Business lunch may be out of work

Washington – Few people understand energy lunch better than Ashok Bajaj. The restaurateur began his career here in the waning days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when he opened the Bombay Club a short distance from the White House.

Eight of the 10 restaurants he runs today are located, like his first, downtown. They are grouped conveniently close to each other, making it easier for Mr. Bajaj to preside over several dining rooms, and in close proximity to clients who work on Capitol Hill, in the State Department and in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building – important sources for what Mr. Bajaj has done. Bajaj calls it the “lunch crowd”.

Notable members of this crowd have been drawn to the Oval Room, the energy lunch magnet he’s run for 26 years – and closed in November 2020. Old-fashioned regulars have resumed lunching at its open venues, such as Rasika and the Bombay Club. But, he said, “it was not the same as it was before Covid.” “The energy has been sucked out from downtown.”

Of all the headaches that the pandemic has caused in the restaurant industry, among the most pressing is the disruption to the business of doing business over lunch. It strikes a specific and influential group of restaurateurs who, like Mr. Bajaj, own prestigious restaurants in the hearts of big cities that office workers have run away.

Persistent uncertainty about when or whether these workers will return leave catering rooms without a significant source of income at a time when the cost of doing business is rising, particularly in dense urban areas. Meanwhile, many diners who used to nurture relationships and close deals during midday, hamachi crudo and steak frites are now making these connections in front of a computer screen at home while eating salads from fast-food cans.

These economic and behavioral shifts are raising concerns about the viability of independent restaurants in major cities, as they double as a bulwark against the monolithic influence of corporate chains. “The Cheesecake Factory opens March 30 downtown and people are freaking out,” a Washington headline made last year, atop an article about replacing a restaurant owned by an award-winning chef.

In a clear indication of the new reality, Mr. Bajaj opened a convenient venue, Bindaas Bowls and Rolls, in the city center in April. Not so long ago, it was unimaginable to stop quick service from a restaurateur known for his business skills and designer suits.

“It seemed like the right time for that,” he said. “There aren’t many people doing energy lunches right now.”

In less luxurious dining rooms across the country, restaurant lunches are thriving, particularly in the suburbs and residential city neighborhoods where many Americans have worked during the pandemic. Total sales at quick-service restaurants have exceeded those at table-service restaurants since the start of the pandemic, changing a historic rule, according to the National Restaurant Association. And supermarket chains continued to open in cities like Washington and San Francisco.

But a number of the city’s independent restaurants that used to do brisk business at noon remained closed for lunch, even as demand for dinner reservations returned. Many operators say that high costs and labor shortages bring low-priced lunch menus close to certain financial losses.

Nancy Oaks, who opened Boulevard in San Francisco’s Embarcadero District in 1993, said the return of office workers on staggered schedules — for example, three days in the building, two days at home — was too unexpected to justify hiring and training staff. . Midday meal.

“With this mixed work day, is Wednesday the new Monday, or is Thursday the new Friday?” asked Mrs. Oaks. “If I can crack this code, I might have a chance.”

Most of the upscale restaurants struggling with changing lunch economics are in cities that experienced record job growth in the decade following the Great Recession of 2008, said Hudson Riel, senior vice president and director of research for the National Restaurant Association. Develop more restaurants, particularly stand-alone operations that cater to crowds of city workers.”

However, the latest numbers do not portend a rapid return to pre-Covid conditions. According to the Restaurant Association, about 47 percent of diners who work from home go out to lunch less frequently than they did before the pandemic.

Lunch reservations in the first four months of this year at restaurants with an average check of more than $50 were sharply lower than they were in the same period in 2019, according to data from online reservation service OpenTable. It has fallen in Washington (38 percent), New York City (38 percent), San Diego (42 percent), Philadelphia (54 percent) and Chicago (58 percent).

Joel Johnson noticed the change. The head of government affairs in the Washington office of FGS Global, a strategic communications firm, Mr Johnson, 61, had an average of three business lunches a week before the pandemic.

He said the ritual was so deeply ingrained that “between 12 and 2, no one will schedule a big client meeting. It was understood that people might have been going to lunch. That was demolished during Covid.”

The lunch business in the city center hasn’t quite stopped. “Some days are good,” Mr Bajaj said of his restaurants open for lunch, noting that Kitangi Brown-Jackson had lunch at Rasika’s modern Indian restaurant near the Capitol, shortly after his confirmation to the Supreme Court in April.

Chef Eric Ripert said lunch at Le Bernardin, a popular French restaurant in midtown Manhattan that costs $120 for a brunch, is 100 percent capacity, though the same can’t be said of the nearby Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, which he co-owns. Lunch service has not resumed at popular and expensive Manhattan restaurants such as Per Se, Eleven Madison Park and Jean-Georges.

Lunch on a Wednesday in June was busy at Higgins’ Restaurant, an influential restaurant in downtown Portland, Oregon. Close.

“The hotel restaurants have disappeared,” he said. “We are one of the only options now.”

Mr Riel, of the National Restaurant Association, said the story of suburban restaurants was almost the opposite of that of downtown.

Detroit-area businesses run by Sami Eid show a split screen. “We are reopening for lunch as soon as possible in Venice,” Eid said, referring to their traditional Lebanese restaurant in the Birmingham suburb. “he is back.”

Lily, in downtown Detroit, is another matter. The Eids opened the modern Lebanese restaurant to critical acclaim in 2019, largely to capitalize on the demand for brunch in a location three blocks from the Quicken Loans headquarters.

“I don’t know if lunch will come back to Layla,” Eid said. It’s a multi-million dollar project. Saying it makes sense to keep it dark tells you what you need to know about how crazy things can be.”

In the short time Lily was open for lunch before Covid arrived, Katie Cockrell said she had been in the restaurant so often that the staff “joking that I was stopping by the bar at noon and that I would be there at three.”

Ms Cockrell, 37, who is the vice president of communications at StockX, said she treats restaurant dining rooms as daytime workspaces. “People kind of walk and talk,” she said. “If I can have that with good food being a part of it, why not?”

Many city owners said the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges that have long plagued big city restaurants.

Because of rising costs and an intergenerational shift in eating habits, as evidenced by the number of fast-food chains in downtown San Francisco, Ms. Oaks said she was close to closing Boulevard in 2019. She was persuaded by a partner in an investment firm with offices in the same building to stay open, She assisted in the lease negotiations.

“We once had a very busy lunch, 250 people. Even before Covid, we had fallen into the fifties and sixties of the last century,” she said. “I was ready to hand over the keys.”

Today, lunch reservations at higher-priced restaurants in San Francisco are up 15 percent compared to 2019, according to OpenTable. But at the time, Mitch Rosenthal closed three restaurants he owned there with his brother Stephen. They were all near the offices of tech companies like Facebook and Salesforce.

Their remaining restaurant, Town Hall, is located in the same neighborhood. (Bjorn Cook is a partner at the restaurant.) It’s busy for dinner but may never reopen for lunch, Mr. Rosenthal said. Low-priced lunch menus, he said, make it nearly impossible to turn a profit in San Francisco.

“I pay the chefs $25 an hour,” he said. “Do I think they deserve it? Yes I do. Does that mean the restaurant can be profitable? That is a different story.”

By the time Maria’s Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan completely reopened for daily lunch in February, its owner, Ahmas Fakhani, noticed that the pandemic had changed the behavior of diners.

The restaurant is famous for its Michelin star and wealthy clients. Fakhani, the former co-chairman of Merrill Lynch, said Marea’s new, slightly streamlined lunch menu suits the mood of business customers who have already used conference video calls to iron out tense matters they dealt with at his restaurant. These restaurant-goers are now looking forward to lunch to deepen relationships.

“I see a lot of people reconnecting at a slower pace,” he said. “People used to use the term salad lunch. It has become more of a social impact lunch, after all this time on Zoom.”

Dirk van Dongen retired as a lobbyist in Washington in early 2020 and moved to Florida. He is still connected enough to experience what he lost when people no longer meet face to face.

Mr. Van Dongen said he has eaten most and half of his lunches at sit-down restaurants in more than 50 years in Washington. He said that was how he built his business relationships with the people he wanted to work with as well as those who could eventually become adversaries.

“But let’s still get to know each other as people,” he said. “You can only do that when you look each other in the eyes.”

Bajaj, the Washington restaurateur, still enjoys helping broker such interactions. That’s why he opened upscale French restaurant La Bise, last summer, in the former Oval Room.

Mr. Bajaj has not yet opened La Bise for lunch. As he waits for the right moment, he develops a new routine: visiting a local parking garage, hoping to discover it full of cars—a sign of life returning downtown.

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