The one-two combination punch of a global pandemic and Saturday night’s violent looting isn’t enough to keep Wilmington restaurateurs from doing what they do best.
That mission of course is making hungry customers happy by serving them great food and drink in a safe, welcoming setting. Five Market Street eateries we spoke with said neither a health crisis that crippled their businesses for months nor social unrest would deter them from delivering a great dining experience to their many fans.
Three favorite local spots – Bardea, La Fia and Merchant Bar – all sustained damage during Saturday night’s looting they are quickly working to repair. This includes smashed windows, damaged interiors and stolen inventory.
But owners of each restaurant spoke positively about an outpouring of support they have received – from other restaurants, the city and countless volunteers, which has already helped speed the process of cleaning up and getting back on their feet.
Chelsea Tavern and Stitch House averted physical damage.
Today, June 1 is the first day of Phase 1, where restaurants are allowed to welcome customers for the first time since the mandated pandemic shut down went into effect on March 17.
Chelsae’s Sunday dinner day after looing was best Sunday in weeks
Chelsea Tavern’s Sunday takeout dinner service was their best in three weeks, according to owner Joe Van Horn. He attributes the community’s quick reaction to support local restaurants as the reason for the uptick.
Van Horn said the restaurant stayed open on Saturday night even during the riots. On Monday he said, “We’re open, people are dining right now. We’ve had seven tables for lunch today, which is seven more than yesterday,” he said. “Tonight we have reservations for 25 people, although some canceled.”
La Fia plans to open for dinner on Thursday. Bardea hopes to welcome diners as early as Wednesday, although owner Scott Stein emphasized his team wants to ensure the kind of dining experience his customers have come to expect from the award-winning restaurant.
“Even though we’re doing takeout, it’s not just like we can snap our finger and just open Wednesday. We needed this weekend — we were setting up all weekend for Wednesday. We’re having our entire restaurant sanitized by a company that kills airborne viruses. We’re going to put our best foot forward with this, we’re going to give it our best shot,” said Stein.
Stein also said seating at a limit of only 30% of capacity is “really tough,” but they are doing the best they can.
Stein also said he was in close touch with city officials about what is still a dynamic situation regarding possible protests or disruptions.
“We’re not going to do anything that would jeopardize the safety of our staff or customers. Glass can be fixed, we’re all good,” said a thoughtful, but upbeat and confident Stein.
The 800 block of Market Street is still closed to traffic. Further down Market, La Fia owner Andrea Sikora said she was grateful for the city’s response to the unprecedented damage looters caused Saturday night.
“I can’t say enough about the leadership in Wilmington that mobilized the people to come out and clean on Saturday night,” said Sikora. Volunteers and good friends pitched in to help starting right after the looting — at 11 pm on Saturday.
Merchant Bar owners watch rampage at restaurant live on surveillance cameras
That night Andrea Sikora was over at Crowbar, another restaurant owned by Andrea and her husband Bryan, where they were offering take out. “And I just kind of keeping an eye on the video cameras [at La Fia and Merchant Bar], and I was talking to Dwayne who was over at La Fia doing a bit of prep because we were getting ready to open this week. And then I was on my way home, and I happened to the look at the camera, and that’s the moment I looked at was the moment that about 30 people had just run in the doors [at Merchant Bar]. It was just scary to see that happen,” she said.
Sikora says while there was significant damage to both restaurants, she says it could have been “so much worse.” Looters did not take art off the walls, and they did not damage the glassware or space behind the bar.
The Sikoras are not planning to open Merchant Bar until all the restrictions are lifted, when large groups can gather and people are back to work.
They plan to continue their cleanup operation on Tuesday, and if they don’t feel they can reopen on Thursday, they will push their opening to Friday.
La Fia is committed to honoring reservations this week
With a strong group of reservations for Thursday through Saturday, the Sikoras were looking forward to getting back to where their restaurant roots in Wilmington began. So even if they have to work around the clock to make it happen, Sikora says she’s going to honor the reservations people have made.
“We originally were planning on a splashy opening with a big social media and marketing push. But it just doesn’t feel like the right time to get all excited about opening the restaurant. But we’ll save all the big hoopla fanfare for next weekend,” she said.
Because Market Street is still closed to vehicular traffic, Stitch House has made the decision to reopen on Tuesday only with its takeout business. Cars can pull up to the back entrance of the restaurant on Shipley Street.
Then on Wednesday, Stitch House plans to open for dining.
Stitch House employees fend off looters by standing their ground with pots and pans
Like Bardea, Stitch House employees were inside the restaurants as protesters made their way up Market Street on Saturday. “We stayed there and stood inside with pots and pans on Saturday night — about 4 of us. The fact that we were in there really helped because they [rioters] moved on,” said co-owner Rob Snowberger.
Snowberger also owns Faire Market and Cafe and Gerard Craft + Cork — both around the corner from Stitch House on 9th Street. Unfortunately, those two spots also suffered extensive damage Saturday night.
“When you own several businesses downtown, you have to pick one to defend. We picked Stitch House because we could see that’s where protesters were walking,” said Snowberger. At Gerard, all bottles of wine and beer were stolen, and every glass shelf destroyed. Because FaireMarket depends on the lunchtime business crowd, owners are shooting for a summer reopen reopening, when workers start to return to work downtown.
Restaurant owner supports police tactics on Saturday night
Even with two businesses not even close to operational, Snowberger is incredibly optimistic about the business scene in Wilmington. He believes there was a bigger strategy at play Saturday night when officers did not intervene as rocks and other items were thrown through windows. And he says it’s misguided of others to second guess efforts to protect businesses from destruction.
“I was a Navy Seal — I served two tours in Iraq. A lot of enforcement strategy is a numbers game. A lot of times people outnumber you and you sometimes have to choose between preserving human life or property. You always want to avoid getting people hurt.
“I think they did what they could and their strategy evolved. It also sounds like outside anarchists who were involved. And that’s what propelled a looting scene,” said Snowberger.
“I do believe we are going to get through this and be strong. I’m in it to win it. I grew up here and we are all trying to pick ourselves back up and get back to business,” he said.