Sierra Carver

Sierra Carver, executive chef for Hudson and Essex, showed poke boxes sold at the restaurant's deli. 

MANSFIELD ─ The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing restaurants to evolve ─ approaching customers differently and taking better care of employees.

Hudson and Essex has been taking different strategies to reach the community over the past year. As a fine dining restaurant that once relied on in-house dining, it is trying to provide customers the same experience with cook-at-home boxes.

Executive chef Sierra Carver said the restaurant is offering a Valentine’s Day box containing ingredients such as raw lobster and raw filet. She will also make a video that goes through the cooking process to help people make an appetizer, a main course and a dessert on their own.

Service manager Amber VanHouten said the box will create an activity for a couple, not just a meal. There is an add-on wine option so customers could have something nice to drink ─ just as they would have at the restaurant.

Hudson and Essex first executed the idea for the New Year’s Eve meal, Carver said, after learning it from restaurants in Chicago and New York. She believes the cook box could help the restaurant reach people afraid to dine out and provide customers another opportunity to try their food.

“I think we could definitely keep doing it,” Carver said.

The restaurant’s deli has evolved since the pandemic hit, too. Starting with serving sandwiches mostly, it now offers cut meats, seafood, sushi and poke boxes. Carver said the same ingredients are used for in-house dining. The upgraded deli has brought in more customers at lunchtime.

The pandemic taught Carver more about working as a team and taking care of the employees. She said that's why Hudson and Essex started delivery service in the first place ─ brought in those on furlough and offered them an opportunity to make some money.

What’s more, the restaurants distributed tips to furloughed employees. VanHouten said they picked a name randomly every day and also provide the employee a meal for four people.

In an unusual time like this, restaurants push themselves to create more options to meet everyone’s needs. That is why Doc’s Deli launched an online order system in late January.

“I feel like it's important, as a business owner, to know your customers and know how they like to do things,” owner Susan Vander Maas said.

She noticed that people prefer ordering online now and said the system makes it more convenient for customers to access the menu.

“It cuts down on the amount of time that we have to spend taking orders on the phone. So, that means we can be a little more productive,” Vander Maas said.

Doc’s Deli’s business has been better than several months ago, she said. The pandemic has made her try things she did not do before and taught her to care more about customers. They now talk more about what they are going through and become closer.    

“They're not just customers. They're families,” Vander Maas said.

Business at Panchos Tacos has also been improving, especially with take-out orders. Owner Jesus Davalos said the restaurant launched its online order system at the end of 2019 without knowing a pandemic was coming. The system helped the business adapt to the shutdown quickly.

But because of the pandemic, many meat and poultry processing facilities were closed and the meat price rose. Davalos said he was also having trouble getting reasonably-priced eggs and cheese.

“It was so messy,” he said.

If the pandemic has taught him anything, it would be working harder. He reached out to friends and companies that he had never worked with, finally getting ingredients here and there. He was able to serve all items on the menu without raising the price.

Davalos said he has more suppliers through the experience. He now has the opportunity to choose a product with the best price among different suppliers. It was the gain that he did not expect to receive amid a pandemic.

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