central
- $100 a day on propane for those heaters — or $2,800 to $3,100 a month — just on gas
When indoor dining returned for the first time, in June, Unconventional Diner put thick plexiglass between seating sections in an effort to keep both employees and diners safe. The cost of the materials and installation was $14,000.
“It was a very expensive investment,” Deshaies admitted, “But it was worth it to keep our aesthetic and keep the restaurant feeling airy and open, even with more barriers.”
Deshaies says Unconventional Diner spends $550 a week on gloves. Spending on cleaning supplies has also mounted, especially given that the restaurant dedicates staff to cleaning tables and bathrooms after each guest pays a visit.
“We’ve been extremely careful throughout the pandemic,” Deshaies says. “We keep four doorways, and each is used for a different purpose — diner entry and exit, and delivery entry and exit.”
Of course, the fees associated with the various third-party delivery platforms like Caviar, Doordash, Uber Eats, and Postmates cut into profits. Delivery commissions — capped at 15 percent in D.C. — and the cost of takeout containers means “it’s just impossible to make the same margins as we did before,” DeShaies says.
What is it all for?
For Unconventional Diner, at least, these expenditures have not been in vain.
“Business has been steady, even during the winter,” he says, noting that delivery and to-go orders rose about 15 percent while D.C. enforced its latest indoor dining ban, from Christmas Eve through inauguration.
Still, Deshaies knows Unconventional Diner has been very fortunate. The drop in business from 2019 to 2020 was “maybe 25 percent,” he says. Unconventional Diner is still able to employ four sous chefs, three pastry chefs, and 12 line cooks. At this point, it’s operating with about 80 percent of its full staff.
“We had to let a few folks go during the January indoor dining ban,” Deshaies says, “But we brought our servers back once diners were able to come back in.”
Though there will be challenging months ahead while D.C. work to distribute a vaccine, Deshaies is confident there will still be demand for Unconventional Diner’s updated takes on old-school comfort food.
“Forty years ago, people in diners were eating burgers and chicken Parm and matzo ball soup, and I guarantee you, they’ll be eating the same dishes 40 years from now,” he says. “That’s why we do what we do.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the heat lamps Deshaeis bought were for Central restaurant