"Dining Out Dead" article by Corey Mintz

Post By Cucini Catering

Check out the article by Corey Mintz referencing Cucini Catering owner with his startup during the pandemic. 


IN 1999, Sanjeev Yogeswaran came to Canada as a refugee. He was fourteen years old, and his family had paid almost $40,000 to get him out of Sri Lanka, which was gripped by civil war. At age fifteen, he began working at Pizza Hut; within a few years, he was working at three Pizza Huts at the same time, putting in seventy hours a week. Except for a brief period when he co-owned a pub, Yogeswaran has spent the vast majority of his restaurant career working for other people. And then the pandemic hit.

It was the last weekend in March. The business Yogeswaran managed was closed; two weeks without going in to work was the longest vacation he’d had in two decades. His sister, Mirna, a financial manager, had been casually catering for years, cooking for friends’ birthday parties and the like. The siblings discussed posting a small selection of dishes for sale, which they would deliver themselves to the areas near their homes, in the suburban Ajax and Pickering areas. With little planning—just that quick conversation—they shared a menu on WhatsApp, telling family and friends that they were offering kochikadai biryani (a rice dish in which a basic dough is used to seal the pot lid so no steam escapes), chicken fried rice with devil chicken (fried chicken chunks tossed in vinegar, soy, sweet sauce with peppers, onions, and chilies), and yellow rice with mutton curry. Within half an hour, Yogeswaran recalls, they started getting orders. “We hadn’t started cooking.”

Cooking out of Yogeswaran’s home, they delivered twenty orders that Saturday. Then they started promoting the food on Instagram and adding more dishes. By the third week, they were packing 100 orders and making lamprais: rice with mutton curry, eggplant moju (pickle), fish croquette, boiled egg, and blachan (a chili shrimp paste), all bundled in a banana leaf—a lot of work, but perfect for delivery because the leaf helps maintain the heat and moisture. They rented a commercial kitchen from 4 a.m. to 9 a.m., when it would otherwise have been closed, and hired one of Yogeswaran’s laid-off cooks. During their busiest time, they were cooking and delivering five days a week: requests from customers in nearby municipalities had prompted them to schedule drop-offs in parking lots with one-hour windows for pickup. Yogeswaran is now looking for a bricks-and-mortar location to launch a post-quarantine business.

In the year or two before COVID-19 shut the restaurant industry down, articles started popping up about so-called ghost kitchens, which offer full menus via delivery but no restaurant you can walk into and eat at in person. Back then, discussions about the emerging phenomenon focused on the potential for restaurants to expand their reach without the cost of dining space or front of house staff—a far cry from landing on them as a creative dining solution to a worldwide public health crisis. What the Yogeswarans had done neatly encapsulates how many industry observers describe the current climate: changes to the sector that had been predicted to unfold over years have been accelerated to a matter of weeks.