Surviving, one order at a time: The rise of the delivery-only restaurant

We meet at the corner of LeMoyne and Bosworth. A discreet man emerges from a black Nissan Rogue with a brown paper bag. It’s a 40-degree day, but he has no coat, wearing only black jeans and a white-and-gray striped shirt with sleeves rolled to his elbows, revealing tattoos on both arms.

In exchange for $25, he passes me the goods. The strong aroma hits almost instantly.

“Let me know how it is,” he says.

Once I’m hidden away in my car, I tear into the bag and grab a skewer of pork satay. Bypassing the shrimp sauce, I beeline the skewer into my mouth and devour. I owe it all to Dino. 

Dino Arriola, the man from the Nissan, is the proprietor of LuzViMinda, a new delivery-only restaurant. The title pays homage to the Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao regions of the Philippines. Arriola, who is Filipino American and currently resides in Logan Square, hopes to offer Chicago more authentic Filipino food, with dishes from all three regions. 

According to Arriola, no chefs — whether line cooks or Michelin star heavyweights — went into 2020 expecting to open delivery-only restaurants. The unorthodox trend was borne out of desperation. As severe downsizing rocks the restaurant industry, the U.S. government has offered just $1,800 in stimulus to laid-off restaurant employees for nearly a year of recession. Some resourceful chefs crafted the delivery-only model to get by as the pandemic wears on. While third-party delivery services help some restaurants stay afloat, other independent and laid-off chefs are relying on their own scrappiness, cars and home kitchens. 

Chefs helping chefs

Arriola credits local chef John Avila — the owner of Minahasa, an Indonesian delivery-only restaurant — for the recipe to this innovation. The two joined a group chat for furloughed Chicago-based chefs, which was created by food writer Sarahlynn Pablo and Boonie Foods owner Joseph Fontelera. It has since expanded to nearly 40 people, all of whom are Filipino.

“It feels like a town, not a group chat anymore,” Arriola says.

Dino Arriola, owner of LuzViMinda, is testing out a delivery-only restaurant model.

The chat has become a place to build community, plug ventures and bond over shared struggles. Those frustrations tend to have a similar ring. Every chef in the chat is qualified to work in any kitchen in the area, but jobs are sparse. They’re faced with two unappetizing options: try to get by on unemployment checks, or work part-time in kitchens for little pay. Those in the chat are increasingly moving to delivery-only restaurants as a do-it-yourself alternative.

At the beginning of the week, Arriola sets his menu items and purchases ingredients in bulk. Next he awaits orders, which he fields through Instagram or Tock, a website offering DoorDash-style deliveries for local restaurants. Each plate costs $25. The menu features Mindanao offerings such as the pork satay I sampled, piaparan a manok (chicken with shredded coconut) and subaw ng buko et sayote (coconut soup with chayote).

“Each region has a very different flavor profile,” he says. “Up north, they like things a little bit more sour, vinegary and salty. Down south, they like it a little bit spicier and more herbaceous, so they’ll use a lot more lemongrass and turmeric and ginger.”

Along for the ride

A few hours after delivering my plate, I meet Arriola at his one-bedroom apartment to ride along for the dinner rush. It’s only his third day in business. Stepping into Arriola’s kitchen, I feel like a kid in a candy store as I take in the scents of Filipino cuisine, from coconut to annatto and chayote. 

Arriola’s pad offers one person plenty of room, but operating a commercial kitchen has cramped his space. Packaged chicken thighs and containers of coconut soup fill the fridge. Pots and pans hang on hooks from the ceiling so he can save on cabinet room. He cooks up the meat entirely outside, where a small single-burner grill sits in the corner of a shared backyard.

Unlike other delivery jobs, working from home allows Arriola to choose his own hours. He doesn’t have to go back and forth from restaurant to customer; he can simply throw brown bags into the trunk of his Nissan and deliver each plate.

“I’ll organize it, so I… go in a circle, or closest to farthest,” he tells me. “It works out really well in my favor. I’ll do [lunch] and then I take a nap, wake up at 5, and start cooking again; deliver at 6.”

On the official launch day for LuzViMinda in November, he received nine orders, totaling $225. Things are quieter tonight — just two deliveries. 

“You mind if I smoke in here?” he asks.

Arriola takes a drag of a cigarette and blows a cloud out the window, where it dissipates into the cool Chicago evening. He finally has some space to breathe. Earlier, he was frantic and overwhelmed with prep work. He’s accustomed to being behind the stove, but now he’s in charge of marketing, logistics, financial operations and customer relations. 

On our ride along, Ariolla tells me he plans to momentarily close shop to focus on an order for renowned food critic Steve Dolinsky, who works for Chicago’s ABC 7 News. “It’s a big deal,” Ariolla says. “I actually didn’t have a menu ready [for next week] but when he told me he was going to place an order [via Instagram], I pulled over to the side of the road as quickly as possible to start making one.” 

We arrive at a row of townhouses and start looking for our first customer’s house number. Dino adjusts his light blue mask, grabs one of the brown bags from the backseat and slips on a pair of latex gloves. He jogs; I trail. The patron emerges and the transaction is complete. 

We begin the route to the next person, a friend of a friend of Arriola’s. The spot is nearly a half-hour from his home base in Logan Square, but he doesn’t seem to mind. 

This customer requests non-contact delivery because her cat is having a medical emergency, Arriola says. After exchanging a few texts, he turns on his hazard lights and disappears up a flight of stairs to drop off the bag. She’s been one of his most loyal clients; this is her second order of the week. 

“Some people are really hesitant to go outside,” he says when I ask about offering pickup orders. “I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable having to go out of their way just to pick up some food.” 

Ultimately, Arriola hopes to open a small brick-and-mortar Filipino restaurant. But right now, he has more pressing matters at hand. In the months following our drive, business at LuzViMinda slows down. Dolinsky never gets back to him after ordering his plate. Nine orders in a day suddenly feels like a lofty goal. 

After a two-week dry spell, Arriola recently decided to take a break from the business. Despite his determination and creativity, he’s been forced to re-evaluate the sustainability of a concept as precarious as the delivery-only restaurant.

But it’s all about the small victories, the human kindness and shared connections over food that keep stuck-at-home chefs cooking. 

Arriola says a customer once expressed disbelief about his tiny grill, which could barely fit four chicken thighs. Later, a package arrived at his front door.

“They bought me a new grill!” Arriola says. “I told them like, ‘Hey, you can have free food any time.’ But they were like, ‘No man, we just want to give you this.’”