This might be the hottest restaurant menu item during COVID-19

It's been widely reported, here and elsewhere, that restaurants are struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. The number that's been reported for months now is 85 percent: That's the proportion of independent restaurants predicted to close permanently this year, barring some big government rescue (via The Washington Post). Despite dire warnings of a restaurant "extinction event," some independent restaurateurs are surviving, and occasionally thriving, through creativity and the ability to figure out exactly what restaurant customers want in these trying times.

Nick Kokonas, owner of the Alinea restaurant group in Chicago, is one of those creative thinkers who also happens to have data from millions of restaurant customers at his fingertips. Kokonas participated on October 14 in an online discussion with The Wall Street Journal about restaurants and the pandemic. He was asked a bold — some might say foolhardy — question: "If you were going to launch an eating company right now, what would the concept be?" Kokonas didn't hesitate with his answer: "Sushi, baby!"

It's true that McDonald's, largely through the success of a one-month promotion with the Travis Scott meal, saw double-digit sales growth in September despite the pandemic. But we feel safe saying that no McDonald's restaurant sold $25,000 worth of Quarter Pounders, fries, and Sprite in 10 minutes. That's how much money Kokona's team made recently when they sold sushi out of a refrigerated truck in the Chicago suburbs.

The demand for sushi is incredible right now

In addition to running Alinea and other restaurants, Kokonas has Tock — software restaurants use to manage reservations. After COVID-19 brought traffic on Tock to a halt, Kokonas expanded Tock to include a restaurant delivery app, Tock to Go (via Fast Company). By mid-October, 5,000 restaurants were on the delivery service, Kokonas told The Wall Street Journal.

As he related in the WSJ interview, Kokonas discovered something remarkable behind the scenes in Tock to Go. Of millions of searches for carryout entered in the first week of October, 16 percent were specifically for sushi. Kokonas said sushi has a number of advantages, even while more people, stuck at home, are eating store-bought comfort foods. Sushi is something people across America want but most can't make, and it also happens to offer restaurants a good profit margin. "I've tried to make sushi at home," Kokonas said. "It does not come out as good. That's a real skill." Kokonas is flying fish in from Tokyo at great expense to meet demand, and he had a message for any sushi chefs in the Chicago area: He's hiring.

If independent restaurants don't want to do sushi (and they don't have the budget to launch a promotion with a pop star like Travis Scott), then they should explore their options, Kokonas said. "If you're a restaurant owner, figure out what it is on your menu that your customers can't make at all, and they will buy it."