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If there was an award for “creativity in the craziest year in the history of restaurants,” that would go to Seattle fine-dining mecca Canlis, the iconic 70-year old, multi-award winning, family-run fine dining restaurant in Seattle. According to Dining Room Manager Amanda Lynn Sullivan, that creativity comes from two questions: “How can we serve our people and the rest of the community? And what do we find fun?” 

As COVID shut down restaurant life as we knew it, Canlis’s creative pivots began with a burger drive-through that was so popular the city of Seattle let them take over a highway exit ramp. Then a bagel shack that sold out daily, family-style meals, a CSA-style program, and a tiki-themed crab shack pop-up. As summer ended the restaurant pivoted again to “Canlis Community College,” a virtual offering to share their skills and insights with their community. 

 

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“You can see whole communities that are starting to crumble, including our own industry,” says Sullivan. “So finding a way to give to charity and just keep our doors open has been a huge guiding light.” 

The leadership team at Canlis uses Upserve’s analytics to plan each new venture. “Upserve is extremely helpful when it comes to pivoting to a brand new concept and being able to predict how sales will go when that pivot actually happens,” says Sullivan. “We’re looking at what dishes are most popular, what drinks are most popular, what exactly was the most-sold type of merchandise. Upserve can help us eliminate some of the unknown factors when it comes to planning the next concept, when we’ve really stressed out about whether or not we’re spending too much money.” 

The most ambitious of these endeavors was likely the drive-in movie theater experience they created over the summer of 2020. The idea came up during a management brainstorm about fun ways to be socially distant. Canlis partnered with local telehealth company Swedish Medical and the Seattle International Film Festival who offered to put together the “screening” portion of the drive-in if Canlis could provide the “experience,” with all proceeds going to the Black Farmers Collective

 

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The drive-in was a timely decision too. Canlis had stopped doing family meal delivery when protests in Seattle had slowed their ability to deliver across town. They wanted to leverage the “fun” of a drive-in with a real message about social change. “I mean, this is a 70-year-old, white male-run business and has been since the beginning, right?” says Sullivan. “The owners realized that with what has been changing in our nation over the last couple of months, it was important for them to speak up.”

Canlis has been using Upserve since 2013, and as they got more creative with their public offerings, they realized they needed more tools to make decisions and quickly pivot their service model. For the drive-in movie experience, the Canlis team took orders through their Upserve Online Ordering platform, as well as “car side” orders with the Upserve Tableside POS

“Having the Tableside was extremely helpful for us, to be able to have seven different servers running around a parking lot, doing a little bit more of turn-and-burn style service, which is different than what we’re used to,” says Sullivan. “During our drive-in event, we were using the Upserve reporting functions a lot more because we needed a minute-by-minute inventory check-in because our sales volume was so high. We were doing thousands of burgers in one day, so it was extremely helpful.” 

Looking ahead, Canlis’ definition of success and their widening role within the community continues to evolve. Their latest offering? Thanksgiving to-go and socially distanced service in parking lot yurts. “We live in the boxes that we set out for ourselves, so to be able to break free from those structures because we have to [during COVID], and to be able to extend hospitality in ways that we never thought we could is really amazing,” says Sullivan. “I think it’s changing the way that our entire industry will approach how we serve.”  

 

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The state of the restaurant industry is ever-evolving, but nothing could have prepared restaurant owners and operators for 2020. Download our State of the Restaurant Industry Report for 2020 menu, sales, and holiday trends, plus stories from restaurant owners who managed to grow sales despite the pandemic.

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