Then, of course, coronavirus happened. Like restaurants of all types, Bulrush STL made an initial pivot to family-style meals, comfort foods and “value” packages – all moderately successful.
But how would elaborate tasting menus and cuisine rooted in historical letters and journals fit into a world without dine-in? “The challenge was to maintain our identity as a fine dining restaurant, but still create food for the moment,” Connoley says.
So later in spring, Bulrush STL embarked on a new model they called Park & Dine: Guests could pull up to the restaurant and enjoy a multi-course meal presented on trays and white linens. “Think fine dining a la Sonic,” Connoley says.
While Connoley believes that concept could have worked on its own, things really took off when diners began to put their own spin on the experience – setting up tables on the sidewalk with details like flower bouquets, ambient lighting and iPad fireplaces.
“One limo even pulled up with a party inside,” Connoley remembers. By the end of the summer, “less than a dozen cars actually sat in their front seats for their meals,” he says.
Park & Dine taught the Bulrush STL team that flexibility is key in times like these. “By us not being rigid in our thinking, we allowed one of the most creative dining experiences to happen,” Connoley says. “What we learned is that we know what we do best – tasting menus. And that all we need to do is create an experience where the guest can personalize it.”
Connoley believes Park & Dine saved the business. And while the plan is for the concept to go into hibernation over the winter months, “the idea of creating experiences that guests can modify will remain,” he says. “Our job is to get out of the way and let people express themselves.”
Despite the challenges and changes brought on by the pandemic, there have been some bright spots. This spring, a PPP loan allowed Connoley to transition his staff to full-time research, aiding the restaurant’s mission while allowing staff to pay their bills.
What’s more, “staff has been able to slow down and grow,” Connoley says. “My kitchen is doing experiments and projects that we would have been too busy to do. My front of house has been doing research and writing up their findings. These help employees feel valued and motivated.”
Connoley doesn’t expect to be back to full capacity for at least another year, but is optimistic about the future. “Just like the Roaring ‘20s followed our country’s last major pandemic, people will be ready to celebrate in full again,” he says. “The challenge is to continue beyond mere survival until then.”
For now, the Bulrush STL team is focusing on what matters most: keeping staff and guests safe, creating “exciting and authentic” food, and storytelling. And, of course, innovation. “Nothing is permanent. Once you’re flat on your feet, you’ll be knocked over,” Connoley says.
“Reinvent every single day.”
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