A takeout order prepared by Rae's Bistro in Winnipeg sits at the restaurant's new "takeout station" during COVID-19.

A glimmer of hope: How one Winnipeg bistro is surviving COVID-19

By Sara Burnside Menuck

Danny Van Lancker and Jill Flynn had a singular vision when they opened Rae’s Bistro in Winnipeg, 19 months ago: To achieve that elusive trifecta of exceptional service to guests, exceptional treatment of staff, including health benefits, all while serving the best food humanly possible. Taking what they knew of the restaurant industry through Van Lancker’s consulting company, TFB Restaurant Corp. — TFB, for “Tequila for Breakfast” — they embarked on a business venture worthy of its own story, including a 24-hour ceiling-to-floor renovation the day before opening. Not even two years after opening, Rae’s Bistro is on track to do $1.5-million in sales.

Then, an unexpected twist, which turned out to be every restaurant owner’s worst nightmare: a global pandemic that has shuttered restaurants across the country and turned operations on their head. Just 19 months after opening, Van Lancker and Flynn made the decision to blow up their restaurant’s entire business model — which, up to two weeks ago, resolutely did not include any delivery or takeout options. And their new takeout-only model has taken off.

One week into their new delivery- and takeout-only operations, Van Lancker estimates they managed $3,400 in sales in their Friday dinner rush — “that’s something we’d normally see on a Friday night,” he says. Despite operating with a reduced staff and reduced hours, Rae’s Bistro is, miraculously, managing to turn what could be a horror story into one of promising success.

We asked Van Lancker to give us a breakdown of exactly how Rae’s Bistro implemented their new service, in hopes other restaurant operators may find inspiration for their own businesses as they navigate the “new normal” of COVID-19.

Move fast, move early

Van Lancker and Flynn made the decision to pivot to delivery- and takeout-only service ahead of official lockdown in Winnipeg. At the time of our interview, Manitoba had yet to issue orders for non-essential businesses, including food and beverage, to close. To date, most provinces have ordered foodservice establishments to close except for takeout and delivery services; others, including Manitoba and Alberta, have implemented restrictions including limiting restaurant capacity to 50 people, or 50 per cent of maximum capacity (whichever is lesser).  

Van Lancker noted that numerous restaurants in Winnipeg were still offering dine-in service: “I’m not going to judge them because it’s hard,” he says. “Jill [Flynn] and I had to make a call. … Are we going to be the people that stay open and be the only restaurant open and get that business for the reckless people out there, or are we going to do the right thing?”

So, the business partners decided to pre-emptively pivot their business, which had just started to become profitable, and did so in record time: Van Lancker had the menu completely redesigned and reprinted in 24 hours, remaking the restaurant’s website, posting banners and menus in the windows, and communicating the change to customers via social media. They ordered more mobile POS terminals and added multiple phone lines to accommodate call-in orders. 

They also revamped their food offerings, removing their highest-cost items and expanding their offerings for sandwiches, pizza and other comfort-food items that travel well. The menu now offers six proteins instead of 13, eliminating fresh fish and butchered items and doubling down on what people love.

“We’re known for this over-the-top food that’s too big to eat for one person and amazingly high quality,” Van Lancker says, which they continue to offer — but modified for takeout. “It’s still a premium burger; we’re selling you an $18 or $19 burger and it’s still six ounces of ground chuck from Western Canada, it’s still our signature pretzel buns, fresh greens, fresh tomatoes, and our fresh homemade sauces and delicious fries that we fry in beef fat — it’s just now more of it, so people can have more variety at a lower price point and items that travel better.” 

Rae’s Bistro owner/operator Danny Van Lancker holds out a freshly prepared takeout order in the restaurant’s kitchen. Rae’s operates on the unique premise of prioritizing not just exceptional food and exceptional service, but also treating staff exceptionally well. “It’s important that people know you can do all three.”

Van Lancker credits Rae’s executive chef, Lorne Griesbrecht, and his core culinary team for being exceptionally adaptable to the sudden shift in operations. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of them,” he says.

He says it’s critical that restaurants act quickly, and proactively: No one knows how long the current health crisis will last, or when restaurants will be able to resume normal service. It’s best to operate under the assumption that this is the “new normal,” and to adjust operations accordingly.

Social (distance) service

One of the pillars of Rae’s Bistro, prior to COVID-19, was providing exceptional customer service. “When you come into Rae’s, we’re known for our service,” Van Lancker explains. “You do not want for anything. It’s the food, the service, and the staff are happy to be there.” That included a unique in-house element fondly referred to as “romancing the wall” — referring to Rae’s popular chalkboard wall of specials, which staff would walk guests through upon arrival, painting a picture of each mouthwatering dish and where the ingredients come from. 

That experience was something the Rae’s team wanted to preserve, even if it couldn’t be offered in-house. When a customer phones in, the team member who answers offers to “walk” the customer through the chalkboard wall. The full menu is available online, so many customers usually know what they want to order, Van Lancker admits, but the goal is to try to recreate as much of the unique Rae’s experience as possible. 

“We’re only taking a limited number of orders,” he adds. Right now, the limit is four orders per 15 minutes, but the plan is to increase order capacity as the kitchen team — currently a staff of three, down from six — gets the hang of things. “It’s like taking reservations,” Van Lancker says, “and to be honest, the staff are starting to like it, because they like knowing what’s coming next.” 

Once the order is taken, the chit goes to the back, the food is prepared, and then it’s packaged for takeout — currently, the sole responsibility of Van Lancker himself. “I want to be the one who personally packs the bags,” he says, adding that he also is the one who brings the the bags to the guest; his business partner, Flynn, is the one taking orders over the phone and handling payments. They decided to take the full social responsibility, partly because they know their guests and want to maintain that connection, but also to relieve staff of that risk and responsibility.

Each takeout order comes with a freshly designed menu with a personalized note to the customer written in gold Sharpie, and sealed with a Rae’s Bistro sticker.

Van Lancker takes special care with packaging orders to make sure the meals are aesthetically pleasing as well as tasty: “I grab one of the nice new menus, which are glossy black, and write a nice note on them in a gold sharpie,” he says. The containers and bags are sealed with a specially designed Rae’s Bistro logo, to give a premium feel. Van Lancker adds he was inspired when he was opening a DVD package: “You know those plastic round stickers on them that you slice open?” He says the act of slicing the sticker open struck him, that the product inside was brand new and untouched. Every product coming out of Rae’s has a similar seal — “the Rae’s Bistro logo of quality,” Van Lancker calls it, “so that they know this was packed by Danny at Rae’s, and everything is safe.”

If the order is for curbside pickup, the customer can text a dedicated cellphone number to say they’ve arrived; Van Lancker will run the package and a POS terminal outside so they can pay — he’s careful to note that the terminal is wiped down with hospital-grade sanitizer before and after use.

Door-to-door delivery

Rae’s strives to provide elevated customer service, and that’s extended to their new delivery service as well. The restaurant converted their servers into “delivery specialists” — instead of signing a contract with Uber Eats, Skip The Dishes or another third-party delivery app. Van Lancker stresses the importance of restaurants turning to their own staff and resources rather than outsourcing to a company and taking that revenue away from their own employees. There are always two drivers during service hours, who will be assigned two or three orders at a time for delivery, to keep things economical.

Customers are given a half-hour window for delivery. “Because we’re prioritizing takeout,” Van Lancker says, “we give a little bit of flex room on our delivery … but rarely are we more than five minutes late from when the customer wanted.” 

Delivery specialists follow a strict procedure, taking responsibility for their assigned orders from start to finish — from letting the customer know when the driver is leaving the restaurant, to delivering the order itself, including payment (with the wireless terminal sanitized before and after use), to a follow-up text 30 minutes later asking if everything is to their satisfaction. Customers “either respond or they don’t,” Van Lancker says, “but it doesn’t matter. We still want to give that proper level of service.”

The goal, he says, is not to just do takeout “because we have to.” It’s recognizing that this is the new reality for foodservice for the foreseeable future, and to survive, restaurants have to step up their game. “Sending out plastic bags and stapled-together garbage is just not going to work anymore for anyone,” he says. “You have to give people a premium experience.”

Stepped-up sanitation

Van Lancker credits Flynn with taking the lead on sanitation practices: “She has a four-year-old boy and has been very on edge about this whole thing. She was really quick to react, to get proper alcohol-based sanitation,” he says. The restaurant stocked up on hospital-grade sanitizer well in advance, and staff are charged with wiping down every surface touched either by themselves or a customer: tables, chairs, door handles, phones, POS terminals. Takeout bags and containers are grabbed by the bottom rather than handles, which are left untouched for customers. Every member has their own sanitizer bucket and is required to wear short sleeves so that they can wash their hands up to the proper elbow point; everyone has their own pens, labelled with their name, too.

The “Takeout Station” at Rae’s Bistro – prominently featuring hospital-grade sanitizer, which is used throughout the restaurant.

There was also an important condition staff had to agree to in order to remain employed: “They can’t see more than their immediately family,” Van Lancker says. While at the time of this interview, Manitoba had not yet ordered people to stay home except for essentials, Rae’s management decided, once again, to go one step further to ensure the safety of their staff and customers.

“We’re just being super careful,” he says.

Takeout takeaways

While Van Lancker is careful to note that he wouldn’t qualify Rae’s pivot to takeout/delivery a success, he does feel the restaurant is on the right track — and has the sales to back him up. Since their first day of takeout-only service on March 18, Rae’s Bistro has seen its nightly sales steadily increase.

He sees the next few weeks as critical to a restaurant’s success or failure through the COVID-19 situation: “People that move slow are going to be left behind.” It’s a level playing field right now, he says, as even multinational chains such as McDonald’s and Tim Hortons are struggling to find their footing: “You can go after anyone right now.” But the key is to move quickly and implement new practices and procedures to keep ahead.

We asked him to share what he feels are critical points restaurants must heed in order to survive and succeed over the coming months.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help: Van Lancker says one of the best decisions he made was to hire a CFO to take the daily accounting and payroll off his plate. “I cannot speak enough good things about her,” he says, referring to his CFO, who works remotely from France. “The daily paperwork, the sales, the ROEs, the payrolls … She’s navigating all the waters right now as to how to top up our staff, applying for the work-share program, payroll deductions. Having good help around you is probably one of the best things.”
  • But don’t miss opportunities to keep work in-house. Van Lancker encourages restaurant owners to employ their own delivery team, giving their current staff much-needed work rather than turning to third-party apps and services. 
  • Snail mail is the new media. “There’s never been a better time to mail,” he says enthusiastically. “We have 10,000 of our takeout menus being printed right now, and they’ll start doing postal drops at 2,000 a week in areas we want to expand our delivery service.” Van Lancker points out that people stuck at home and possibly out of work are bored, and so physical mail is garnering interest again. 
  • But also utilize new media. Social media is the cheapest and easiest way to access your customer base. Through social media accounts, you can keep customers up to date on your latest service offerings, daily specials, and other news, which can be easily shared through their own networks.
  • Focus on quality, not discounts. “We had a really great free-delivery-anywhere and 10% discount on all orders over $100 for our opening weekend, and it didn’t really drive any traffic,” Van Lancker notes. “I don’t think discounts right now are the thing to do.” Instead, he recommends focusing on offering the best service you can, the best food you can, and utilizing word-of-mouth referrals from satisfied customers.
  • Seek new partnerships. As more and more provinces move to allow alcohol with takeout and delivery orders, Van Lancker says it’s important to pursue new opportunities with trusted suppliers. He has proactively reached out to two of his own — one winery and one brewery — to become a delivery partner and develop a network to support each others’ sales.
A screencap from Instagram depicts a meal from Rae's Bistro served at home, with a note of satisfaction from the customer.

The reviews are pouring in from customers via social media, such as this story on Instagram – and it’s all thumbs-up.

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