The Midwest’s fanciest restaurant wants to save the industry

Nick Kokonas, founder and CEO of Tock and co-owner of the Alinea Group
Nick Kokonas, founder and CEO of Tock and co-owner of the Alinea Group
Photo: Tock

The restaurant industry has been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 epidemic, for obvious reasons: A huge number of cities have ordered restaurants to stop all dine-in service and switch to carryout or delivery only. These mandates have crippled or closed plenty of places already, and none seem more vulnerable to a long-term dine-in ban than the high-end spots, whose intricate meals and service don’t necessarily translate to a brown bag as easily as burgers or burritos.

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Chicago’s Alinea—the city’s only three-Michelin-starred restaurant and frequently cited as one of the world’s best—seemed like exactly the type of restaurant that couldn’t survive this crisis. Its elegant, theatrical meals run into the hundreds of dollars per person, and a huge part of its appeal is multiple intricate courses served with precision in its perfectly controlled environment. But Nick Kokonas, co-owner of the Alinea Group—which also includes Next, Aviary, Roister, and St. Clair Supper Club—saw the COVID-19 writing on the wall early, and his business pivot put a tourniquet on the wounds of his own restaurants. It might help save dozens and dozens more in the long run.

In the space of about a week, Alinea and its sister restaurants had switched to a contactless carryout system, coming up with a simplified menu that inspired many other high-end restaurants to do the same. (One complete meal is offered every week; Joshua Mellin sampled the first week’s meal and compared it to the dine-in experience.) But more important than that, Kokonas is also co-founder of Tock, an online reservation system used all over the world. In a shockingly short amount of time, Tock To Go was launched, and dozens of restaurants worldwide are now using it to offer carryout where they once were dine-in only.

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In case it needs to be said: Mustering sympathy for the fanciest restaurants in the world at this time might take some effort, but don’t forget that these restaurants employ thousands and thousands of people, from dishwashers to world-famous chefs. And Kokonas posted a letter to his staff on Twitter that emphasized worker safety and equality during these crazy times, including the fact that all employees will be paid the same during this time, and that ownership will take no salary for the duration. It’s the kind of sacrifice and ingenuity in times of trouble that we ought to be proud of.

Kokonas answered some questions for The Takeout about how the Alinea Group and Tock are managing this existential threat to his industry.


The Takeout: Were there any internal arguments against Alinea and its sister restaurants switching to this takeout model?
Nick Kokonas: Not against, but a bit of disbelief that it would come to that. I was very adamant that while I hoped I was wrong, having the plans in place as a contingency was necessary. I try to never be authoritarian in management style in order to teach people for the long term. Suffice it to say that what started as a discussion became marching orders. Anyone who was pushing back found themselves without a seat at the table—not just about takeout but about all aspects of business operations.

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TO: Obviously recreating the dining experience of Alinea at home is impossible, but have you done anything—or do you plan to do anything—that nods in that direction?
NK: Grant [Achatz, Alinea chef] has been including little sides, specials, notes, and such randomly for people. We had about three kilos of really high quality caviar that would have gone to waste... We’ve been putting that and some sides in bags randomly and to our long-term customers. But the rest? Just delicious food with everything done to the highest standard we can. We are producing nearly 1,000 meals per day out of Alinea alone.

TO: How is the process different in the Alinea kitchen specifically? How is the vibe in the kitchen different with no guests in the dining rooms? Is anybody having fun, or is it all heads down trying to perfect this new model?
NK: Only one thing has changed: music. Normally there is no music in the Alinea kitchen; it’s a place of intense focus. Now Grant thought people needed a lift, so every hour someone can pick a playlist. He said, “I’m learning a lot about the team!” in regards to the music. It’s definitely not “fun,” though we try to always deliver to the cars with a smile and a nod to hospitality. Alinea, when normal, serves 130 people per night, something like 1,800 intricate dishes, plus 1,200 glasses of wine. This is actually less prep than that, but the push is just as hard.

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TO: As an expert in the restaurant business and a person who’s had experience in finance, what do you think about the stimulus bill that just passed? And what more needs to be done specifically in the restaurant industry to mitigate the losses businesses are suffering?
NK: The details will matter in terms of these loans. I’d have to get really into the weeds to explain why carrying the loan could be a problem for some places, but it basically boils down to the fact that demand is likely to be much lower and therefore it’s unlikely every restaurant will need to be fully staffed at February 15 levels—but the forgivable part of the loan is tied to employment levels. [Editor’s note: The stimulus package provides loans for small businesses for the period February 15-June 20, 2020, with some loans forgiven for those that retain larger percentages of their workforce.] Ultimately the recovery slope will depend more on how COVID-19 is treatable, in my opinion. Once getting COVID-19 is either very unlikely—vaccine, herd immunity—or a curable condition, then restaurants will grow back more quickly. There are efforts around business interruption insurance payments, stimulus, rent abatement, and my personal goals of recapitalization funds that mix private and public investment. But those are more long-term solutions.

TO: What percentage of your staffs have you been able to retain or bring back as a result of doing takeout?
NK: About 30 percent overall, but leaning to back-of-house where we’ve hired back most of the kitchen teams. Obviously, the front-of-house is engaged in logistics, drop-off to the cars, etc. But we don’t need as many people there.

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TO: How long is the takeout-only model sustainable for your restaurants?
NK: Forever. That’s the only goal, so that is the only possible outcome. We will adjust, iterate, and make it happen unless it either becomes unsafe to do so or we are mandated to stop.

TO: What do you think the restaurant industry will look like if the stay-at-home mandates continue through May, June, or even the whole summer?
NK: I think you’ll see a lot more restaurants doing curbside pickup. That’s why we worked 24/7 at Tock to build a system that can create that bridge for restaurants that don’t typically do takeout. Even after reopening, there are likely to be occupancy caps at something like half the placard, so carryout will need to supplement in-house sales. And demand will be lower for sure. I think the whole summer is more likely than not, to one level or another.

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TO: These are all sort of depressing questions, I’m realizing, and I would love to hear any positive thoughts you have as well. People tweeting their takeout meals is a bright spot, it seems.
NK: It’s absolutely great to see people posting pictures of their meals around their tables with their families. It recharges me every single night.

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DISCUSSION

He’s been retweeting a lot of people praising Tock’s quick pivot to carryout and saying it saved their restaurant.

I also like that it brings him joy to see Alinea on people’s home tables. I think there are a lot of people who would be so mad that their fancy restaurant had to “lower” themselves to that, but Kokonas seems to take real pleasure in it.