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The Pivot 

RVA restaurants are forced to adjust their business models during COVID-19.

click to enlarge Perch chef Mike Ledesma, pictured at his makeshift drive-thru window in Scott’s Addition, has focused all his restaurant’s efforts on to-go orders.

Scott Elmquist

Perch chef Mike Ledesma, pictured at his makeshift drive-thru window in Scott’s Addition, has focused all his restaurant’s efforts on to-go orders.

Everyday activities feel like the plot of some bad spy movie — sitting curbside in the idling car, eyes fixed on the rearview mirror. “We’ll put your order on the table,” says a voice over the phone. 

A few minutes later, like magic, an oat milk latte and a bag containing a chocolate hazelnut cookie and loaf of the day’s freshly baked — still warm! — sourdough appears. A gloved Sub Rosa employee darts back inside the bakery; the requisite “Thank you for your order!” email chimes. 

It’s been more than two weeks since restaurants in Richmond started closing, some temporarily, others for good. Three weeks since signs first started cropping up in storefront windows: “These are the actions we’re taking against COVID-19.” 

The actions began as extra deep cleaning in the dining rooms, wiping down the condiment bottles and menus after every use. Transparency reigned supreme and customers still felt safe, mostly, tipping big and going out whenever they could. Some watched the news and became wary — “I’ll just cook at home” — while others watched the same news and scoffed, “this will blow over.”

But the news wasn’t good. Graphs of exponential growth and advice from experts made everyone pause. The actions against the virus morphed overnight into terrified queries — “What the hell do we do now?” 

The answer for most places was to close their dining rooms and bars. No more gathering, no more socializing. While Gov. Ralph Northam did not order the closing of dine-in restaurants until March 23, most establishments self-regulated. They didn’t need to be told — this was serious. 

“We just have to be very fluid in our decisions,” says Perch chef Mike Ledesma. “It’s a pivot, it’s unprecedented. People are watching what we’re doing.”

The Scott’s Addition restaurant installed its makeshift drive-thru window March 13. On March 16, it was still open for regular dinner service, with 6 feet between tables, a limited menu and a maximum of 50 customers allowed at once. 

But by the next day it had discontinued full service and focused all its energy on to-go, tweaking the menu to include both packages and a la carte options, wine and beer. When we chatted with Ledesma on March 20, he was busy boxing up lunches for business folks still operating on a 9-5 schedule. A few weeks earlier, he was serving a luxe six-course meal in the Perch dining room. 

“Instead of waiting and hoping for a grant, you have to be proactive and kind of have to take chances and make mistakes and change systems,” Ledesma says. “We’ve changed three times in the past four days to see what would be best for the guest experience.” 

As the disease spreads — the U.S. now leads the world in number of confirmed cases — small businesses are hemorrhaging money. 

Customer management software company Womply is tracking the impact of COVID-19 on small, local businesses in the country. According to a recent graph depicting restaurant revenue in every state right now compared to this time last year, Virginia restaurant revenue was down 55%.  

As of March 27, the $2 trillion stimulus package had passed the Senate 96-0. According to Forbes, within the package “the Small Business Administration is authorized to award grants of up to $10,000 to suffering small businesses, including restaurants and other small food producers.”

But, as the package stands, there’s also a loophole for franchises — businesses that have fewer than 500 employees but multiple business locations could take advantage of the allotted $349 billion in loans intended for true, independent small businesses. 

What ifs abound and fear bubbles over. 

Ledesma looks ahead. He’s eliminated to-go phone calls and after experimenting, has discovered the best online ordering service for the restaurant. He notes that, naturally, distributors and vendors are scaling back deliveries. He’s coordinating with them to make sure the restaurant has all the ingredients it needs for, say, green papaya salad, but he’s also planning and preparing. “When the supply lines break down. … We have our pastry chef working on a bread and pasta program.” 

Other restaurants also are pivoting from experiential service to pragmatic take-away. They’re looking at the customer not as a curious diner, but as a trapped and hungry human, desperate for anything but frozen pizza. 

Brenner Pass recently launched a Market Menu with pantry staples in addition to family meals. Sabai and the Roosevelt are selling cocktail mixes — sans booze — and the South’s best new restaurant, Alewife, has jokingly referred to itself as “a pound cake restaurant” given all the orders of the sweet treat.

“Restaurateurs need to think about sauces that can go with pantry staples that people are already buying, look at small portable meal kits,” Rebecca Thomas says. 

Thomas is a career restaurateur and strategic consultant who has created a comprehensive Restaurant Strategy and Survival Kit for area restaurants during these trying times. She’s been in a similar position, she says, running a restaurant during the government shutdown when 70% of her clientele were government employees. “My dining room vanished overnight.”

Thomas says the most important thing to remember — and something she wished someone had told her when she felt “so freaked out couldn’t think carefully” — is that there is still business out there. It’s just shifted. 

“Where are the revenue streams?” Thomas asks. Right now, to-go food and delivery. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that there has been no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 can be transmitted via food or food packaging.

While that may be the case, Thomas says she’s witnessed some businesses allowing people to line up closely together to wait for food.

“I feel for restaurants — none of this is their fault. But you have to be thorough with your protocols and communicate that to customers,” she says. “It’s not only restaurants, you have to think, the customers are traumatized too — they’re looking for comfort.” 

That could mean an uptick in pasta dishes, or perhaps preparing and serving no-contact meals in a customer’s backyard. A couple of weeks ago, David Hahn of Salt & Forge restaurant and food truck homed in on the latter, launching Dining without the Restaurant.

Food trucks are in a unique position — they essentially operate using a to-go model already. But they’re also suffering during COVID-19. Their bread and butter is festivals and events, all of which have been canceled for the foreseeable future. 

“I said OK, I need to find a way to not compromise on public health and safety and to ensure the financial health of my staff,” Hahn says. When we chatted he had nine employees, with plans to hire a 10th. “It has been a lot of outside the box thinking,” he says. 

Dining without the Restaurant entails two food trucks — Salt & Forge and jiji Frozen Custard — swinging by your neighborhood with fried chicken sandwiches and sweet treats. All orders are placed and paid for online: “It’s 100 percent contactless,” Hahn says. “We can do large-scale dinners for lots of people with all the social distance and none of the restaurant or communal eating risk.” Trucks can be booked for dinner service nightly and weekend brunches. 

“You have to be willing to explore and inquire,” Hahn says. “I think there is and is going to be a tremendous need for families and individuals to enjoy freshly cooked food throughout this unknown length of time.” 

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