From Tweezers to Takeout: An Interview with Chef Samantha Medeiros

Described as an airy Italian eatery that was a dine-in focused staple establishment for classic brunch, lunch and dinner dishes, La Palma is one of the many restaurants in the city that had to figure out how to take takeout and delivery by the reigns quickly without sacrificing roots, quality and flavour.

We interviewed Chef de Cuisine Samantha Medeiros to find out more about this business-changing transition and what a post-pandemic normal La Palma could look like.

Prior to Covid, was takeout a major part of the restaurant

No, we didn’t have UberEats or any of the apps. Because we’re in a “neighbourhoody” area, the most common thing we’d get is someone coming in on their way home to pick up a pizza or lasagna to go.

Guests sitting in the restaurant would often take dessert to go if they didn’t have enough (stomach) room at the time, or would add on another dish for the road they really enjoyed. That was the most takeout we really ever did and I would honestly say it was very seldom. We didn’t have pizza boxes and the like, we maybe had one standard takeout box that we would use to pack up diners’ food.

How much of the Le Palma shifted during the pandemic?

One hundred percent.

What about as restaurants began re-opening last summer (Summer 2021)?

[After initiating takeout during the pandemic], at no point during the reopening stages did we ever stop takeout. We didn’t close the apps or drop down to just UberEats and eliminate others like Doordash, Skip or Ritual. We always kept the apps going but I would definitely say that the amount of traction they were getting was lowering. When patio dining became a thing, guests were jumping for that and less so wanting takeout.

Backtracking a bit, we used to be open seven days a week, brunch on the weekends, lunch, dinner and late nights on Fridays and Saturdays. We would never close between lunch and dinner either.

Since the pandemic, we haven’t opened for lunch since so we typically open at five and shift between being open five to six days a week. We’re currently open Tuesday through Saturday. Takeout has been 5-9 and dine-in has been 5-10.

What we’d noticed with takeout is that it would be really, really busy during the almost-perfect times during our services. We’d be busy between 5-6 when we didn’t have a lot of (dine-in) diners as most diners come in between 6-7. It was great to generate some revenue early in the evening and then we sometimes noticed it would come again at the end of the first seating, during the lull between first and second.

I would say in the many services during the past year, we’ve only had to turn off the apps for about an hour, once or twice, and it’s been on a Friday or Saturday when the restaurant was super busy and we struggled with managing both. It was somewhat of a staffing issue; trying to organize someone punching the orders in while still running expo, packaging orders properly, and finding drivers.

Would you say that takeout has been an integral part of the finance and business side of the restaurant?

Yes, I can’t see a day that we’re going to turn the apps off for good and not revisit them again.

When we were fully locked down, we were relying on Zoom cooking and cocktail classes, plus meal kits (dinners for 2, dinners for 4), all in addition to takeout. The dinners for 2 and 4 are usually a 3 to 4-course meal or a combination of an app, main, side and dessert together, and were available (and would change) on a weekly basis.

Then, it became a matter of how we shifted focus. When we were able to move to indoor dining and dine-in became really busy, we would stop doing the weekly kits and would only do them for special occasions like Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. If we were locked down again or limited to the patio only, we would always bring them back full force.

We have a built-in patio on the second floor, and also had the CafeTO streetside patio as well. This definitely helped a lot in having more seating, especially when we could only have patio dining, but staffing was difficult with them being on separate floors so that was something we had to constantly think about.

How do you see yourself accommodating takeout demands now and in the future?

With takeout, we’ve lowered our prices as far as takeout prices vs. indoor dining prices. Despite the costs of the additional takeout containers and whatnot, if we can’t give you that hospitality experience and the show you get with dinner, we don’t feel it’s fair to be charging the same amount for takeout. It’s the same labour going into it and the same portion size, but we don’t feel right charging the same because we can’t deliver everything that goes with it.

We’ve also curated the menu to really focus on what should/shouldn’t be for takeout. For example, certain staple dine-in items (ex. crispy potatoes with sweet and smoky aioli) lose their integrity when packed separately for takeout vs. something like lasagna that can be reheated and still taste great.

We’ve started selling our pizzas for retail to some of our suppliers for their frozen and retail sections. What we modify for that is slightly undercooking the pizzas so that when they’re taken home, there will be instructions on how to reheat and finish the baking. Instead of the pizza becoming dry, it ends up perfectly baked. However, if a pizza is for takeout, we cook it exactly as we would in the restaurant because we imagine the customer is going to eat it right away.

We’ve also been able to make use of a lot of products we may have in house that aren’t currently used on the menu. The dinner kits for two have been a great outlet for looking at what we have in-house and how can we form a dish to utilize this particular ingredient.

This allows you to develop menus curated for dishes that maybe you weren’t able to put on the takeout menu because they’re too labour intensive or they take too long to execute. But, if you plan for it for the end of the week when guests come to pick up the kits, we all know everything for them needs to be ready by Friday for the pick up on Saturday. It allows us to play a little bit more.

I know takeout will still be a good part of our business as we get back to normal, even when offering dine-in at the same time. Before, when juggling both, we strategically limited our takeout options to items that carried best. It’s not necessarily a separate takeout menu, it’s just a limited offering of La Palma (dine-in items) minus those that don’t travel as well.

We never originally planned for takeout to be such a large part of our business, but it very much is what has kept us alive and kept us connecting with our customers the entire pandemic. Until indoor dining becomes a main stream of revenue, we’re still going to be offering takeout, as well as the weekly dinner kits for two.