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When restaurants were forced to rethink the way they operate in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, many pivoted their focus to takeout. Lazy Dog Restaurant and Bar, which has four Colorado locations, looked to the past as well as the future to bring nostalgic joy to the lives of its customers in the form of frozen, ready-to-reheat, take-home TV dinners.
“During the quarantine lockdown phase, we were forced to make some changes and think outside the box for how we can connect with our staff and with our customers on a deeper level than just coming to pick up some pasta,” says Rob Bowers, the general manager for Lazy Dog’s Westminster location.
Bowers says the restaurant was looking for something to help its customers enjoy family time—just like they might while sitting in a restaurant. TV dinners had the perfect “retro, old-school, get-home-from-school-and-throw-it-in-the-oven” vibe, Bowers says. The mix of utility and nostalgia ended up being a boon for business—and for people looking for an easy, memorable meal in a format they loved.
“I relate to [TV dinners] very well because I grew up in that era,” he says. Bowers says he and his brothers would eat TV dinners after skateboarding home from school when his parents were still at work.
The menu is just as nostalgic: Chicken parmesan, mac and cheese, and pot roast are just a few of the TV dinner meals available. For kids, there are options like corn dogs and chicken nuggets—all made from scratch, Bowers adds. The recipes are the same as the ones used for Lazy Dog’s dine-in menu with a few slight tweaks to accommodate the TV-dinner format. Along with the main dish, all of the TV dinners come with a side (usually something green) and a dessert that can be reheated in the oven at the same time and in the same aluminum container—just like the TV dinners of yore.
The most requested meal for the past year? Salisbury steak. It wasn’t originally on the restaurant’s menu, but the restaurant group responded to the demand, even creating a complementary peanut butter chocolate chip brownie to round out the meal. Next in line is a classic turkey dinner (with all the fixings) and a salted caramel pumpkin cheesecake for dessert, which will be released closer to the holidays.
Another thing these two new menu items have in common? They have a certain allure for people who grew up in the 1980s and ’90s. “Nostalgia isn’t just about the food,” says Brian Nagele, a restaurant consultant and the CEO of the industry publication Restaurant Clicks. “The dishes we hold the most sentiments for usually tend to be connected to loved ones or special moments.”
Lazy Dog isn’t alone in capitalizing on nostalgia when it comes to eating and drinking. Throwback elements can be seen in other restaurants around the Denver area, too. Etc. Eatery in Platt Park, which opened in October 2020, has hopscotch squares on the floor, while the brewery Grandma’s House (conveniently located on the Antique Row section of South Broadway) is filled with tchotchkes and cross-stitchings like you’d find at, well, your granny’s place.
While these nostalgic elements vary by location, the desire for takeout is still strong. According to the National Restaurant Association, 68 percent of adults say they’re more likely to purchase takeout than they were before the pandemic, and 53 percent say takeout or delivery is now essential to the way they live.The group also found that 77 percent of adults are more likely to stay at home and watch on-demand TV and videos than before the pandemic. Just over 50 percent of adults said they are more likely to eat restaurant food while doing so—for Millennials that number is 63 percent.
So it’s no surprise that Lazy Dog diners still stock up on TV dinners daily. Bulk buying deals like a buy-five-get-one free promotion help customers who are looking for something to throw in the freezer and use on a rainy day. The TV dinners have remained so popular that Bowers has two full-time positions at the restaurant solely devoted to making them.
“Some people’s traditions have changed, and they may not be comfortable going out to eat in restaurants still, and I don’t blame them,” Bowers says. “We still want to be able to give that experience of dining out and having an elevated home-cooked meal at your fingertips by just pushing a couple of buttons on your oven.”
Get the TV dinners (priced at $10 for one serving) at any of Lazy Dog’s Colorado locations: 14618 Delaware St., Westminster; 24110 E. State Ave., Aurora; 3100 Village Vista Dr., Erie