Delaware restaurants are measuring dining rooms, spacing out tables, opening reservations and planning menus in anticipation of June 1, when they can welcome back diners.
“We’re going from zero to 100 in 10 days,” Carl Georigi of Platinum Dining Group said this week. His six restaurants have been closed since mid-March, and he’s got 10 days to get 300 employees ready for the changed environment.
“Stress level is through the roof,” he said in a text.
Georigi owns Capers & Lemons, Eclipse Bistro, El Camino and Taverna Rustica in north Wilmington, Taverna in Newark and Red Fire Grill Steakhouse in Hockessin.
They’ve all been shuttered since March 16, when Gov. John Carney amended his state of emergency order and closed restaurants and bars to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Some establishments, such as De la Coeur and VTrap vegan restaurant, both in Wilmington, have already announced they will not reopen.
But what owners who are able to serve food again really want to know is: Will people feel safe enough to come back to eat in?
“I would love to be in a situation where somebody just blows the all-clear horn and everybody jumps back in the pool and everything just goes back like it was,” said Dan Butler, who owns Piccolino Toscano and Toscano to Go in Trolley Square.
“I know that’s not going to happen. I know it’s going to go in increments and people are going to have to ease their way back into the routines.”
“I’ve talked to a lot of our customers who cannot wait to come in,” said Dave Dietz of BBC Tavern & Grill in Greenville. “But I know there’s a large number of the public who don’t want to be near restaurants. That being said, I’m very enthusiastic.”
Diners skittish about returning to restaurants
Plenty of diners expressed concern in the Wilmington Facebook group, “Restaurants that offer takeout and delivery,” with many saying they would not return any time soon, and restaurateurs were paying attention.
“It’s a powerful group,” said Greg Vogeley, owner of Drip Café. “I know every single restaurant owner in that group is reading it every day.”
There is one message all those owners want to send to potential diners: They are doing everything they can to ensure diner safety while providing a flavorful, fun night out.
The reopening comes with its own menu of restrictions, according to Carney’s guidelines.
How do restaurants avoid crowds of customers lining up for tables?
All diners must have reservations to be seated. Servers must wear masks.
Diners can only eat with the people in their household with whom they are quarantining and cannot meet friends for dinner. They must wear masks into the restaurant, but can remove them.
Touchless menus, reservations required
Restaurant owners said diners can expect a bigger focus on rapid cleaning and sanitizing, including touchless menus written on chalkboards, as at Caffé Gelato in Newark, or paper lists that are thrown away after each use.
Menus are expected to feature comfort food, crowd favorites and items that diners can’t easily or conveniently cook at home, such as rack of lamb or braised dishes such as short ribs.
Some of what can be offered will depend on what is available amidst supply chain shortages. Beef and chicken are hard to come by and wholesale prices have gone way up. Disposable utensils and to go containers “are gone.”
Long shutdown has had big impact on food supply chain
“This shutdown has gone on far longer than any of us could have imagined,” Georigi said. “It’s not two weeks, three weeks. It’ll be 10 weeks and the supply chain is broken … It could take a little time before that supply chain is restored.”
Restaurateurs said fish, chicken and some cuts of beef can be hard to get. Some are worried about dairy.
“We used to do an awesome pork chop, but that’s not available now,” said Butler. ‘Everything is more expensive. It’s really surprised me how much prices have shot up.”
Diners are not likely to see that on their tabs, most restaurant owners said, while chefs say they’ll be trying to make the best and most economical use of the stock they can get.
“I’ve been feeding Delaware for 26 years … and I think that I’ve served well over four million meals,” Georigi said. “We’ve established a trust with our guests. We don’t raise our prices for holidays. We don’t raise our prices for New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day. We’ve established a very honest relationship. We have no intention of raising our prices.”
Restaurants may have to pursue a variety of revenue streams to maintain profit
Andrew Cini, former chef de cuisine at Domain Hudson, predicted on the recent inaugural Chefs Roundtable podcast featuring Delaware-area chefs that restaurants likely will offer more comfort food menu options that are easy to prepare in order to turn a profit.
“I’d like to see things returned back to normal as far as seeing different styles of cuisine and seeing different styles of restaurants,” Cini said on the podcast.
“But the hard truth is, a lot of restaurant models are just not going to be relevant at the end of this, when we turn over into this new chapter in this new landscape… Now it’s going to be even tougher. You have to play to the business side of things first, and that’s going to help shape the culture,” said Cini.
On that podcast, chef Alex Schiff said the new menu is now set at Eclipse Bistro where he works.
“We also wanted to change the wording of items to make it more of a homey comfort kind of feel to it. So definitely, it’s a smaller menu,” Schiff said “It’s reduced so that we’re cross utilizing product more efficiently.”
While Dietz said he plans to continue offering his full menu, as he did for takeout during the shutdown, others say their menus will be more focused until they can get patrons, staffing and supplies back on an even keel.
Paul DeBrigida, who owns the Big Fish Restaurant Group, said Tuesday he didn’t have time to stop and chat as he and his staff try to reconfigure their restaurants to welcome back patrons.
While restaurants are limited to 30 percent of their capacity, all tables must be 8 feet apart, all patrons must have six feet between them and diners must be escorted along set paths to their tables.
For many restaurants, that’s meant a lot of measuring and moving tables around. Dietz said he and his staff are using masking tape to mark possible positions on the floor.
Many restaurants also have the option of seating people outside, and it’s an option that they think more people will embrace. Governor Carney announced an interim step this week to relieve pressure on indoor seating, allowing restaurants to begin applying May 22nd to expand outdoor seating, effective June 1.
“Dining out in Delaware’s licensed food establishments is probably the safest way to get food,” said Ryan German of Caffé Gelato. “It’s certainly safer than going to a grocery store or big hardware store,” he said.
He pointed to a National Institutes of Health article about air flow and COVID-19. It said that people are 75 percent less likely to be exposed inside if the establishment brings in fresh air from outside. Many restaurants, including his, have air conditioning systems that pull air in. At Caffe Gelato, he uses an “air curtain” at the door that allows air to be pulled through.
That same article said people who are outside are 95 percent less likely to be exposed because of natural air flow. He expects that information to influence where people choose to sit at restaurants.
German predicts more guests will opt to dine outdoors no matter the weather and will just bundle up when temps are colder and sweat it out on hot summer nights.
Some pieces of the shutdown may remain. Many restaurateurs plan to continue their takeout and delivery services, and they hope the state will continue to allow them to sell alcoholic beverages with takeout, which has been a financial boost for them.
BBC Tavern & Grill did strong takeout business on Mother’s Day
Some of the takeout was remarkably popular.
At BBC Tavern & Grill, Dietz said sales were higher for Mother’s Day 2020 than they were in 2019, when the restaurant was open.
The restaurant owners and chefs say they will continue some of the things they tried during the shutdown, such as selling raw food and grocery items directly to patrons, as well as planning fun events to enhance the dining experience.
For Father’s Day, German plans to offer two gift boxes of prime meat, one for $99 and one for $149. It could include a 16-ounce bone-in choice ribeye, filet mignon and high-end chuck burgers. It will be much better meat than most people can buy elsewhere, he said.
Butler frets a bit about the dining environment. “Going to a restaurant is supposed to be fun,” he said.
Drive-in movie night featuring Princess Bride at Toscana
As he reconfigures Toscana for reopening, he’s changing some light fixtures, adding flowers, adding some new items to the menu and otherwise trying to make it seem like eating there is a new experience rather than just being spaced out in the same old place.
To add to the fun, he planned a drive-in movie Friday night, projecting “The Princess Bride” onto a 10-foot-square screen in the restaurant’s parking lot. He had to add a second evening because of the demand, and it’s nearly sold out. There’s no admission, but parking spaces must be reserved, and Toscana to Go is selling a picnic basket for two for $60, which he hopes patrons will buy.
Caffe Gelato, the Starboard and Pizza by Elizabeth will host a restaurants-are-opening concert May 28. It will feature Ben LeRoy, husband of PBE owner Elizabeth LeRoy, and his band The Snap! The concert will feature five songs performed via Zoom, with musicians all in different locations. It will cost $10 but is free for people who buy food from one of the three restaurants.
All restaurants are encouraged to see people already making reservations, with more than a week to go before they can open. They all wish they were seeing more.
German plans to have seatings at 5 pm, 7 pm and 9 pm to try to serve about 100 a night. He expects the 7 p.m. slots to be the most popular, followed by 5 p.m. with 9 p.m. reserved for those who miss the other two seatings.
If things go well, and the virus spread remains slow, the restaurant owners all hope things will slowly return to normal, perhaps by fall. The state has plans to increase indoor capacity to 50 percent, then 75 and finally 100 if the reopening goes well.
“I’m assuming the second phase will come fairly quickly,” Butler says.