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This Seattle restaurant is redesigning its entire business model in response to the coronavirus

‘There are two things that haven’t changed: People need to eat and people need to work.’

This Seattle restaurant is redesigning its entire business model in response to the coronavirus

Canlis is one of Seattle’s top fine-dining restaurants, with a storied history and panoramic views of Lake Union. But Washington state — and King County in particular — are at the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis, so owners Mark and Brian Canlis knew they needed to rethink their business if they were going to stay afloat when fine dining is the last thing on anyone’s mind.

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They decided that, in the face of a pandemic, they’d meet customers were they are: at home. Starting Monday, March 16, Canlis will close its dining room for the third time in its 69-year history. (It previously closed after JFK’s assassination and in response to a “horrific traffic accident” near the restaurant in 2015.) Instead, it will open three pop-up replacements: a bagel shop, a drive-through burger joint, and a “family meal” delivery service that includes a bottle of wine. All three will be available on weekdays.

[Photo: Canlis]

The idea started at a team meeting on March 4, with a sense of fear hanging over the group. Tourism was already down in Seattle, and restaurants were taking a major hit. The restaurant was looking for a strategy to survive, according to co-owner Mark Canlis. But “there’s no hope in that,” he says. “You have to play as much offense as you do defense . . . So what would we look like from scratch? If my job is to feed and restore a city, then I have to do it inside the new rules.”

On March 9, the team started redesigning the restaurant’s entire operating system. They needed to figure out how to serve 1,000 burgers a day out of a kitchen with only one fryer, how to maximize their staff’s capabilities, and how to keep its 115 employees on. Luckily, a restaurant supply company donated two fryers and a commercial mixer; meanwhile, expediter Melissa Johnson will be “Queen of Bagels,” cooking bagels out of a shipping container in the restaurant garden. Servers will be deployed as delivery people.

The new approach also meant looking at their physical space with fresh eyes. While Canlis has beautiful views from the dining room, the restaurant is right off a busy highway, which isn’t necessarily the best element to play up in fine dining. But if you’re offering takeout, that becomes a selling point.

In addition to the 1,000 burgers, Mark says they expect to produce 400–500 bagels a day and 200 to-go dinners a night. On a normal day, he says the restaurant had about 150-200 reservations.

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The restaurant’s ability to adapt had a lot to do with a community coming together: seafood companies donated food because no one was buying; packaging companies donated supplies; they worked with reservation platform Tock to “turn our restaurant into a delivery service” in a matter of days. They also made their own commitments: They’ll continue to buy from the same purveyors, but that beef will now be ground into patties.

The new model is voluntary to staff, but everyone has stayed on. The company is also offering interest-free loans to its employees. “It’s not a big deal that Canlis is doing this,” Mark says. “I want someone to read this and think, ‘That applies to me. I can do what they’re doing,’ even if they don’t have a restaurant or a kitchen.”

Canlis preparations were well-timed. On Sunday, March 15, Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced that he was temporarily closing all bars and restaurants in the state; take-out and delivery services will still be allowed. As the coronavirus intensifies and infection rates spread, it’s expected that more cities and states will follow suit. Restaurants will need to find new models to stay open and keep staff employed.

“[There are] two things that haven’t changed: People need to eat and people need to work,” Mark says. “There are a lot of great people out there who can come up with great solutions. We just have to have permission to think creatively [and] optimistically, permission to say, ‘I think we can do it.'”

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About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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