San Francisco-based restaurant group Hi Neighbor is combating the current pandemic and simultaneous restaurant industry meltdown by launching a mix of virtual restaurant concepts via its new incubator program. The Hi Neighbor Incubator Series, first profiled by Eater SF, is letting furloughed chefs and bartenders start their own virtual concepts that can be ordered online by S.F. residents for pickup and delivery.
Hi Neighbor ran three restaurants before the pandemic: The Vault, Corridor, and Trestle. The group has kept all three closed during San Francisco’s shelter-in-place orders, which in turn has meant chefs of those restaurants have been furloughed. To get these employees back to work at a time when California dining rooms are still closed, Hi Neighbor partner Ryan Cole got the idea to let these chefs reinvent their existing restaurant concepts or create and launch new ones, only virtually.
The current virtual restaurant lineup on the Hi Neighbor site includes three restaurants and one to-go cocktail concept. Korean-Californian concept JunJu and Uruguayan restaurant Ines are currently accepting orders for pickup or delivery via Caviar. Schmaltz Restaurant, which chef Beth Needelman calls “Jewish comfort food with a modern American twist” will start taking orders soon. To-go craft cocktails by AttaGirl Hospitality can be purchased with meals from any of the restaurant concepts.
All orders are prepared in the kitchen of its restaurant Corridor, which remains closed as of now. Pick up orders can be retrieved at that location, and Hi Neighbor has even made gift cards available that are valid with any of the new restaurant concepts.
Hi Neighbor has in effect turned itself into a kind of ghost kitchen provider, offering chefs fairly low-risk ways to test out new concepts and stay in business during the pandemic and shelter-in-place mandates. While the kitchen space and assistance setting up a virtual restaurant only extends to Hi Neighbor employees, this incubator is another example of how restaurants and restaurant groups are getting creative about doing business at a time when restaurant dining rooms remain closed.
The incubator is also notable because in normal times, Hi Neighbor’s restaurants are full-service affairs that don’t really lend themselves to off-premises formats. Full-service restaurants have taken the hardest hit in terms of lost sales as the result of sheltering in place. Asking existing chefs to either reinvent their menus or conceive entirely new ones designed for to-go orders could be a move more restaurant groups would benefit from in an uncertain time for the industry.
Hi Neighbor plans to have incubator restaurants operate for at least the next three months, regardless of whether shelter-in-place mandates lift. It’s a wise move, considering reopened dining rooms will be operating at reduced capacity and many diners will probably remain wary of going out to eat for some time to come.