Before Texas Governor Greg Abbott had even issued stay-at-home orders in March, the team at Peli Peli, a popular South African restaurant in Houston, was already pivoting from fine dining to a takeout-and-delivery model. Having heard what other states were experiencing with COVID-19 and about the measures China had taken to contain the disease, Thomas Nguyen, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Peli Peli, knew that they had to act fast and prepare for the tides to come.
“I think we've been pretty innovative since March,” says Nguyen. “I mean, we were one of the first restaurants to start to take on delivery [in response to the pandemic] before it was required.”
Despite their foresight, switching from an upscale dine-in restaurant to providing only takeout and delivery services came with its own hurdles. Although Peli Peli had launched its fast-casual concept Peli Peli Kitchen in 2016, their primary focus was still fine dining, with many of their menu items priced in the $30-40 range. However, with the onset of a pandemic lockdown and the expected economic downturn, the team knew that model wouldn’t be sustainable for long.
Peli Peli’s executive chef and culinary director, Ryan Stewart, was on his way back from vacation when he received the emergency call from Nguyen.
“I was on vacation when this whole epidemic started and was actually making my way back, and Thomas phoned me and said, ‘Listen, we’re in big trouble, we need to come up with a plan quickly—otherwise, we’re not going to make it on the menu that we’re doing,’” shares Stewart. They needed to come up with some offerings that were tasty, could travel well, was representative of Peli Peli’s South African inspiration, and could be easily done at a lower price point.
That’s when it clicked for Stewart: “We’re really, really good at chicken.”
Back in his hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa, Stewart had cofounded Mozambik, a chain of Portuguese-inspired restaurants known for its peri peri chicken, a South African staple that consists of grilled chicken smothered in a rich chili-based sauce (the “peri peri”). Mozambik—and its peri peri chicken—became so popular that Stewart grew the restaurant to more than a dozen locations. He had first brought his specialty over to Peli Peli Kitchen, introducing peri peri chicken to the menu in early 2019.
On the day he got back from vacation, Stewart went to work. In two hours, he very quickly whipped up a $10 boxed meal menu. Along with the peri peri chicken, they also offered a coconut curry chicken, a pan-seared Atlantic cod in a trinchado sauce, and a number of other items that have become popular with their clientele.
The Peli Peli team knew that this alone wasn’t enough—they needed to be able to reach a much wider customer base. Luckily, they caught wind that the Houston division of supermarket chain Kroger was partnering with local restaurants to sell premade meals in select stores during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nguyen said they reached out to a couple of people they knew who worked with Kroger and were subsequently connected. In April, Peli Peli began selling their $10 boxed meals at select Kroger locations, which Nguyen adds was a great way to share Peli Peli’s food with a larger audience.
“At the start of the pandemic, when Peli Peli was closed for dine-in, it was crucial for us to gain sales and exposure for our affordable boxed meals,” Nguyen shares. “Being the number one grocer in America, Kroger not only helped us hire more people, but also helped us reach a broad market in Houston by having us in multiple stores at a time. This helped us tremendously during a very difficult time.”
The new menu wasn’t just a one-off—Nguyen and Stewart tested several iterations to figure out what methods and ingredients worked best for their new takeout and delivery model. Each dish was carefully created and chosen based off of how well it held up during the travel period from the restaurant to a person’s home.
“From the restaurant point of view, we understood that certain items were just not good for delivery—they didn’t travel well,” explains Nguyen. “So, Ryan specifically picked out certain vegetables that would hold temperature well; he picked out certain proteins that would maintain its integrity over 30-40 minutes until you deliver it.”
Nguyen and Stewart also did taste tests where they would take their menu items home and put it in the fridge to eat later. “We tested each and every item,” Nguyen says. “You know, some of the items were good, but we noticed that the integrity was lost after the fourth or fifth day, or maybe it looked great but it didn't taste the same.”
Similarly, Nguyen and Stewart personally tested routes when they were establishing their own delivery system, which they viewed as crucial to Peli Peli’s survival. Although COVID-19 may not last forever, consumers’ delivery habits will likely to continue into the future—which means that third-party delivery services like Postmates and Grubhub that take a significant cut of each sale, aren’t sustainable.
“One of the things that people don’t talk about enough is that third-party delivery is a killer for our business,” says Nguyen. “It’s been sold as an added benefit, but really, especially during a pandemic if you relied on third-party delivery, you’re literally giving money away.”
First, they needed to install a platform for online orders. Peli Peli was already using a point-of-sale system called Toast that luckily also offered a good takeout and delivery platform. Next was figuring out the actual delivery system.
They had to retrain some of their wait staff to become delivery personnel and initially tested out their system within a manageable three-mile radius. “We had to learn how to execute delivery, and we went through some growing pains,” admits Nguyen. “I mean, Ryan and I handled a lot of these deliveries the first two or three weeks, and it was chaos. We were running around like chickens with the heads cut off. It wasn’t very efficient.” However, the experience allowed Nguyen and Stewart to understand the problems that could arise and helped them optimize their delivery service.
Even with Texas allowing restaurants to offer dine-in service at limited capacity, Nguyen believes that the market for finer dining will be tough in the wake of the coronavirus.
“We’re not very excited about the future of fine dining, at least from a price point standpoint,” says Nguyen. “We’re going to feel the economic impact of this for many years to come—I don’t think it’s going to be a quick recovery.”
To combat that, Nguyen and Stewart are rebranding to a more casual and affordable restaurant concept called Peli Peli South African Kitchen that will hopefully appeal to a much wider range of diners. From lower price points, to less formal and more inviting restaurant interiors, Peli Peli is gearing up for the next 10 years, without sacrificing the colorful South African splashes that made it so popular in the first place.
“What we’re trying to do is provide a meal, a place, where you can come and not be in your pockets, and feel like you’re actually away, you’re not in the same place—you’re at a destination,” says Stewart.
To do that, Stewart revamped the menu to allow for lower price points, without sacrificing the quality of the food. He added a lot of curry dishes to the menu, as well as put his own South African spin on comfort food items like burgers and fried chicken sandwiches. Stewart’s efforts have resulted in a 40 percent price decrease, which Nguyen hopes will make Peli Peli much more accessible to customers.
Currently, one of Nguyen’s favorite dishes is the Cape Malay Crab Curry, which boasts one pound of crab in a South African curry over a steaming bed of rice pilaf.
“You got to wear a bib to eat it—it gets really messy,” Nguyen warns. “But every bite is worth it.”
Naturally, Stewart had a hard time picking—he says “all of them” are his favorite—but mentioned that a few of the most popular dishes include the Seared Scallops Trinchado and the Ribeye Marina, which is topped with shrimp and calamari and sautéed in a white wine reduction sauce.