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Neiman Marcus uses creativity to resurrect its restaurant business

The Dallas-based luxury retailer, like so many restaurateurs trying to survive during social distancing, has turned the business online and is now starting to reopen restaurants.

Neiman Marcus steak dinner comes ready to reheat at home. In Dallas-Fort Worth, it's delivered by Alto and arrives in an insulated bag. Here's the menu: a tri-color Caesar salad made with crispy panko, capers and shaved parmesan; sous-vide beef tenderloin with black garlic au jus; Rosati potato pie; and chocolate Basque cake.
Neiman Marcus steak dinner comes ready to reheat at home. In Dallas-Fort Worth, it's delivered by Alto and arrives in an insulated bag. Here's the menu: a tri-color Caesar salad made with crispy panko, capers and shaved parmesan; sous-vide beef tenderloin with black garlic au jus; Rosati potato pie; and chocolate Basque cake.(Neiman Marcus)

Neiman Marcus is rebuilding its more than 60-year-old food business after its restaurants were closed for eight months last year.

Kevin Garvin, a 26-year veteran of the Dallas-based luxury retailer, said store restaurants are slowly reopening, and the staff has pivoted to online cooking videos with the dinner delivered in advance, corporate food gifts, cocktails to go and other inventive ways to make up for the lost restaurant and catering business.

  • NM Café at the NorthPark Center store will reopen by mid-March, and chef Matt Zita is working on new recipes to add to the traditional ones. Table settings are from Neiman Marcus’ shuttered store in New York’s Hudson Yards. The store’s Mermaid Bar has reopened.
  • The Zodiac reopened in the downtown Dallas store on Feb. 10 and last weekend started offering afternoon tea on Saturdays. For months, the Zodiac has had a team dedicated to deliveries that stayed busy packing up local favorites like white bean chili, tortilla soup and popovers with strawberry butter.
  • Restaurants at Neiman Marcus stores in Plano and Fort Worth have reopened, and dine-in service resumed at Bergdorf Goodman in New York a week ago. Most of the company’s restaurants in its 38 stores have reopened for Tuesday through Saturday service except in California, where openings are delayed due to local pandemic restrictions.

Stores also have gotten back into the catering events business on a small scale in cities where that’s allowed.

The luxury chain’s loyal customer base allowed Garvin, corporate chef Jessica Oost and corporate director of beverages Frank Zack to come up with new ways to generate food sales.

All three appeared in a live 30-minute cooking lesson before Valentine’s Day that featured sous-vide beef tenderloin prepared by Oost in her favorite French cast iron pan. The meals were delivered in advance to customers by Dallas-based ride share company Alto in a thermal bag. Heating instructions were included, but Oost peppered her prep with several cooking tips. The dinner cost about $300 for two, and Neiman’s plans to do more like it, Garvin said.

Valentine's Day cocktails to go from Neiman Marcus.
Valentine's Day cocktails to go from Neiman Marcus. (Mei-Chun Jau)

“The online food business has taken over the revenue stream,” Garvin said.

“It’s not uncommon to have 50 boxes of popovers leave the downtown store in a day. It’s really taken off.”

Ordinarily, the restaurants would have been too busy during the holiday to feed a delivery business, but during the pandemic, holiday dinners were big sellers, he said. Customers’ cravings for Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookies have also been filled.

Neiman Marcus dinner ingredients ready to cook at home.
Neiman Marcus dinner ingredients ready to cook at home.(Neiman Marcus)

To-go alcoholic drinks have been allowed during the pandemic in Texas to help struggling restaurants, and that could become permanent during the 2021 session of the Legislature.

For the Valentine’s Day cooking class, the staff created a couple of strawberry cocktails for two, and Neiman Marcus has been selling to-go cocktails since last year.

“The food business is part of our DNA. We’ve been in it since 1953,” said Garvin, vice president of restaurants. That’s the year the Zodiac was added on the sixth floor after the downtown Neiman Marcus store was expanded. Originally, the restaurant was a way to keep out-of-town shoppers there all day, and later it became a service that customers expected from a luxury department store.

When the pandemic began, “we went from operating at 100 miles an hour to zero,” Garvin said.

Neiman Marcus was in bankruptcy last year and closed several stores. It also shed $4 billion in debt and has focused on a digital strategy.

Garvin declined to share numbers on the company’s food operations, saying there’s no fair comparison for last year. In the past, catering events such as wedding showers and rehearsal dinners generated a big business, he said.

Garvin said he can’t predict when social distancing rules will be relaxed enough to bring back that side of the business. “As restrictions are lifted, menus will be smaller and so are staffs, because revenue is a fraction of what it was,” he said.

Food deliveries aren’t new to Neiman Marcus, Garvin said. The retailer has delivered elaborate meals for homes since before the internet in the 1980s. The retailer is confident it can rebuild its food business, he said, “because we have such loyal customers.”

And what other luxury department store has demand for its chicken broth and bone broth?

During the pandemic, “it’s been huge,” Garvin said.

Demitasse cups of chicken broth were first served to Zodiac diners as they were seated at the table in 1955 after waiting in line, and the tradition has endured.

Twitter: @MariaHalkias

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Maria Halkias, Staff writer. Maria Halkias has covered the retail scene for The Dallas Morning News since 1993.

mhalkias@dallasnews.com /maria.halkias @MariaHalkias Instagram Iconmariahalkias LinkedIn Iconhttps://www.linkedin.com/in/MariaHalkias
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