Instagram clued me into the coronavirus-related closing of a restaurant where I worked last year. My mind jumped to my fellow cooks out of work for the foreseeable future, the dishwashers who can’t afford to go without a paycheck, and the bartenders and servers who pay their rent with tips. Admittedly, I simultaneously wondered what would become of the restaurant’s carrot hummus, a beloved spread that had sustained me through many a long service.
It’s not really hummus, though tahini is involved. Carrots and garlic are confited until they become the concentrated essence of carrots and garlic. It’s been a year since I worked at this restaurant, and still this luscious spread fills my dreams. In my Elysian fields fantasy, the river that carries my boat to paradise is composed of that smooth carrot hummus, and it makes me more than sad to think that it may live on only in my reveries. I don’t think I’m the only one who has ever felt this way about something on a restaurant menu.
It can feel powerless to be a restaurant groupie in the COVID-19 era, to have your own Elysian fields fantasy of a grilled-cheese-shaped boat carrying you under a raclette waterfall cruelly wrested from you along with the sandwich shop that inspired it. Restaurants are in a precarious situation, and we want to help them survive however we can. But the answer might not be as simple as ordering takeout constantly; there’s a limit to how much one person can eat, and most cooked entrees don’t remain edible for very long. One thing we can do is rethink how customers and restaurants might benefit each other now that the traditional food service model is out the window. For example, my beloved hummus was always just a small component of a larger dish, and restaurants wouldn’t usually sell tubs of condiments to customers who request them, because those items are built into the cost of the larger entree. But in the current landscape, businesses might actually be more willing to function as gourmet grocers, selling you whatever you’re excited to buy. Menus have been abbreviated and altered, business models are shifting, and everybody wants to find a way to increase sales.
Fair warning: There’s no guarantee that a special order won’t be immediately rebuffed. But what’s the harm in asking that breakfast spot if you can buy its brioche rolls by the dozen? Depending on the regulations in the region where you live, the restaurant might also be able to sell you some locally raised eggs and a pound of breakfast sausage, too. As a cook who frequently witnesses requests to buy value-added food products rather than dishes on the menu, I can tell you that the current stress level of the person who answers your call is the most important factor in determining whether the order will be fulfilled. Beyond that, here’s a playbook for how to support local businesses and make these special requests without alienating restaurant workers in the process.
Consider the restaurant carefully. If it’s still doing a pretty solid takeout business, try calling during a slow period, like the first hour they’re open. Keep in mind that if the restaurant is part of a franchise or chain of businesses, the staff might not have the authority to go off-menu on a whim. If they say no, it’s nothing personal.
Identify what you want. Peruse a current menu. As long as the item you want has a price associated with it, you should be able to purchase it. For example, let’s say you love the mac and cheese that comes as a side dish at your neighborhood barbecue restaurant. In your Elysian fields fantasy, the boat that carries you to paradise floats atop an undulating river of mac and cheese. You hope to buy the cheese sauce and recreate that mac at home. As long as there is a cost associated with the side dish, the restaurant will know how much the sauce costs. In order to arrive at a menu price, food costs are calculated for each part of the dish, from the butter, flour, milk, and cheese in the sauce to the browned breadcrumbs on top. If a portion includes two ounces of cheese sauce, they can isolate the cost of the sauce from the rest of the dish and simply scale the cost up to sell you a 32-oz. tub (or whichever portion size you settle on). However, if a selection of side dishes are offered within the entree price and you cannot buy a side dish of the macaroni on its own for a certain price, they might not know how much to charge for the cheese sauce and are likely to say no when you ask. This logic goes for anything that doesn’t have a menu price associated with it, like condiments that are available for free, or the bread and butter that comes out before dinner arrives.
Be flexible and understand the constraints the restaurant is under. Even if you’re ordering something that’s part of the current menu, it may not be readily available for bulk order. Restaurants usually work days in advance and rely on large batch sizes. You might be hoping to purchase some house-made cheddar brats from a local pub because in your Elysian fields fantasy, you ride a giant cheddar brat to paradise. Making sausage is a big undertaking, so this pub probably wouldn’t do it more than once a week. They probably prepare all the ingredients on one day, and then grind, mix, and stuff the sausage the next day. If the brats are smoked, this process might even stretch into a third day. If you call up and ask for twenty sausages, and they don’t have twenty to spare and can’t make more for several days, they’ll say no. But if you ask about buying the sausages and make it clear that you don’t need them for a specific date, they’ll probably take your phone number and call you the next time they plan to make sausage.
Buy enough to make it worthwhile, and don’t expect a bargain. Though it might seem like buying food in this way should cost less than it does when it’s served to you hot at your table, it doesn’t actually cost the restaurant any less. The packaging materials required for takeout orders are not free, and the labor that goes into preparing and plating a dish will be redirected to packaging whatever you’ve purchased. Expect the price of the item to be much greater than the grocery store equivalent, because a real person made it from scratch. With the cost of labor in mind, make sure to order a significant amount. For example, let’s say there’s no boat in your Elysian fields fantasy at all, but rather a spicy-caramel-soaked Slip ’N Slide that delivers you straight into paradise. Fulfilling an order for one cup of this spicy caramel sauce requires as much labor as an order for four cups, and both orders might cost more in labor than the two minutes it typically takes a line cook to plate the spicy caramel short ribs featured on the restaurant’s menu. So when you place your order, just ask how much makes sense for them to sell you. While you’re at it, ask for an expected shelf life and storage advice. Maybe it’s best to portion the item before you freeze it, or not freeze it at all?
Ask nicely. This is the most important guideline to follow and has the greatest impact on the likelihood that you’ll get what you want. Tell them what the item means to you. Tell them about your Elysian fields fantasy! Finally, tell them that you want to support their business. They’ll get it.