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Interview: Chris Pappas, Chefs’ Warehouse CEO, On Restaurants’ Road To Recovery

October 30, 2020

The Chefs’ Warehouse supplies specialty foods to restaurants, hotels, country clubs, and other venues, with a particular focus on chef-driven establishments.The company offers roughly 55,000 SKUs to its 34,000 customers and has a presence in 36 states through its 28 distribution centers. Sales are approximately $2 billion annually. SND executive editor Daniel Marsteller recently caught up with Chefs’ Warehouse CEO Chris Pappas to discuss the state of the on-premise across the U.S.

SND: Amid all the challenges this year, how are conditions at the big-picture level for the restaurant business in America?

Pappas: The industry is adapting. We’re still at an inflection point going into the winter, so we’ll have to wait and see what it’s really going to look like. A lot of our customers are closed, especially in the major cities that either had no indoor dining or went only to 25% capacity. What we’re looking for is 50% capacity and above. Obviously Florida has lifted their restrictions, and we see some cities at 50% or 75%, and that really makes a difference. Throughout this year we’ve been amazed at the innovation of our clientele, especially how they’ve managed to bring in revenue through innovation with things like multiple seatings, takeout, and beverage sales. Your favorite Italian restaurant that might have been doing five or six takeout orders a night is now doing 30 to 50. And laws have been amended to allow them to sell cocktails and wine to go, in some cases permanently, and that has also really helped.

SND: How is the pace of the recovery in key cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and others?

Pappas: The major cities, where all the big office complexes are, have been the most impacted. They’re still trying to figure out what getting to the other side of the pandemic looks like. The business travel clientele is what’s really lacking. But I think Florida is going to perform pretty well, because of the year-round warm weather, and we’ve seen a lot of steam picking up in California. The fires in Northern California were a setback, but now that they’re contained and the air is clearing, we’re optimistic.

SND: Where else have you seen bright spots across the country?

Pappas: In some parts of the Midwest, especially the suburbs, we’ve seen our business really come back strong. In certain territories in the suburbs, we actually saw them perform at equal volume to last year, which was incredible. In Texas we’ve seen restaurants doing three seatings rather than two, starting at 5:30, then 7:30, and then a 9:30, especially on the weekend when a lot of the younger clientele comes out for the later seating. People are being very respectful, not staying more than two hours, to make it work. Across the country a lot of people have obviously enjoyed eating outdoors. It used to be very hard to get permits for sidewalk cafes and so on, but over the summer we saw cities close streets and parking lots and turn them into places where people can sit outside and enjoy a meal. We’re based in Connecticut, and in Greenwich it began to look like Paris with all the outdoor dining. With the weather turning, I don’t think you can find one of those outdoor heaters on the market.

SND: What are you seeing at the fine dining level, and in key areas like upscale steakhouses?

Pappas: I think the four and five star dining is still to be determined, but as far as high-end steakhouses, we saw a tremendous amount of innovation in takeout, and we’re seeing very encouraging trends that people are starting to go back out—maybe not as often, but they are starting to go back to their favorite steakhouses, and many of them are actually doing pretty well. We’re waiting to see what the winter is going to bring, and we’ll know further what to expect once the weather really turns.

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