Peli Peli hospital 2

Peli Peli’s Thomas Nguyen Talks Smart Restaurant Pivots in the Days of COVID

Running a successful restaurant typically says as much about back-of-the-house business as it does about the food being served. Today, however, as restaurants walk a fine line between giving diners a sense of normalcy and showing them just how much the world has changed over the past few months, restaurant business-savviness has taken on even more urgency. 

This is something that Thomas Nguyen, Dinova restaurant partner and co-founder and CMO of Houston-based Peli Peli South African Kitchen (whose blend of seafood, grilled meats, veggies, curries and desserts offer “a culinary adventure through some of the most exciting and diverse flavours on the planet”), seems to understand well. Nguyen joined us recently for a socially distanced, virtual sit-down to discuss how he and the Peli Peli team have addressed the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, based on the needs of their local community.

Peli Peli's Thomas Nguyen with a takeout spread
Peli Peli’s co-founder and CMO Thomas Nguyen with a spread of featured takeout options.

When the pandemic first hit, how did you change your operations? 

Our corporate team made the decision early on to pivot to an only takeout and delivery model before it was required.  This allowed us to install an online ordering system and make the online ordering interface user-friendly, which resulted in a more efficient and profitable system of takeout and delivery.  

In addition, we had to handle delivery ourselves so that we would not rely solely on third-party delivery services.  Third-party delivery services during a time when most of your business is takeout and delivery will result in a substantial loss of income. 

Most importantly, our executive chef and partner, Ryan Stewart, quickly changed our menu to only offer $10 boxed meals.  Peli Peli’s per person average was above $40, but we hoped that a new, lower-priced menu would allow us to reach a broader market, one that has been negatively affected by furloughs and the oil and gas industry, as well as allow our kitchen to operate efficiently with the limited staff that we had.  Because the $10 boxed meals were affordable and full of proteins and two vegetable side dishes, they were a big hit with families and allowed our catering to flourish with local businesses and hospitals ordering takeout.

Peli Peli's Thomas Nguyen checks the restaurant's pop-up display at Kroger
Peli Peli’s Thomas Nguyen checks the restaurant’s pop-up display at a Kroger grocery store.

What does takeout and delivery look like today? 

Each location has its own online ordering platform through our website,, and we have developed strong relationships with the local business community for bulk orders of our boxed meals.  Our new catering menu contains $10-$15 boxed meals and will do so moving forward.

What resources did you look to in order to know how to operate safely? 

We relied on information provided by the Texas Restaurant Association, Greater Houston Restaurant Association and stayed connected with fellow restaurateurs in Houston.  Houston has an amazing and close-knit restaurant community, and it was great to be able to stay connected with everyone to see what changes to implement for the safety of our staff and our guests.

Peli Peli Boxed Meal 2
Peli Peli’s boxed meals feature a variety of South African seafood and chicken dishes.

What are the biggest differences guests should be prepared to see in the future of restaurant dining?

I believe diners should expect a greater focus on providing a safe and sanitary environment not just for our staff, but for the benefit of our guests.  This includes touchless payment options, digital and QR-code menus that help minimize the distribution of normal menus, a facemask requirement for our staff and in some scenarios as mandated by the city or state, for the guests as well.  Temperature checks for all employees and guests who enter the premises.  

What safety practices should diners follow? 

I hope guests can be respectful of the policies and procedures that a restaurant must follow to maintain a safe and sanitary dining experience.  If we are careless and someone contracts COVID-19, it can be devastating not just for the business itself, but potentially hazardous to the health of all guests.

Peli Peli Plate
Peli Peli offers a South African tasting tour, with specialties like crispy lamb samosas, a bobotie made with curried beef and creamy whipped carrots, wood grilled Boerewors sausage and air-dried beef biltong.

What would you like guests to know about what your staff is doing to keep them safe? 

We take these standards very seriously and want to lead by example, so we require temperature checks for anyone coming into our restaurants, whether it is staff or our guests.  For our staff, we maintain records of each and every temperature check, and we have created more options for touchless dining – including QR codes for digital menus and touchless payment options for checkout.

Tell us about some other creative things you have done to grow your reach in this “new normal.”

One is our Kroger partnership. Kroger wanted to support local businesses by helping them gain greater exposure to the market as well as be able to hire more employees.  Peli Peli was selected as a local brand to work with based on our $10 boxed meals and reputation for hospitality based on our 5-star reviews.

Also, for the first time since 2009, Peli Peli and Chef Ryan Stewart will revamp the entire menu to allow us to offer much greater value, better efficiency for takeout and delivery, more authentic South African flavors and a dining experience more suitable for everyday dining, not just for special occasions.  We felt this change was necessary for us to be successful in a post-COVID restaurant landscape.

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