Restaurants focus on takeout — and saving jobs
During the first week of Virginia’s coronavirus crisis, a timer went off every 30 minutes at Perch, the high-end Pacific Rim seafood restaurant in Richmond. It was time to wipe down all surfaces again.
“We can control the inside, but we can’t control the outside,” says Mike Ledesma, executive chef and owner. The restaurant transformed a regular window to a takeout window, closing its dining room for the foreseeable future.
Following federal guidelines, Gov. Ralph Northam issued a statewide mandate for restaurants, fitness centers and theaters to limit capacity to 10 patrons or close. He declined to order restaurants to shut down their dining rooms, as some other states have mandated, out of concern for the impact on the restaurants and Virginians who depend on them for meals.
More than 100 Richmond-area restaurants voluntarily closed their dining rooms by mid-month. Things were similar to the north, where the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington reported an anecdotal drop of 25% to 30% in business at Washington, D.C.-area restaurants in mid-March, numbers likely to rise swiftly.
Gilbert T. Bland, who owns a Burger King restaurant in Norfolk, was still keeping its dining room open, “but that’s subject to the evolving nature of the virus,” he says. “Our business is somewhat different, because it’s drive-thru-based.”
At the Southern, seasonal restaurant Foode and its smaller sibling Mercantile in Fredericksburg, founding partners Beth Black and Executive Chef Joy Crump broke some hard news to their staff: They were cutting five hours from their shifts that week. “Stage 2 is to close one of the restaurants,” Black says.
Foode staffers now run orders to the curbside daily for customers ordering takeaway chili, egg salad sandwiches and chocolate-chip cookies.
Bill Blackburn, whose HomeGrown Restaurant Group owns six Alexandria restaurants employing 175 workers, has servers delivering food in tents in front of five restaurants. “It may get painful at times, but there’s definitely an end,” he says. “This is a temporary blip.”
However, it’s not temporary for every restaurant and bar, some of which are permanently closed or don’t know when they’ll reopen.
Restaurateur Jake Crocker indefinitely closed his two popular Richmond restaurants, F.W. Sullivan’s Fan Bar & Grille and Lady N’awlins Cajun Café.
Pivoting to full-time delivery or takeout would have been too difficult and expensive, he explains, requiring a full kitchen reorganization and purchasing a “significant inventory of to-go containers and disposable silverware. … We’re not McDonald’s.”
Unlike a lot of other businesses, restaurants “don’t have the luxury of sending waitstaff and cooks and bartenders to work at home. That just doesn’t work,” says Crocker, who gathered his employees, paid them and told them that his restaurants would be closed for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t know how they’re going to make a living. I don’t know how I’m going to make a living,” he adds.
To help displaced workers, the Virginia Employment Commission waived its one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits. Statewide, the unemployment benefit limit is $378 a week.
Meanwhile, restaurants and other businesses are trying to help each other out, raising funds online to help servers, hosts, bartenders and cooks make rent and pay bills.
Restaurants are trying to protect their staff and customers, and also keep them informed. “The transparency is what our staff expects from us,” Crump says. “Even when the truth is not lovely, we owe it to them.”
Follow the links below to read the rest of the stories in this Virginia Business special report about the impact of the coronavirus crisis: