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Phase 3 Purgatory 

Restaurants grapple with safety, hospitality and keeping business afloat during pandemic.

click to enlarge At Moore Street Cafe, their motto is “take it easy, keep it clean;” the quirky breakfast joint is currently open for dine-in and to-go service.

Scott Elmquist

At Moore Street Cafe, their motto is “take it easy, keep it clean;” the quirky breakfast joint is currently open for dine-in and to-go service.

Richmond entered the third phase of the state’s Forward Virginia plan a month ago. In it, food and beverage establishments can open at full capacity “as long as the mandatory six feet of social distancing is maintained between parties at all times.”

The guidelines are the same across the state, whether you’re operating a honky-tonk or a juice bar. Business owners, though, hold disparate views on how best to approach reopening.

For Mantu owner Hamid Noori it’s like starting from scratch. Again.

Just over a year old, the Carytown Afghan restaurant was closed for two and a half months during the pandemic. Chef Noori did not offer takeout or delivery, instead devoting his time to helping serve first responders through Underground Kitchen’s Community First program.

On June 12, Noori says he decided to reopen under Phase 2 guidelines because for him, “I can serve people through what I do, I decided – even if I only serve one guest, I’m going to open.”

In a July 20 Eater Detroit article, writer Brenna Houck examines the specific reopening costs incurred by restaurants, from $50 boxes of gloves to high-priced hand sanitizer. Houck points out that for restaurants – like Mantu – that were completely shut down, they must order new everything. The cost of eggs is up. Beef is pricey. And for most businesses, rent and utilities are the same cost, no matter the state of the world outside.

Noori smiles through it all. “For me to make money is not the priority,” he says. “To serve people is my entire intention.” Noori, donning the omnipresent baby-blue surgical mask, darts back and forth between our interview and a four-top, the only table lunching on a weekday afternoon. He prides himself on both the quality and presentation of his dishes, serving multiple courses accompanied by a variety of dips and sauces.

Whether he’s cooking for one table or 20, Noori has to keep the walk-in full, the dishes clean, the water running. And he and all other reputable establishments have to consider who they’re serving – humans existing in the time of a novel coronavirus outbreak, with no vaccine yet available.

It’s safe to assume that those who are choosing to dine out feel healthy, and trust restaurateurs to keep them that way. But questions abound, for both operators and customers.

In a July 5 Instagram Live interview with chef Jose Andres, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, answered questions specifically related to the coronavirus and the hospitality industry.

Andres asked the question that is on the mind of all business owners: What are the specific rules that all restaurants should follow? In response Fauci smiled and shook his head. It’s not one-size-fits-all, and there’s no foolproof way to prevent the virus from entering a restaurant.

“You can’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of the good,” Fauci said. Restaurants don’t need special virus killing UV lights or the kind of air filters that exist in the labs of the National Institutes of Health, but best practices – mask-wearing, social distancing and extra sanitation – should be adhered to. Otherwise, newly reopened restaurants will become freshly shuttered husks of their former selves.

July 13 marked the closing of dine-in services across California after a rise in COVID-19 cases. Baltimore followed suit July 22, and July 24 Chicago was forced to do the same.

“The cases are rising as we speak,” says Ru Remennikova, owner of coffee shop and juice bar Pulp RVA.

During a July 22 Richmond update, Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond and Henrico health departments, noted that yes, Virginia is experiencing a surge in cases. While most upticks are happening in the eastern part of the state – we’re looking at you, Virginia Beach – Richmond is seeing more cases per day. The good news, he says, is that hospitalization numbers are flat, and the last coronavirus-related death was over a month ago.

For Remennikova, nothing short of a vaccine will convince her to open the inside of her shop. For now, she’s doing a steady to-go business, a truck is operational every weekend and it’s about to add “a bunch of interesting inventory” to an online store.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she says. “I miss seeing everyone’s faces and having their energy infuse the shop. I really stand behind everyone’s safety, it’s tough, but we have to stay smart and work together.”

Remennikova says she’s thankful for the community’s support and patience, and notes that the fact that Pulp is still here is “monumental.” And it is.

According to the Independent Restaurant Coalition, 85 percent of independent restaurants could permanently close by the end of 2020. Operating on paper-thin margins to begin with, many restaurants are struggling to create steady revenue, let alone decent profits, even under the lenient Phase 3 guidelines.

“We’re taking baby steps,” says Moore Street Cafe co-owner Amy Quidley. She and her longtime partner in “life, love and labor” Charlie Hughes took over the cafe in 2016, adding booze and music and quirky decor to the Scott’s Addition mainstay.

The breakfast spot has remained open throughout the pandemic, adding a pickup window to the front and a few new regulars to the mix. They credit popular Facebook group RVA Dine & Drink with sharing food pictures and posts that got a lot of traction. “We started to obtain business and gain regulars of people who had never been here before,” Hughes says.

Weekend mornings at Moore Street used to be “like a club,” with patrons gathering in the large back bar area, clutching Moore-mosas and waiting for their ‘table ready’ pagers to buzz. “It’s definitely gotten a little more tame,” Quidley says. The couple says they decided to reopen for dine-in under Phase 3 because, well, they had to.

“We were just hanging on. In order to be able to stay sane we needed to keep going,” she says. “We wanted to keep everybody employed and working, so we decided to do this. We’re just trying to just keep it super-chill, super-clean.” Every other booth inside the restaurant is blocked off with decorations and lights, and there are new hand sanitizing stations throughout. It’s strange, this new normal, and no one – not even Fauci – can be sure how long it will last.

According to Upwork chief economist Adam Ozmiek, without a bailout, the new normal phase restaurants are muddling through could last a long, long time.

On June 15, the Restaurants Act of 2020 was introduced in Congress. The bipartisan bill would provide $120 billion worth of structured relief for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which would then make grants available for restaurants that are not publicly traded and have $1.5 million or less in revenue under “normal circumstances.” The funds would last through the end of the year. The restaurant coalition has a page where you can tell Congress to pass the act now (saverestaurants.com/take-action).

When they aren’t worried about keeping the lights on, pros like Quidley and Hughes stress about the level of hospitality they’re offering. You can’t smile through a mask, refill drinks or clear tables willy-nilly. “I feel like I have to tie my hands behind my back!” Quidley laughs in all seriousness.

Maple Bourbon, another downtown breakfast-centric spot, is also feeling the ache of pandemic operations. Owner Jaynell Pittman-Shaw’s business model has always been to keep it simple for customers and employees. “A lot of people come through here traveling up and down 95,” she says. “I want to make it feel like home, and keep focused on quality and customer service. A lot of people don’t get that face-to-face communication anymore.”

Now face-to-face is mask-to-mask, and though it has been open for dine-in service since June 12, Pittman-Shaw says delivery still makes up 80 percent of orders. That has its own set of challenges.

“When you have customers come in you can use washed dishes, when you do delivery you’re buying more containers, your costs go up, and beyond that I’m finding when you order things there are shipment delays.” Maple Bourbon is known for its hot and ready fast-casual dishes – but waffles wilt in plastic containers. “We’ve had to adapt to letting food cool,” she says.

It has added a dinnertime to-go only shift after realizing people do, in fact, love breakfast even when the sun goes down, and Pittman-Shaw says she’s grateful for the continued community support. “People in the industry are putting their own health at risk – I just hope people can see servers as service providers instead of servants.”

click to enlarge Xavier Beverly, Ellwood Thompson’s new kitchen manager, is staying positive during the pandemic and channeling his energy into serving the community. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Xavier Beverly, Ellwood Thompson’s new kitchen manager, is staying positive during the pandemic and channeling his energy into serving the community.

Xavier Beverly, the new kitchen manager of Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market, is choosing to pursue the positives. The gourmet grocery store reopened in-store and patio dining in early July and the new chef says he is going to offer clean, organic and interesting dishes to keep customers happy and intrigued. Beverly has worked at bustling restaurants in Harrisonburg and Richmond, and for the past four years has served as the volunteer executive chef for the Giving Heart Thanksgiving Dinner.

Like Noori, Beverly feels indebted to the community he serves, and has made it his duty to continue firing up the ovens, no matter what. “I believe the pandemic has really helped people look inward and look at how they treat cooking and dining out,” Beverly says. “It’s a beautiful thing to see so many people interested and supportive of local food businesses.”

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