Six ways independents adapted amid the pandemic

Here’s how some members of this year’s Top 100 Independents pivoted to stay afloat.
Photo courtesy of Founding Farmers

When the coronavirus pandemic struck in March, shutting down dining rooms and forcing consumers to stay home, restaurants had to act quickly to keep their doors open. Perhaps no segment of the industry had to adapt as drastically as independents. Here’s how some members of this year’s Top 100 Independents pivoted to stay afloat.

Cut out the intermediary. Founding Farmers Restaurants started buying coffee beans directly and roasting them in-house, a move it had been considering pre-pandemic. It took a bit of training, but the strategy halved coffee costs and gives the restaurants a new signature item.

Brunch kits. “Brunch was huge for us,” says Founding Farmers co-owner Dan Simons. Enter the brunch at home kit, a spread that includes mimosas, Bloody Marys, cinnamon rolls and other brunch favorites.

Rethink real estate. Specialty Restaurants Corp. converted a section of parking at Castaway (No. 72) into a pop-up winery. The parking lot, which happens to have a fine view of Los Angeles, is now a dining area with its own kitchen, seating for 120 on a terrace, fire pits and a new menu. “It has been so popular that we are considering making it a permanent addition to the restaurant,” says Margaret Schroeder, vice president of marketing. Elsewhere, Specialty Restaurants turned outdoor special events spaces and beaches into seating areas. 

Trim the inventory. Specialty Restaurants sold excess liquor during the shutdown to raise cash; restaurants in the group scaled back the beverage choices to streamline service. Prime 112 (No. 12) had $30,000 to $40,000 of meat on hand when Miami Beach closed all restaurants, so instead of seeing steaks spoil, the restaurant sold them at wholesale.

Takeout pricing. Matt’s El Rancho (No. 73) added $1 to delivered entrees to cover the packaging and delivery costs.

Restaurant-inspired meal and drink kits. Tavistock Restaurants has its concepts assemble meal kits with reheating and plating instructions “so it can look like they would see it in the restaurant,” says COO Tom O’Brien. That includes cocktails to go, with garnishes and mixing instructions. “We try to make what most people view as a lesser experience and exceed their expectations,” he says. Family meal packages for two to four guests come with an entree, sides and a bottle of wine.

Click here to return to the 2020 Top 100 Independents.

Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.


Exclusive Content


4 things we learned in a wild week for restaurant tech

Tech Check: If you blinked, you may have missed three funding rounds, two acquisitions, a “never-before-seen” new product and a bold executive poaching. Let’s get caught up.


High restaurant menu prices mean high customer expectations

The Bottom Line: Diners are paying high prices to eat out at all kinds of restaurants these days. And they’re picking winners and losers.


Podcast transcript: Puttshack CEO Joe Vrankin

A Deeper Dive: The chief executive of the minigolf-centric restaurant chain discusses how the chain focuses on higher-quality games and food.


More from our partners