Downtown restaurants rely on the office lunch crowd. Can they survive
Like many downtown business districts across the United States, the central business district of Newark, New Jersey is filled with restaurants catering to offices. With negligible residential populations to serve, these restaurants follow the daily drifts of early-evening worker coffee breaks, lunches, and happy hours. Without workers, however, these restaurants would wither away. And during the pandemic, many have.
“When the pandemic hit, it was basically tumbleweeds,” says Josh Miller, who co-owns two restaurants in downtown Newark, Robert’s Pizzeria and La Cocina. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that more than 150,000 restaurants closed nationwide in 2020. “We were doing everything we could to stay in business and keep going, but there was not much you could do. There was nobody. Our community has returned home.
Now this community is coming back to the office, albeit gradually and/or only a few days a week. In an office landscape drastically impacted by the pandemic, hybrid working poses a new kind of challenge for restaurants like Miller’s. Lunch crowds are returning, but in far fewer numbers than before the pandemic. So, in an effort to bring some consistency to office restaurant operations, Newark-based Audible created Newark Working Kitchens Delivers, an app that redirects a portion of its corporate cafeteria budget to credits that workers can spend at a rotating selection of local restaurants. .
Before 10 a.m. each day, Audible employees can select a lunch order from one of the few local restaurants, which is then delivered at noon or 1:30 p.m. Each day’s participating restaurants start their day with a Bulk ordering from Audible’s app, giving them guaranteed business and helping them keep their doors open.
The app is the latest evolution of Newark Working Kitchens, an effort launched by Audible in April 2020, which pooled contributions from Newark’s business community to pay for and deliver locally cooked restaurant meals to residents hardest hit by the health and economic blows of the pandemic. The program allowed restaurants to stay operational through many of the toughest months of the pandemic while providing hundreds of thousands of free meals to those who needed them most.
At the height of the pandemic, Audible CEO Don Katz said fast company that confined businesses like his had an obligation to use their substantial, unspent food and travel budgets to give back to those less fortunate. “If you’re a healthy business and you’re down and you’re not just fighting to stay alive,” he said, “you can look at your [profit and loss statement] and realize that you could probably help your community yourself.
Today, the program is evolving to meet this new challenge facing Newark’s restaurant community. “It’s no longer an immediate emergency response,” says Aisha Glover, Audible’s vice president of urban innovation. “It’s more about our economic recovery.”
About 13 restaurants currently participate in the program, and Glover says the app is being tested among Audible employees before potentially expanding to other large employers in the city. Every meal delivered is also matched, giving thousands of free meals to residents through partner nonprofits. Since the app launched in June, more than 6,000 meals have been matched.
Nearly 40 restaurants have participated in the Newark Working Kitchens program, and now with NWK Delivers, Glover says they’ve been able to save an average of eight jobs per restaurant, 70% of which are filled by Newark residents.
For restaurateurs like Miller, participating in the programs has helped keep people working. He says one day last week he found himself staring at his kitchen staff as they prepared the NWK Delivers orders for the day. “We have six people working here to place these orders,” he says. “To be honest, I don’t know how many of those key people I could have kept.”
But the shift to a delivery app isn’t just about stabilizing small businesses during turbulent times. Glover says it’s also a local way for restaurants to counter the high costs of participating in meal delivery apps like Grubhub and DoorDash. “I think that can be a great disruptive model,” she says.
“It’s a great alternative to the third-party delivery system, which takes up a huge share,” says Miller. Even so, he acknowledges that being on these apps is another means of survival for restaurants like his.
Speaking via video call just before the day’s NWK Delivers orders arrived, Miller had a row with the program. Even though employees can start ordering their meals the night before, restaurants don’t get the full day’s order until just one o’clock in the morning, leaving them barely an hour and a half to prepare and pack dozens individual meals. “It doesn’t seem like 30, 40, 50 orders is a lot to handle for a restaurant, but typically you don’t get 40 individual orders at the exact same time,” he says.
Miller has no plans to leave the program, but he hopes the app can be tweaked to at least give restaurateurs a bit more visibility into what’s being ordered before peak kitchen time. For now, he only sees the total amount of incoming money but cannot see what foods he will need to prepare. “I just looked, and there’s about $100 in business,” Miller said. “I have no idea what it is yet, but we’ll find out in 15 minutes.”