We interviewed chef Alex McCoy from Lucky Buns in Washington DC to hear about how the restaurant has focused on a takeout menu to stay open in 2020, as well as his story and career around food.
Former head chef of Ralph Lauren & Lincoln Pilcher’s (Kingswood, Eveleigh, Ruby’s) Georgetown, as well as the founder of Duke’s Grocery in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of DC, Alex McCoy has spent many years traveling back and forth between the US and South-East Asia. Throughout his long career in the restaurant industry, in 2017 Alex opened two locations of his longtime Sunday, burger-centric pop-up Lucky Buns. The restaurant soon gained much attention in DC as one of the most anticipated openings in the District as well as its Irish, South-East Asian, UK, and Aussie inspired dishes.
How are things going at your restaurant in 2020?
I have to say that we were pretty lucky because the food that we make (burgers, cocktails, fried chicken sandwiches) is an easy option for takeout. We’re not doing fine-dining, so I don’t have to worry about items with a huge cost or huge amount of labor. We simply had to move the burger from plate to bag. Also, we were able to save 75% of our staff. Not all the restaurants had the ability to do so, so we’re one of the lucky ones!
Which was your most successful strategy to stay open?
Speed, consistency, and quality were the keys to our success. When you’re switching gears into something different (as it happened during the Covid-19 crisis), you have to really look at details. Another important thing that was really important was diving into the delivery apps. That was one of the biggest conversations at the beginning: which apps should I use? Should we set our own app? What would the interface between customer and restaurant gonna look like? Delivery apps have very high commissions, so we had to make sure that our pricing model was right. Our focus was high volume, so we thought: if we have to pay a lot, we’re gonna make a lot. Assessing the menu was another key-factor to work well during the crisis. We optimized our menu by taking off some items and by keeping only those options we could quickly and easily make.
What are the aspects that you implemented in your restaurants?
About 6 months ago, our business at Lucky Buns was growing and it was important to streamline our ordering process, especially because we had different people taking care of it. So it was really good for me to find you guys from the Choco app to manage this side of the business! Also, to view and edit orders whenever I needed it. I integrated my inventory into the app and that really makes things easier. Now the ordering takes us 5 minutes, instead of 30.
What do you foresee for the future of the restaurant industry?
There are a lot of factors to take into account. But I think things are going back to normal because people will still want to go out. It may take a year or two to feel completely comfortable, so I think that we will see more takeout and delivery.
Photo via Lucky Buns
Do you remember your first cooking experience?
My mom is a chef. I grew up in the kitchen my entire life. As for the first dish that I cooked: do you know how in every home there’s a can-drawer for soups, stocks, can veggies? That’s what my parents started me off with. Canned food. So I learned at around four or five, starting with seasoning and playing with ingredients.
What is the most challenging dish you have ever made?
I wouldn’t point out a dish in particular. But my approach to understanding food has definitely changed throughout my profession and personal life thanks to Thai food culture. Every year for 12 years I go to Thailand, not only to learn flavors but also to understand the stories behind flavors and dishes…find out the reason why they are done the way they are. I was always amazed by how street-chefs would sustain themselves with one single dish done with little equipment for their whole lives. On my first day in Bangkok I woke up early, completely jet-lagged, went out for a walk, and there were three street-vendors on the street. The only thing I could understand on the menu was green-curry. And I thought I knew what it was. The first bite I took, I realized that everything I knew about Thai food was wrong: the texture, the funkiness, the sweetness of real coconut milk. But it took me years to understand how to make the recipe.