Restaurants adapt to pandemic while feeding essential workers
As nonessential businesses throughout Connecticut and elsewhere have been shuttered, many small businesses are struggling. This is the fourth article in a series looking at how restaurants are coping and turning to new business models and technology to stay connected with customers.
Sal and JoAnnn Latoracca, owners of The Waters Edge at Giovanni’s in Darien, lost a good chunk of their business when spring weddings and large gatherings booked well in advance were summarily canceled when the Covid-19 outbreak hit. They’ve been scraping by, offering takeout.
Ibiza Tapas in Danbury had to furlough seven of its 10 employees and while 850 Degrees Wood Fired Restaurant in Ridgefield already had a substantial take-out business, its 120-seat dining room and outdoor patio sit empty. Nationwide, restaurants have been hit hard, losing billions of dollars. Some have already closed permanently and many furloughed employees are still waiting on unemployment checks. Area restaurants still open are struggling to make a go of it with skeleton crews, subsisting on takeout/delivery, while lowering prices, condensing menu options or focusing on family-style meals. Having different supply chains than supermarkets, some now sell customers groceries like flour, lettuce and other staples. Offering bottles of wine and cocktails to go with food orders has also been a popular add-on.
Looking ahead to the future when restaurants reopen, things likely won’t look the same.
Restaurateurs are planning changes to instill customer confidence such as decreasing sitting capacity to practice social distancing, disposable menus and erecting partitions between tables.
Brewport in Bridgeport combines craft beer with gourmet pizzas and salad and transformed from minimal takeout to 100 percent takeout, said senior partner John E. Barrett. It has retrained staff how to prepare food while wearing masks and gloves as well as retooling the restaurant seating. “Glass is going in all over the place,” he said, noting booths will have partitions in between and portable high-tops will be moved further apart. “We have to look at things not just from a practical sense of what might be a legal requirement but also what a customer may feel emotionally and cater to that,” he said.
Even with the financial losses they are facing, restaurants have stepped up to help feed first-line responders or those struggling to afford food.
Nicole J. Straight of Westport, founder of Food For the Front Lines, has led a Go Fund Me campaign that’s already raised over $120,000, providing nearly 13,000 meals to front-line workers. This also helps local restaurants keep their doors open and pay staff.
When her daughter, Emma, came home from college abruptly March 13, and returned to volunteering as an EMT, which she has done since age 16, Straight wanted to support the EMS staff. Working with a restaurateur friend, she donated 40 individually-wrapped meals. “This was supposed to last one day and we are going into our sixth week right now and it’s really remarkable and sort of mind-blowing,” she said, noting her organization has provided $78,000 in income to local restaurants. “The meal is just not about sustenance, it’s really about morale,” she said, saying health care workers are very stressed. “This takes a toll on people’s psyches. Something as simple as a meal and the restaurants have been so amazing with the notes that they write, even just a smiley face or ‘Great job!’ Straight has been happy to get feedback from community groups who received meals as well as hearing from restaurateurs thanking her for being able to make payroll that week.
Lynn Martines of Wilton launched a Facebook group, Warriors’ Front Line Appreciation, to provide meals to institutions like local EMS’s, Sunrise Wilton and area hospitals. “The main reason [I did this] is that I felt helpless and needed to do something to let our front-line workers know how much they are appreciated.”
After his catering business dropped off, Sal Latoracca said the business started doing takeout, mostly family-style dinners to feed four, and offering customers butcher meats. The business’s Easter dinner meal was a big seller, and it is now offering a Mother’s Day dinner. “Obviously, takeout is not enough and one holiday is not enough so it’s pretty tough to stay in business just doing takeout,” he said.
Before the business lost its three biggest months of income, April, May and June, it had 12 full-time and another 30 part-timers, now it is running on a skeleton crew.
Latoracca and others have been willing to support their communities though. They have worked with groups feeding front lines and subsidizing part of the cost of meals “to help the front-line people that are there risking their lives. We’ve all got to help each other,” he said.
850 Degrees Wood Fired Restaurant has been running ragged doing takeout and delivery as well as debuting its new frozen pizza line, which has been a big hit. Donating food to Ridgefield Crossings and the fire department, it also introduced its No One Goes Hungry campaign where people can get a free pizza if they have no job or are hungry. “People have been taking advantage of that, which is great and a lot of customers have been donating money towards that,” said owner Larry Debany. “Customers have been really great with supporting us and just helping us try to stay open.”
Among many stepping up is Hoodoo Brown BBQ in Ridgefield, which made a midnight run in early April to Danbury Hospital with 300 chicken dinners. Ibiza Tapas’ Hunger Squad offers free meals on Wednesdays and Sundays to people in need. Communicating with customers on social media, lowering prices by 20 percent and offering a pared-down menu of customer favorites, the restaurant is getting by on takeout/delivery. It had Easter specials and will also offer them for Mother’s Day.
“We are so appreciative to all of our loyal customers for continuing to order dinner from Ibiza Tapas. We have all become closer and care for each other even more. I want to thank the entire Danbury community for being great neighbors,” said Laura Arias, general manager.