Pods Provide ‘Cool’ Experience
The story behind Northern Trails’ innovative approach to dining ‘out’
Here at N3 World Headquarters we have embraced creating meals at home with LSC Lil assuming the role as the primary architect of our ever expanding menu and this writer serving as sous chef, supply runner and head dishwasher. Save the occasional take out we have supped, dined and breakfasted at home.
However, hearing about ‘the pods’ at Northern Trails from N3 friend Martha Gabrielse piqued our curiosity.
A few days ago, with some remodeling work looming at N3WH, it became necessary to run a few errands involving these upcoming efforts. It was a long day and after a conversation that resulted in simultaneous agreement we decided to give NT a shot on our way home.
We found the pods to be an intriguing and enjoyable experience, not merely for the wonderful NT food and superb service that we’ve been missing, but also for the unique ambiance the enclosures provided.
Following our visit we reached out to Stephanie Barrett one of the owners of the enticing eatery to pose a few questions.
N3-This has been a tough time for restaurants. Have the pods helped increase business significantly?
During the first round of closures (March-June) business slowed considerably, but between stimulus checks and the additional unemployment that our customers received, we experienced a financial hit, but it was nothing like the second round of closures (November-Current). Since we've added the pods, we've had very steady reservations and it has nearly tripled our current sales, despite the fact that there are only six pods and two additional areas that we have since added outside the pods.
How did this go from an idea to a reality?
Long story..., although the business was our Dad's, Our mother, my brother and myself purchased the restaurant in September of 2019 from his estate after his passing. Our mother was diagnosed last spring with cancer and passed away December 4th. I've learned from my years in the restaurant industry that in most things, you have to carefully weigh decisions, and my brother who's new to the industry, but a business person himself, is more of a risk taker. He has contacts with Blox, LLC who had brought the idea to him and my brother was all for it. I was initially opposed to the idea, but I decided that our mother, who's not here anymore to vote, would be in favor of taking the chance so we went with it.
Blox, LLC is a fairly new company that my brother is very familiar with. They had a very detailed concept for the shipping container pods, but hadn't had anyone commit to spending the money on them yet. We received the Weatherization Grant in December, and while the grant did not pay for the entire project, it paid for a good portion of it. Some adjustments had to be made to be compliant with the outdoor dining regulations, but Blox, LLC made them immediately and once they got the go ahead, they had the project completed in about a week and a half.
What has been the response?
The response has been great! We get some people here and there who aren't happy that the pods are still chilly, but I think that's to be expected. We've got two radiant heaters going nonstop in each of the six pods, and 2-3 propane heaters going in the additional pods where ventilation wouldn't be a concern. People seem really excited about them, both because they're very different from the igloo type dining (which was our intention), and because they can experience a little bit of something normal by going out to eat, and doing it in as safe a manner as possible.
What have been the biggest challenges?
We're learning as we go. We had to develop a completely different set of operating procedures for this type of dining and we are tweaking it daily. Keeping reservations to the allotted time frame has been a huge challenge as well as adjusting reservation times to stagger the amount of orders for our kitchen. Keeping the pods warm has been a battle. My brother has been working to make things as comfortable as possible by adding an additional heater to each pod, lowering curtains, etc. Dealing with power issues because the load of 13 heaters had us scrambling to spread the heaters out to avoid blowing breakers during peak times. All in all, it's smoothing out, and it doesn't seem like it should be that much different from our perspective than indoor dining, but it's proving to be very different.
Is this something you might continue to offer as a novelty this winter if the ban is lifted?
We're definitely going to continue to offer these if/when the indoor dining ban is lifted. We had discussed the fact that there will be customers who may prefer the privacy they offer for groups, as well as the fact that COVID 19 isn't going anywhere, and there may be some people who feel safer dining in the pods that indoors, even with the capacity restrictions and curfews we're sure to experience upon reopening. We've had several calls from people asking the same question, which shows us a demand, and we've got reservations already into February thankfully.
We've also got plans to re-purpose the pods after the winter if things return to some kind of normal, so our hope is that they'll transition from a necessity to a novelty, even into the summer months!
Anything you care to add?
I don't have much to add outside of the fact that we're grateful for the community support that we've received since the beginning of COVID 19, and that is still continuing. The video that Blox, LLC marketing team created brought a lot of visibility to our restaurant, and we have had a lot of new customers visit in the last two weeks, but our community, and the support they show us is what's kept our heads above water during this awful time and we're so grateful for them.
Thank you Ms. Barrett.
We'll be back soon.
-Ken De Laat
Photos by Stephanie Barrett
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