The COVID-19 pandemic wholly transformed the world’s restaurant industry in a matter of weeks. Nearly two weeks ago in Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms banned all in-person dining at the city’s restaurants, but allowed takeout to continue since food is considered essential. The official move by the mayor spurred Atlanta’s restaurants to tackle the executive order in a variety of ways. Some shut down operations and laid off employees. Others remain open with a limited staff and moved to a purely takeout model of service.
The day-by-day adjustments full-service restaurants continue making to the traditional dining model are astounding to those who closely watch this industry. For Atlanta restaurants that serve burritos or pizza, the food is easily translatable to takeout, as the service is likely already part of the business. Yet, for more upscale Atlanta restaurants, pivoting to takeout is much more challenging. It’s difficult to recreate that magical combination of ambiance, food, alcohol, and service in a restaurant dining room at someone’s home.
Buckhead restaurants Aria and Umi are among the city’s fine dining establishments forced to reevaluate how to operate, if at all, under Atlanta’s COVID-19 “stay-at-home” order. Both restaurants laid off the majority of their employees, yet have chosen to remain open for takeout — something Aria owner chef Gerry Klaskala and Umi owner Farshid Arshid never anticipated.
Klaskala is an Atlanta industry veteran, known among his peers as a hardcore philanthropist. He’s often the one staffing the table for Aria at some charity food event or festival around town. Giving back is just what he does. So, the decision to keep Aria open and serve his community, in any capacity, isn’t surprising. The chef says he doesn’t know a life without serving people; it’s what he does best.
Instead of trying to recreate the fine dining experience for which Aria has become known for over the last 20 years, Klaskala’s kitchen crew is going the comfort food route.
Diners can expect dishes such as braised short ribs, comforting soups, and bagels with smoked salmon on the frequently changing menu. Klaskala just hopes his food soothes those who might not have the time to prepare such meals. He calls what’s occurring right now in the Aria kitchen as a “catharsis” and a continuation of what he’s been doing his entire life — feeding and taking care of people.
“It’s a catharsis not only for the guests being able to get cooked food, but it’s also a catharsis for the few of us here being able to continue what we love to do.”
Aria is open for curbside pick-up, Monday through Saturday. Orders can be placed and paid for online or by calling 404-233-7673 before 3 p.m. Pick-up is between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. The menu features family meals for two, ranging from $24 to $45, as well as bottles of wine.
For Arshid, the decision to move Umi to takeout is all about the sushi restaurant’s loyal customer base and its staff, many of whom have been with Umi for years. Arshid claims the employee retention rate at the restaurant was 90 percent, prior to COVID-19.
But translating Umi’s elegant vibe and precision in the dining room and its meticulously prepared sushi are a significant challenge for Arshid, a self-proclaimed perfectionist. He quickly ordered packaging and labeling in line with his taste and the restaurant’s aesthetic from Japanese purveyors. The restaurant staff then did a mock trial the day before takeout went live last week, in order to receive feedback on the service. The answers to questions like how was the food and did flavors translate, did people get soy sauce and chopsticks in their takeout order, and did they receive the order in a timely manner were of utmost importance to Arshid. The overwhelming response from people who took part in the mock service and Umi’s pared-down menu of greatest hits (priced 25 percent less than the regular menu) was “yes”, he says.
According to Arshid, on the first official night of Umi’s new takeout service, for every order they took, there were 23 missed calls. They ended up turning people away.
For many Umi regulars, the chance to order takeout from the Atlanta sushi institution is one not to be missed. The restaurant has been notoriously strict in the past about allowing people to take food to-go, and has experienced everything from people stealing the placemats to bring uneaten food home, to grabbing to-go containers from Chops Lobster Bar next door to box up their leftovers at Umi.
So far, the takeout model has been successful, allowing Umi to rehire most of its staff. Arshid says the feeling of being able to serve customers again, even with takeout food, feels good. Extra precautions to protect both staff and diners are also being taken. Each person in the kitchen and those running takeout and delivery orders wear masks and gloves. Cooks are also spaced further apart at their stations in the kitchen.
Umi is currently open for takeout and delivery within a four-mile radius, Tuesday, through Saturday. People should call the restaurant at 404-841-0040 after 3 p.m. for pick up or delivery between 4:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. The takeout menu features appetizers, like tuna carpaccio and spicy tuna crispy rice, soups such as nabeyaki udon, sashimi and nigiri, and even an eight-ounce tenderloin. Bottles of wine and sake are also available to order.
How sustainable these takeout models will prove to be going forward, still remains to be seen. Several Atlanta restaurants offering takeout two weeks ago have since shut down completely, citing the health and safety of employees and lack of sustainable profits.
Both Klaskala and Arshid say they plan to continue to serve takeout as long as they are able. Klaskala is giving it up to God. “There’s still that connection with the things that have touched you in your life now,” he says “We are getting to the point where you knew that hand’s going to be closer to God or it’s going to pull apart. So, at this moment, we are touching the hand of God and asking for his guidance in this.”
Jennifer Zyman is an Atlanta-based restaurant critic and food writer whose work has appeared in Atlanta Magazine, Bon Appétit, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Eater Atlanta, Thrillist, Creative Loafing Atlanta, Serious Eats, Atlanta Intown Paper, and the Blissful Glutton. She is a graduate of Emory University and California Culinary Academy.
*Please practice safe and respectful social distancing measures via CDC guidelines by maintaining a distance of at least six feet from other people, not gathering in groups, and not sitting on restaurant patios to eat. Stay home if sick.
NOTE: The novel coronavirus situation in Georgia is fluid and ongoing. Follow Eater Atlanta for continuing coverage on COVID-19’s impact on Atlanta’s restaurant industry. Additional stories are forthcoming.
Check the Georgia Department of Public Health website for guidance and twice-daily updates on the latest number of reported COVID-19 cases.