Restaurants are ditching holiday parties for virtual cooking classes as they fight to stay afloat during the holiday season in this pandemic

  • The hospitality industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with countless restaurants closing throughout the US.
  • But some restaurants have tapped into a unique way to adapt their business, while also fulfilling a need for companies and nonprofits that can't throw their usual holiday parties or fundraisers.
  • Business Insider spoke to restaurants that are offering interactive virtual events, including cooking classes led by a chef and drink-making happy hours with a mixologist. Many of the events come with recipe cards and meal kits with ingredients.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The hospitality industry has been hit hard by the novel coronavirus pandemic, with many restaurants closing throughout the US.

But some restaurants have tapped into a unique way to adapt their business, while also filling a need for companies and nonprofits that can't throw their usual holiday parties or fundraisers this year.

"Right when the shutdown happened, we had to pivot and think of creative ways to expand our business," Samantha Henry, the catering manager of RPM Restaurants in Chicago, told Business Insider.

RPM is part of Lettuce Entertain You, a popular group of more than 100 restaurants, most of which are located in the Chicago area. The group has offered a wide variety of virtual events throughout the pandemic, from group cooking classes led by one of their chefs, to drink-making happy hours with one of their mixologists.

The events are tailored to each group and range in size, typically accommodating up to 85 people, and are interactive, with a chef teaching over video and another person, like a host, facilitating and answering questions from guests in real time.

"We did a pasta-making class with 72 people and the chat was just blowing up," Henry said.

She said the events have been a huge hit, largely growing by word of mouth, and have made up a huge chunk of the restaurants' business during the pandemic, especially now while groups are looking for fun replacements to in-person holiday events.

"We're entering what has historically been our busiest season, where we would be maxing out every space and off-site events," she said. "This is replacing those parties."

Some of the most common clients are companies hosting a holiday party for their employees, or law firms doing a client-appreciation event. But they've done smaller parties too, like bridal showers and birthday parties, including one where guests followed along and each made their own 14-inch chocolate cake.

Boka Restaurant Group, a smaller outfit also based in Chicago, has had huge success with virtual offerings as well. The group houses renowned chefs and critically-acclaimed restaurants, including Boka, Momotaro, and Swift & Sons.

Chefs and bakers from many of the group's restaurants are leading virtual cooking classes with recipes tailored for a home cook, featuring dishes like sesame-crusted salmon, candy cane chocolate cream pie, or wood-fired flat iron steak.

"People are just so happy to do something together where they're not just staring at the screen," Abby Kritzler, executive director of the Boka group, said of the events.

Both the restaurant groups also offer meal kits to go along with their classes that can be picked up or delivered, and contain all the necessary ingredients for the dish or cocktail.

Kritzler says the chefs and restaurant staff enjoy leading the classes too, as interacting with guests is a major part of the hospitality industry.

"We love the reaction of people enjoying our food, and it's a way to still get a piece of that," she said, referring to the interaction between hosts and guests.

Boka did its first virtual event in the spring, when the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, a nonprofit that provides support to pediatric cancer patients and their families, reached out looking for an alternative to their annual Cook-off for Cancer.

Instead, Anthony Rizzo, a Chicago Cubs first baseman and the founder of the nonprofit, cooked a meal over a video call with a chef, while folks at home could buy tickets to watch and cook alongside them.

They sold hundreds of tickets and meal kits. The event was such a success for the foundation and the restaurant group, that Boka began offering the virtual events and reaching out specifically to charities they had partnered with in the past.

"So many charities are looking for ways to fundraise," Kritzler said, especially right now when many would be having their annual balls and galas. "It's such a win for both sides."

She said the virtual events, which include corporate clients in addition to nonprofit organizations, have been one of the biggest sources of business for the restaurants this year.

Henry of RPM Restaurants said they plan to continue having virtual events even after the pandemic is over, especially as the nature of work changes and some people continue to work remotely.

"This is just another segment of our business that we want to continue to grow," she said.

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