Tuesday was St. Patrick’s Day. It was also the first full day of a state-ordered shutdown of eat-in dining and bars for the foreseeable future in an effort to curb the COVID-19 outbreak.
The phone started to ring at 11:20 a.m. with takeout orders, but business was down compared to a normal day, said Deb Corning, a family owner of the Monkey Farm Cafe in Old Saybrook.
“St. Patrick’s Day is a big day for us. Normally we’d be full right now,” said Corning. “We’re not allowed to serve alcohol. Fortunately we have a lot of people who love it here and friends supporting us, but we’re not doing anywhere near the usual business.”
Looking to the future, Corning does not know what to expect.
“Today is day one and none of us have any idea what to expect,” she said. “I don’t know how many lunches, we did some.”
At 8 p.m. on Monday, Gov. Ned Lamont ordered a shutdown of restaurants, bars, movie theaters and gyms, joining New York and New Jersey.
By late Tuesday afternoon, 68 patients have so far tested positive of COVID-19 in Connecticut, according to the Connecticut Department of Public Health. 48 of those infected reside in Fairfield County, seven in Hartford County, five in Litchfield County and eight in New Haven County. No one has died yet from the virus in Connecticut.
Corning said closing temporarily will be a huge hit to her business, including her employees and suppliers.
“I have a ton of food in my walk-ins. I’ll end up throwing away a lot of food,” she said. “We’re still able to order take out containers, but the salesmen are taking a hit just like we are. I’m going to have to lay off some of my kitchen staff.”
She said she can’t set up curbside service because her restaurant operates on a cash-only basis. Customers can call in orders, but must enter the restaurant to pay for and pick up food.
Corning has rearranged the restaurant to accommodate the social distancing recommended to limit the possible spread of the virus.
“We have a big table to put deliveries on and we have a condiment and utensil table set up,” she said.
Two phone lines have been set up for taking orders and the bussers are available for deliveries, though no one has requested delivery so far, she said.
“We’ve been in business for 52 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “I told my staff, this is all new to all of us and we have to take it one day at a time.”
The food chain
“We encourage people to support this part of the food chain,” said State Sen. Paul Formica, who owns Flanders Fish Market & Restaurant in Niantic. “It’s always important to shop local, but it’s also important to shop local to keep things moving.”
With restaurants closed across the northeast region, suppliers are losing business, which could have long-ranging consequences, he said.
“If you’re a fishing vessel that provides fish or a meat packer that provides to those restaurants in those states, it goes up the food chain and we have to make sure those guys are supported,” he said. “When this runs its course, we’re going to need those big supply houses and the farmers that supply [the restaurants].”
The fish market will continue to operate but the entrances to the dining rooms had been blocked off, Formica said.
“We are increasing the protocol so that we have social distancing when people come to the cash register and we’re doing curbside service,” he said. “It’s going to be an adjustment period for the restaurant and the customers as well.”
The switch to takeout and delivery was do-able, Formica said, but he was concerned about the livelihood of his employees.
“We have 47 employees we are trying to make sure stay at work,” he said. “It remains to be seen if we can maintain all the things we maintain.”
Formica said community was essential during the pandemic and the recovery afterward.
“It’s important to work together, be together and support each other,” he said. “This is not a time for political posturing, it’s a time to come together and help one another.”
Local food security
The restaurant and bar shutdown did not come as a surprise, said Dan Meiser, who is chairman of the board of the Connecticut Restaurant Association and co-owner of the Engine Room, the Oyster Club and Grass & Bone in Mystic.
“Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been dealing with the anticipation of this happening,” he said. “We’ve been preparing for the last week, stocking up on to-go containers and supplies and food. Like every small business, we’re doing whatever we can to hunker down and preserve what we can.”
He said the hardest part was laying off nearly all of his hourly staff from all three restaurants on Monday morning.
“It’s been devastating. We started looking at that late last week. We knew closures were coming,” he said. “We really felt strongly it was better to have that clean break and our HR department and managers worked round the clock to get all paperwork for them to file [for unemployment].”
He said he and his partners had made the decision not to receive paychecks “until the dust settles here.”
“We are encouraging people to buy gift cards in restaurants. It’s a way for restaurants around the country to get cash in hand,” adding that 50 percent of all gift card sales and 100 percent of all gratuities will go into a fund that will be distributed to his hourly workers.
Mieser said that Grass & Bone, which houses a butcher shop, has become a kind of mini-grocery store. It will also offer a number of ready-to-cook meal “kits” for pre-order online. He said delivery of takeout was available through GrubHub, which had offered zero percent fees for 30 days.
Meiser said that his supply chain was more local than most, which creates greater access to food.
“The fact that we have access to local beef and meats and produce and we’re baking our own bread [demonstrates] the food security of buying local,” he said. “Our farmers and purveyors, have been bringing us everything they can. Folks at taking advantage of that, filling their refrigerator back home.”
As for the first day of the shutdown, he said business had been steady all day, but “certainly not busy.”
“Our regulars are going to come back,” he said. “We have a little mantra, this too shall pass. We’re keeping our heads up and spirits high.”
Sheri Cote, president of Shoreline Chamber of Commerce in Branford, said that her organization was working to help area restaurants put together a strategy combining curbside pick-up, gift certificates and delivery.
“Obviously they’re nervous and they’re very concerned with the announcement from the governor and how they’re going to keep going, but the ones that have gotten over initial shock have jumped into their high gear and and making sure they can still offer their customers services, whether it be curbside or delivery,” said Cote. “There’s a lot of interest from the community in trying to support these small businesses right now during these hard times.”
This is just the beginning, Cote said. “Six weeks from now I don’t know what this is going to look like.”
Tony Sheridan, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said he and his staff were working with member restaurants to implement curbside services, but were leaving delivery to companies like Lyft and Uber.
“One of the things we pride ourselves in at the chamber is we try not to duplicate services,” he said. “We don’t want to spin our wheels or waste energy doing what somebody can do better than we can.”
Sheridan said he is optimistic.
“What’s really important here is that not just our members, but the entire community recognize that we’ll come out of this crisis as well and it’s going to be painful like all the previous ones, but we’re up to the challenge. This is America and we are a nation of do-ers … I just feel very confident that we’ll come out of this stronger than ever,” he said.
Uber Eats, an online delivery app, announced a support package for independent restaurants on March 16 that waives delivery fees “to promote delivery from local restaurants, especially those that are new to the app.”
“We know the coming weeks will be challenging ones for many small business owners, and we want to help restaurants focus on food, not finances.” said Janelle Sallenave, head of Uber Eats for the U.S. and Canada in a release. “That’s why we’re working to drive increased demand to more than 100,000 independent restaurants across the U.S. and Canada through free delivery and marketing efforts.”
Sean Kennedy, Executive Vice President of Public Affairs for the National Restaurant Association, said that more than 90 percent of all restaurants are small and family-owned, with 50 or fewer employees, and face disruption and uncertainty during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Efforts that promote drive-thru, takeout and delivery are important tools to help restaurants continue to serve consumers during challenging times,” said Kennedy in a press release.
At Otto in Chester, manager Connor Johnson said that Tuesday’s transition to takeout-only was not difficult because it’s part of the restaurant’s everyday routine.
“I think it helps that we’re a pizza restaurant. Our to-go base makes up a considerable amount of how much we sell,” he said. “Pizza is takeout, often, that’s the way it’s structured. We’re set up and prepared for takeout.”
Johnson said that Otto cannot offer curbside service, so customers will need to come in to pick up orders.
“Our biggest challenge is how to maintain our family feel here,” Johnson said of the staff. “We’re not technically laying people off. Everyone will return to their shifts when they come back to work.”
The restaurant is adding a fixed 20 percent gratuity on all orders because servers, who are paid through tips, are now standing behind the counter, answering phones and helping with takeout orders.
River Tavern, it’s sister restaurant has temporarily closed, but will be offering pre-paid meals for pick-up through Otto that can be taken home and re-heated, he said.
Johnson said the restaurant has a stockpile of supplies, including pizza boxes and to-go containers.
“Our rep for the box company, reached out to me early and was proactive in getting us things we needed,” he said. “Restaurant Depot is not running low on food or ingredients, but it’s running low on to-go containers, there are not enough to go containers.”
Johnson said he would soon take a leave of absence from his job because he is diabetic, which puts him at risk. “It’s so that my health is prioritized but I’ve done everything I can to set up the restaurant,” he said.
Beer to go
The switch to take out has prompted a new online ordering and curbside service at Little House Brewing Company in Chester. Since the taproom is closed, customers will pick up their orders on the brewery’s front porch after receiving an email confirmation that their beer, snacks or merchandise is ready.
“We had a couple of sales today, but we’re not actually fulfilling them until tomorrow,” said co-founder Carlisle Schaeffer. “I don’t know if people realize they can place orders in advance and pick up later.”
He said the company has stocked up on growlers and will not be refilling empties as a health precaution.
“Fortunately, we just reordered all of our to-go containers a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “It’s never good timing for a thing like this, but fortunately we were stocked up without knowing it.”
Schaeffer said he planned to keep his staff employed throughout the temporary shutdown.
“We’re small. It’s me and a business partner and two bartenders,” he said. “We are hoping to be able to continue to provide hours with to-go services and whatever else in terms of hourly labor.
Schaeffer said that the to-go order form has a option to add a gratuity that will be passed to brewery’s bartenders.
“Bartenders rely on tips so that’s something we’ve added to the to-go sales,” he said.
Local shopping has always been important, but now more than ever, said Schaeffer.
“This is bigger than any of us, it’s important to do the right thing. Make sure you’re not going out if you’re feeling symptoms. This is big and we have an opportunity to stop it,” he said.