Bouncier Buns and Nori Sleeves: How the Pandemic Changed Restaurant Food

The flatbreads were designed to be eaten in Panera restaurants; the weight of the dough per flatbread was 110 grams for a perfect chewy-crisp base. But in March 2020, “we went from pretty much 85% dine-in to 85% off-premise overnight,” said Petersson. They tested the flatbread’s deliverability and found that the dough was drying out, especially when reheated at home.

Petersson’s team did “gazillions of tests” and he ate hundreds of flatbreads until they landed on a new weight: 165 grams, which would be just as chewy-crisp in the cafés as it is at home. The flatbreads launched in October, four months later than intended—but optimized. As more diners return to the cafés, the recipe will remain the same.

How do you deliver a 60-ounce wood-fired lamb shoulder?

You could try to package the magic of Maydan, the D.C. restaurant that earned the No. 2 spot on our 2018 Hot Ten list, in a plastic takeout container, but the massive stone hearth would probably melt the container and all your extremities before you got home. That didn’t stop owner Rose Previte from giving it a go.

“We would never have done to-go before, ever,” she told me. But last March, she looked around the kitchen and asked, “What do we have that we can put in boxes?” The restaurant’s signature dish is a 60-ounce wood-fired lamb shoulder showstopper.

“We started shoving them in those containers that you would get a rotisserie chicken in at the grocery store,” she said. “Then we realized there’s no way. This is never going to be as good at home as it is [in the restaurant].” They switched the dish to be smaller lamb shanks, under-cooked them on the hearth, and gave customers instructions for reheating them at home.

“I wish I could tell you I had a scientist who did something like infuse the smell of smoke, because that’d be really cool. It’s less romantic than that.” Five iterations of changes all came down to packaging, finding the perfect aluminum-bottomed container that could go right into customers’ ovens.

Now that the restaurant is opening up for indoor dining, the shoulder is available on-site again. When they return to full capacity, takeout will stop—there isn’t room in the restaurant to do both—but people can still order event catering they call “celebration packages,” an offering Maydan didn’t have pre-pandemic but one that’s become a profitable side-hustle. (Get the ribeye kebab!)

We must protect the nori

It was in the back of Lisa Limb’s mind: How could they ever deliver Nami Nori’s temaki? Once assembled, an eater has minutes before the moisture from rice and fish dampens the crisp nori wrapper into the texture of a soggy tissue. Limb, a partner at the 40-seat, always-packed New York restaurant, had been working for months on a prototype of a plastic sleeve to slip the temaki’s nori wrappers in, like a tiny nori book jacket. One day, eventually, they’d do takeout. Then Covid hit and she realized: “Oh, I guess we’re doing this now.”

She quickly began searching for a manufacturer who could make the sleeve with compostable material and was rejected by over a dozen before ordering a test-run of 25,000. Each temaki gets two sleeves that protect the nori. The diner slips them off from each side without messing up the toppings held inside—and there’s a cute GIF version on their site to show you how it’s done. “Restaurateurs, we are a resilient, creative bunch of people,” Limb said.