Restaurant Survival in the Time of COVID-19

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Resourceful and creative, restaurateurs define what it means to be a survivor. Having survived the 1987 stock market crash, 9/11, the burst of the tech bubble and snowmageddon, they are prepared to demonstrate their resilience once more in the face of COVID-19.

Ris Lacoste’s eponymous restaurant, Ris, a West End culinary landmark for over 10 years, believes restaurants have always been pioneers in taking the first steps to find solutions. As inherent risk-takers, restaurant people step in to act quickly. The first thing she did was organize the walk-in, to determine what she could prepare with what she had in stock.

There was lots of flour to bake bread, and vegetables to make soups and pot pies. “You take control of what you can to survive. This is a new landscape,” Lacoste points out. You negotiate with your landlord, and vendors. She is personally delivering lunch and dinner meals — bringing them up to the door when someone isn’t able to make it to the curb. Any tips go to her staff.

Catastrophic events such as this are great equalizers. They affect the kitchen worker, the restaurant owner, the landlord, the bank and ultimately the government. “We are all in this together,” Lacoste points out.

Christianne Ricchi, owner of i Ricchi in Dupont Circle, instituted i Ricchi Food Club, offering prepaid pickup food service with a variety of preset four-course menus for up to 8 people. It’s a revenue boost, as it’s based on ordering multiple times a week — carryout 2.0 with a dash of virtual travel to Italy.

“When people subscribe to the Food Club, it allows us to focus on one weekly menu that helps us reduce our purchasing and labor costs so we are more efficient, which also allows us to maintain some of our staff,” Ricchi points out. “In times of uncertainty, food can trigger comforting memories that remind us of better times and help us cope.”

Can extended carryout help restaurants survive? “We are now offering lunch and dinner to go, utilizing every delivery service as well as curbside delivery,” says Sanjay Mandhaiya, owner of Pappe, a restaurant near Logan Circle specializing in dishes from northern India. “There are a lot of residents nearby that are limiting their outside visits, so ordering many dishes to last over several days.”

“We have the advantage of a large patio and public space by the Georgetown waterfront,” says Greg Casten of Tony and Joe’s Seafood Place. Along with offering kitchen-prepped carryout meals, the restaurant grills hamburgers and hot dogs on the outdoor patio grill for pickup.

Acting quickly is the key to survival, a lesson Casten learned in 2011, when the floodgates did not protect the waterfront and a record-breaking flood destroyed everything at his three restaurants. He paid employees then to clean up. He’s also paying them now to clean and sanitize all surfaces at Tony and Joe’s, Nick’s Riverside Grill and Ivy City Smokehouse, which also offers carryout.

Casten expects that, when restaurants are allowed to reopen (as of now, in late April), there will likely be more stringent regulations, such as increased spacing between tables, leading to less revenue for many smaller operators. “The dynamic will likely change, so even when a restaurant is full, there is less in gross sales.”

Bill Thomas, who owns and operates Jack Rose Dining Saloon and the Imperial in Adams Morgan, is selling bottles at Jack Rose of his rare and hard-to-find “whisk(e)y” that he spent years collecting. On Friday, March 20, the first day of the sale, there was a line around the block, with aficionados waiting nearly seven hours. His staff has been kept busy not only cleaning, but taking inventory on all 3,000 bottles and price-tagging them. His chef is budgeting a livable salary for all employees to meet their food and medical needs.

Thomas has D.C. restaurant DNA. His family opened their first restaurant, Harrigan’s Bar & Grill, in the Southwest waterfront area in 1885. “I think long-term. Not only years or decades. I plan for 100 years out,” he says.

Chef Edward Lee, Jason Berry and Michael Reginbogin of Knead Hospitality offer a more direct solution for the devastation caused by this pandemic and related restaurant closures. Their Succotash restaurant in Penn Quarter is now a restaurant-worker relief center, offering free-to-go meals, fresh produce and over-the-counter medical supplies for laid-off and pay-reduced restaurant workers who show an ID and a pay stub.

In the spirit of the “Buy War Bonds” campaigns of World War I and World War II,  restaurants are encouraging consumers to buy gift cards for future dining using the #BuyRestaurantBonds hashtag. There are a variety of GoFundMe platforms created to help the thousands of restaurant workers who have been laid off.

The District of Columbia’s 54,400 restaurant jobs represent the majority of the District’s total restaurant and food service workforce of 65,200 jobs, with the remainder being non-restaurant food service positions. There are 2,233 restaurants in Washington, D.C.

The National Restaurant Association states that 15.6 million people work (or worked) across one million restaurants in the U.S. Seventy-eight percent of the nation’s restaurants are independently owned and operated, and the industry was on track to grow this year, expecting annual sales of $899 billion. Now, sales are expected to decline by $225 billion during the next three months. Between five and seven million hospitality service workers are expected to lose their jobs in the next three months.

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