Turning the tables: As dining moves to takeout, local restaurants face challenges

Mel Walker has always offered takeout at his eponymous soul food diner, but most of his business comes from eat-in and catering orders. “It’s not the same money right now. But we’re hanging in there,” he says, thanks in part to support from his loyal customers. Mel Walker has always offered takeout at his eponymous soul food diner, but most of his business comes from eat-in and catering orders. “It’s not the same money right now. But we’re hanging in there,” he says, thanks in part to support from his loyal customers.

Standing in the Chimm dining room, Jay Pun felt a sense of unease. It was the weekend of March 7, and the tables were full of diners noshing on Thai and southeast Asian street food dishes.

“This is really starting to freak me out,” said one of Pun’s employees, who was also surveying the scene. Pun had to agree. COVID-19 was becoming an increasing threat, and it was nearly impossible to look around the dining room without cringing at the sound of a sneeze or a cough, or wondering who among them might be an asymptomatic carrier.

“It’s every restaurateur’s dream to have a packed house, to always have a business going,” says Pun, but that night, the dream started to feel more like a nightmare.

Pun, who co-owns both Chimm and Thai Cuisine & Noodle House, had good reason to worry: Just a few days later, on March 11, the World Health Organization would classify COVID-19 a global pandemic, and a few days after that, on March 16, the City of Charlottesville announced its first confirmed case.

On March 17, Governor Ralph Northam issued a public health emergency order for restaurants to enforce a 10-patron limit, and by March 23, he ordered them closed for service other than takeout and delivery.

Once that mandate came down, eateries had to decide what to do next: Close indefinitely? Expand an existing takeout business? Build a takeout program from the ground up? Lay off employees so they could start collecting unemployment benefits, or try to keep some on in a modified way?

These are not easy decisions to make. The Charlottesville area has a high number of restaurants per capita (not to mention significant wedding and tourism industries), and the restaurant and hospitality industry employs a significant percentage of the local population. Reductions in hours and service options affect thousands of workers and their families.

And while those decisions have varied greatly from restaurant to restaurant, and continue to shift each week, the desired outcome—survival—is the same across the board.

“There are a lot of formats that make sense” in how to maintain a business right now, says Ben Clore, co-owner of Oakhart Social and Little Star, both located on West Main Street. “Every restaurant should do what’s best for them.”

At first, Clore says, they reduced staff and tried takeout (using a combined menu for both places) to clear out the pantry and see how it went. But after weighing potential health and financial risks against benefits and rewards, Clore and his business partners decided that moving to a takeout model just wasn’t worth it. Both spots are closed for now.

Just down the street at Mel’s Café, Mel Walker continues to prepare his full soul food menu. Mel’s has always offered takeout, but the catering and dine-in side of the business “was a lot more money,” says Walker. “It’s not the same money right now. But we’re hanging in there.”

Walker’s had to buy more containers and utensils than he usually does, and says packing to-go orders requires more work than prepping eat-in plates. And as restaurant suppliers start to run out of certain things, most notably fresh meat (a number of America’s largest meat processing plants have had to shut down due to COVID-19 outbreaks among workers), he’s a little worried about being able to get all the ingredients he needs.

Jay Pun’s restaurants, Thai Cuisine & Noodle House and Chimm, already had takeout systems in place, which has helped during the shutdown. Photo: John Robinson

Before the pandemic, Pun estimates between one-quarter and one-third of his restaurants’ business came from takeout orders. “Looking back, I’m glad we had that in place,” says Pun.

Business is doing well enough that he hasn’t had to lay off any employees. And for those who don’t feel comfortable working in the restaurant space, despite everyone wearing masks and gloves and taking extra cleaning precautions (like trading natural products from Method and Seventh Generation for CDC-recommended Lysol and Clorox-type cleaners), Pun’s tried to give them back-end work if they want it.

“So far so good, knock on wood,” says Pun. “I don’t know if it’s a trend, if it will continue, or if it’ll get even busier.”

Other spots, like Moose’s By the Creek in Hogwaller and Ivy Inn on Old Ivy Road, are doing takeout for the first time.

“It’s going as good as it can go,” says Moose’s co-owner Amy Benson. Moose’s now offers its full menu of diner staples, including breakfast, at expanded hours (9am to 5pm Wednesday through Saturday), plus special family-style meals on Sundays. “You just have to find the thing that keeps people coming back,” she says. Demand has been high enough that Benson says she’s been able to keep on all five of Moose’s full-time employees. 

After Moose’s closed its dining room following the weekend of March 15, some regulars pressed to come in in groups of nine or less, but Benson wouldn’t allow it. She adores both her regular customers and her employees, and it wasn’t worth the risk.

“Hopefully we’ll get through this and get going again,” she says.

After initially closing his restaurant, the Ivy Inn’s Angelo Vangelopoulos is now serving takeout Wednesday through Saturday. Photo: John Robinson

Angelo Vangelopoulos closed the Ivy Inn’s dining room after that second weekend in March, too. Like Pun, the chef-owner had a growing sense of unease at seeing his restaurant full of people, and kept thinking, “We’re doing the wrong thing to make this better.”

Vangelopoulos, who’s been with the restaurant since 1995, made the decision to close temporarily. Takeout didn’t seem like an option for the Ivy Inn’s upscale seasonal American cuisine. “We’re not a carry-out restaurant; we’re not equipped for it,” says Vangelopoulos. And he wanted his employees to be able to apply for unemployment as soon as possible. “I knew the line would only get longer,” he says.

“It was one of the toughest days I’ve lived through. We’ve got almost 30 people that rely on us for their well-being and income. And there’s a pretty tight social structure inside a restaurant, too—we consider each other family, we take care of each other. That was really hard, getting the message out to my people.”

But the restaurant was losing $800 every day it remained fully closed, so, as it became clear that stay-at-home directives wouldn’t be ending anytime soon, takeout seemed worth a try. After taking a week to figure out menus and ordering systems, and purchase takeout containers, the Ivy Inn now does carryout four days a week, with a different daily menu, Wednesday through Saturday (Thursday is “Mr. V’s Greek Night,” an homage to Vangelopoulos’ father, who’s now helping out in the kitchen and who owned and ran a restaurant in Springfield for many years).

To keep costs as low as possible, Vangelopoulos and his family are handling everything themselves, and like many restaurant owners, he notes that takeout is even more work than eat-in. There are lots of moving parts, from taking orders to prepping food to texting with customers waiting in the parking lot. “I am not joking you when I say we are working more now than before we closed, and we were open seven days a week,” says Vangelopoulos.

“I’m fully happy running with a lower profit margin at this time to really survive, to keep a little bit of cash flow coming into the checking account,” says Vangelopoulos. It also helps that his landlord has told him not to worry about rent right now.

For PK Ross, owner and flavor virtuoso of Splendora’s Gelato on the Downtown Mall, the COVID-19 pandemic has made her think differently about her business. Immediately after the governor issued the stay-at-home order, she moved to carry-out only and added delivery. She has kept only one employee, her general manager, on the books. “Customers are ordering, but it’s nowhere near our walk-in business,” she says, in part because nobody’s out on the Downtown Mall.

Normally at this time of year, Ross would be making between 18 and 24kg of chocolate gelato per week, one of the shop’s biggest sellers. Last week, she made eight.

“Customers are ordering, but it’s nowhere near our walk-in business,” says PK Ross of Splendora’s. Photo: John Robinson

Even before the pandemic began, Ross had planned to close her Downtown Mall storefront in August. “Holding on until this mess lifts was my initial hope…so that I could have a farewell summer with my customers,” she says. But now she’s thinking of keeping Splendora’s going beyond the summer, in a different spot, and with something close to the model she’s currently operating—a scaled-down shop with more emphasis on delivery.

Even the most seasoned restaurateurs aren’t sure what’s next, and as the pandemic continues, the situation only grows more complicated. Already, one local restaurant—the Downtown Grille—has closed its doors for good. To receive the federal Paycheck Protection Program loans many small businesses are applying for right now, restaurants would have to keep their entire staff on the payroll. But between state unemployment benefits and the additional $600 per week federal benefit, many workers who have been able to qualify are making more direct income on unemployment than they would in a restaurant. And even if restaurants are allowed to open in the next few months, customers, servers, and cooks still might not feel safe congregating in dining rooms and kitchens.

At this point, it’s impossible to know what the industry will look like in even a few months. But for now, many are grateful for the community support they’ve received, both from the funds set up to help their employees, and from takeout orders. Pun notes that “people are so much kinder than they ever were, which has been awesome.” Even in the best of times, customers typically don’t tip enough or at all on takeout, but Pun’s noticed that lately, folks are tipping the standard 15 to 20 percent, if not more.

And Walker’s glad he can maintain relationships with his loyal customers, relationships he’s established through reliably serving hamburgers, fried chicken, cornbread, and collards for years. “I want the whole community to know how much I appreciate the support. I want everyone to stay safe and try to do the best they can to get through this,” he says. “I’ve been in the restaurant business a long time, and ain’t nobody seen anything like this before.”


Walter Slawski (of Shebeen Pub & Braai and The Catering Outfit) has worked with Sysco Food Service of Virginia to establish a twice-weekly food pantry for laid-off restaurant and hospitality workers. Photo: John Robinson

Feeding the cooks

South African eatery Shebeen Pub & Braai and its sister restaurant/catering biz The Catering Outfit are among the local spots that have stayed open, serving takeout and chef-prepared meal kit offerings. And in a partnership with Sysco Food Service of Virginia, they’ve also opened a food pantry to help unemployed restaurant workers (including some of their own) stock their home kitchens.

“I know what my employees are going through,” says Shebeen and Catering Outfit owner Walter Slawski. “Not only are we trying to create revenue streams” to pay them if they want to work right now, “we’re trying to help people.”

Sysco’s provided more than $25,000 worth of groceries, says Slawski, and they’re relying on private donations from the community, too. So far they’ve given out more than $32,000 worth of food to over 1,000 food service and event workers.

The pantry is open Mondays and Thursdays from 11am to 2pm in the Shebeen parking lot, and what’s in each pre-packed bag varies from pickup to pickup. Sometimes it’s a lot of dry goods and refrigerator items like cold cuts, bacon, and juice, or fruit like bananas and oranges. One week, LittleJohns donated bags of potato chips and bread. Sysco’s donations are a little more on the wild side—five-pound bags of macaroni, for instance—but Slawski says there’s been nothing but gratitude.

Any restaurant and hospitality industry worker can visit the pantry, which Slawski says operates on an honor system: People will be asked where they work, or used to work, prior to the pandemic, but that’s it. “We don’t turn anybody away.”

 

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Helga R Hiss
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Helga R Hiss

I’d like to do something to show my appreciation for our vet, familiy doctor and others. Maybe we could have lunch delivered or desserts to lift their spirits at this time. Can you recommend restaurants or bakeries that would deliver a nice treat this time?

Ethan Hansen
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It’s sad to think that local restaurants are going through such difficult times with the pandemic. My wife and I have had time to reflect and think about how we can give back to the community during these uncertain times. We’ll be sure to keep your stories in mind as we find a local restaurant to support!

Bryson Owens
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It’s sad to read about how take-out and other options just aren’t working for some restaurants. My spouse and I are trying to support our favorite restaurants during these trying times so that they can stay open. We need to ask how we can help them and just continue purchasing food.