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19 Aug 2020

The Pandemic Pivot: Chef Andie Hubka Rethinks Her Four Food Concepts in Indio and La Quinta—and Even Starts a New 'Shadow' Restaurant

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Andie Hubka: “We really wanted to focus on how people would eat and reheat the food. In the past, I might revisit a restaurant because of great service or their wine list, but now it’s how well the food was packaged.” Andie Hubka: “We really wanted to focus on how people would eat and reheat the food. In the past, I might revisit a restaurant because of great service or their wine list, but now it’s how well the food was packaged.”

COVID-19 has created a great deal of pessimism in the restaurant industry, for good reason—but Andie Hubka has a positive attitude, and is finding a purpose for every proverbial lemon that life gives.

Hubka has opened four food concepts since 2008, conveniently divided between two sets of adjoining units, in La Quinta and Indio. It started with Cooking With Class, a recreational cooking school, before expanding to Cork and Fork, Heirloom Craft Kitchen, and Tu Madres Cantina and Grill. All of her concepts center around fresh, local ingredients with modern, creative flair. They’ve established Hubka as one the valley’s most reputable and recognizable chefs.

She’s been going virtually non-stop for 12 years, and Hubka planned to take a break after opening Tu Madres in December. Unfortunately, COVID-19 had other ideas.

She limited her restaurants to takeout a week before the governor’s official orders. “Some restaurants had to close suddenly, then were left reassessing and scrambling amidst constant changes,” Hubka said.

Each of her restaurants had their own challenges. Heirloom was reasonably well set, with takeout already accounting for half the sales—and it’s actually doing better this year than last. Cork and Fork, however, is known for a social and intimate setting.

“That whole model doesn’t lend itself well to COVID,” Hubka joked.

Tu Madres is half-bar and has no patio. “We hadn't established ourselves, so we literally had to start over,” she said.

And Cooking With Class? “We have no idea when we’re going to be able to reopen that. It could be a long time.”

Hubka is accustomed to adversity; Cooking With Class opened in the midst of the 2008 downturn, after all. She claims to have more than 100 concepts in her head, and she’s been investing in new equipment at a time when others are cutting back. In fact, she’s decided to take advantage of this takeout- and delivery-centered restaurant era by introducing yet another restaurant concept.

“When life gives you lemons, eat Citrine!” That’s the tagline for her latest concept, one focused on fresh Mediterranean cuisine. However, you can’t dine at Citrine, because in the traditional restaurant sense, it doesn’t exist. It’s part of a modern trend of “ghost” or “shadow” kitchens, which operate in a shared space and sell through delivery apps. Hubka was inspired by a Los Angeles restaurateur who was running five virtual restaurants out of one location; Citrine takes advantage of unused capacity at Cooking With Class.

“With shadow kitchens, most consumers don’t realize that they're not an actual restaurant,” Hubka said. “But we made it completely transparent, and our customers can physically come pick up in-person.”

While patio dining is now permitted, the transition hasn’t been easy at Hubka’s restaurants, in part due to the desert heat. Heirloom always had a few outside tables, but the other concepts needed help. Tu Madres borrows the patio from the coffee shop next door in the evenings, and as the weather cools, Hubka plans to extend a shared patio for Heirloom and Tu Madres into the parking lot.

“You can make it feel really nice if you dress it up with plants and umbrellas,” she joked.

They’ve had strong support in that regard. “The city of Indio has allowed us to do whatever we can to survive, while La Quinta gave us grants to extend the Cork and Fork patio and make it more hospitable,” Hubka said. The city even paid for the misters—except there was a problem: “It turned out there was a mister shortage, and every company was booked for months. Another interesting side effect of the pandemic!”

Traditionally a source of supplemental revenue, takeout is now at the forefront. In addition to the third-party apps, all of Hubka’s restaurant websites offer online ordering. She’s also worked on packaging and presentation.

“We really wanted to focus on how people would eat and reheat the food,” she said. “In the past, I might revisit a restaurant because of great service or their wine list, but now it’s how well the food was packaged.” It was part of the mindset behind Citrine, because Mediterranean and Italian food “travel well.”

While Hubka has removed a few menu items due to poor transportability, she’s resisted the urge to streamline and cut costs, she said.

“We wanted to make sure our customers could still get the food they expected,” Hubka said. “We’ve actually expanded our offerings with daily specials. They keep our customers coming back, and also give us reason to post on social media.”

She’s also added affordable family meals, enhancing offerings with a brand-new smoker. The first weekend’s barbecue offerings sold out fast, generating great feedback—and a waiting list. “We rotate the smoker around all four restaurants, so they all get to be creative and have fun with it,” she said.

While Cooking With Class is currently not operating, Hubka remains dedicated to teaching. She’s heavily involved with La Quinta High School and has published three cookbooks. Because quarantine has spawned a wave of aspiring home chefs, she took to social media with free, live cooking shows.

“The cooking school started my career and was behind everything we’ve done,” she said. “It means a lot to a lot of people, myself included.”

She is exploring options to convert Cooking With Class into a virtual model. “There’s no comparison to physical cooking classes where you get to taste everything, but going forward, people might want the comfort of cooking classes from their own home,” she said.

Hubka has also embarked on a series of virtual happy hours, co-hosted with a local real estate agent. With guests and giveaways, the happy hours have developed a strong following.

“We wanted to do something fun, invite other local business owners, and talk about what we’re doing to survive,” Hubka said. “It’s been a cool, communal thing. It’s allowed us to touch base with people, see how they’re doing, and show them what we’ve been up to.”

COVID-19 will likely reshape social behaviors indefinitely. Consumers may be slow to return to packed dining rooms, and many of us have gotten used to new technologies and remote experiences. Hubka is embracing rather than fighting that change.

“It was time to get creative, reinvent and find new ways to connect with our base,” she said.

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