A Newmarket restaurateur has combined her emergency management and hospitality experience to create a recipe for success during the nearly two-month-long shutdown of the community due to the coronavirus crisis.
Jennifer McLachlan of Cachet Supper Club on Water Street came up with the idea to offer her customers a virtual dining experience that also satisfies their need for atmosphere and socializing at a table over a meal.
Take-out just doesn’t cut it, she said.
The innovative approach, and possibly the first in the world, is known as Cooking with Cachet and since mid-April has delivered an interactive restaurant adventure on the online meeting platform Zoom that makes one feel like they are at the restaurant.
And, if you can imagine it, it’s an experience that triggers your sense of smell.
Diners order an ingredient box from Cachet and join in on a Zoom call with friends, family and other diners who are at the “restaurant” that night. A guest chef, including Cachet’s own staff as well as other chefs from around the world, guide participants through the meal preparation from the safety of their own homes.
Entertainment is provided by a host of local musicians, and collaborations with area businesses offer wine and beer pairings.
“It is a passion project of mine right now, and I feel like I can re-engage every spoke of the supply chain of the food and beverage industry, while filling the holes in all of our social lives right now,” McLachlan said. “And the responses and feedback tell us that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
When public health measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 hit communities mid-March, including the shuttering of restaurant dining rooms, McLachlan devised a plan.
“I used to write pandemic plans for large organizations so I became my own customer, and I did the four cycles of pandemic planning,” she said. “I shut down, contained it, and I went home and started thinking about the recovery. What does it look like, what is going to be a phased approach, what is missing from society that, when we do recover, we can look back and say, ‘Wow, that was a good recovery strategy’.”
What we truly miss from the restaurant is the social aspect of it, she said.
Over the Easter weekend, McLachlan tested the idea with some family members who were all self-isolating in their own homes. She dropped off cooked meals to everybody, and they all sat down together to share a meal on Zoom.
“I said, this is exactly how I’m going to pivot during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.
Cachet’s new business model provides everything its bricks-and-mortar building once did, including entertainment, bringing people and businesses together, and collaborating with the community.
McLachlan’s staff have all been redeployed to handle various aspects of the virtual restaurant, including acting as Zoom hosts and moderators, social media management, entertainment, and more.
“My staff mean everything to me, and everyone has been re-engaged into the current model safely, and re-engaged with their own strengths,” she said. “My servers and bartenders are getting paid and have taken on other roles.”
And business has been brisk.
For Cachet’s Mother’s Day Zoom brunch, more than 130 ingredient boxes were sold. Another 300 people joined on the online call to send their mom’s good wishes.
The virtual celebration had participants from across Ontario and Canada, and included cooking, building bouquets with tulips provided by Newmarket florist Blooming Wellies, local pianist Dave Toms tickling the ivories, and yoga stretches led by Happy Bones Osteopathy and Wellness Clinic.
The customer reviews from that event alone floored McLachlan. Of the 130 guests, 78 took the time to write about the positive experience they had.
“One lady was crying, it was so moving,” she said. “I’m passionate that so many restaurants out there can apply this same concept. Every restaurant can replicate this, can re-engage the local community, and re-engage their customer base.”
“My customer base is at home with a huge void of socializing, so let’s provide that and the mood and culture on regular digital platforms that everybody’s now becoming accustomed to and create a whole experience,” said McLachlan.
The restaurateur anticipates a soft reopening of restaurants in the next four weeks and is thinking now about what that will look like for the Fairy Lake waterfront eatery.
The take-out window run by McLachlan’s retired father, Ted McLachlan, and known as the Cachet Community Window because of its support of local events, will be the first thing to open when COVID-19 restrictions loosen and people can walk around more freely.
“From a patio perspective, it will mean only 50 per cent of tables or less,” she said. “At this time, I don’t feel I’d be interested in putting up plastic walls inside. I’m going to take the position that should I need to change the interior design of the building and segregate areas for guests, I will choose not to do that and I will continue with this virtual dining.”For more information on Cachet Supper Club, Cooking with Cachet, and its virtual private cooking classes, visit here.