By T Michele Walker
We just wanted a bite to eat, a light nosh. Something simple, yet delectable. By the time we realized we were hungry, it was 4:45pm on a Friday, January, 2020 BC. That stands for “Before COVID.”
“Are you crazy?” asked my son. “It’s dinner time in St. Pete, on a Friday night. We’re not getting in anywhere.”
He was right, of course. The Brass Monkey, Red Mesa, Salt Public House, all had a wait list of over 45 minutes, minimum.
In retrospect, I wish I could say that I put my name on the list and waited for a table. I’m ashamed to admit that we went home and ordered Dominos, where our delivery driver met us at the door, ungloved and unmasked. We didn’t even disinfect the box. Like I said, this was “BC”.
Optimism in Salt Public House Restaurant
“We were killing it,” said Chef Sabrina at Salt Public House. “We had a 30-minute wait for lunch and dinner. It was so awesome, and then along comes the pandemic and bam! Doors closed.”
They enjoyed rave reviews:
“Large portions, chic décor, creative cuisine...”
“HIGHLY recommend this place. Eclectic menu served on a wood platter! GREAT food, BIG portions. This is a must do restaurant…”
Salt Public House is the little restaurant that could. Open for business for a just under a year and a half and owned by Sabrina and Aidan Bowles, they found their niche on “the strip” offering Irish cuisine, prepared by Chef Sabrina with quality, fresh ingredients and that extra dash of Gaelic love.
Closed since Friday, March 20, when the executive order from the state was given to shut down, they relaunched Monday, April 20, for takeout with a limited menu, wine, beer and booze.
“I’m so happy with the outpouring of support from the community. They wish us well and are starving for our food,” remarked Sabrina. “I took the time when we were closed to write new menu items which I will try during the limited menu.”
Under normal circumstances, Sabrina and Aidan would have every reason to feel optimistic. Salt Public House was fast becoming a beloved dining institution. One couple even chose to get married in their bar. The Facebook fan messages to Sabrina and Aidan are supportive, “Thinking of you” and “Love y’all. Stay safe!”
But it’s “AC”, or “After COVID,” and the rules haven’t only changed, they’ve been thrown out the Lysol-sanitized window.
All over the country, small “Main Street restaurants” like Salt Public House are feeling this once-in-a-generation pinch. Of the one million restaurants in America, about two thirds are independent restaurants. These are the eateries that may not survive the coronavirus shutdown.
The national news isn’t optimistic. Reports state that stay at home orders are crushing the restaurant industry.
Tom Colicchio, chef and owner of Crafted Hospitality in New York said in a recent interview, “We were mandated to shut down and I have to say, when we were asked, no one complained. We knew we had to do our part because we had to stop the virus, or we were never going to have a business or industry.”
Colicchio continues, “We’re in a very different situation than most businesses right now. Independent restaurants employ over 11 million people in this country. Indirectly, when you think of farmers and fishermen and wine and cheese makers, all of the people we employ, it’s closer to 20 million people.”
How will things change post-COVID-19?
According to The New York Times, restaurant analysts estimate 75 percent of the independent restaurants that have been closed to protect Americans from the coronavirus won’t make it. The National Restaurant Association claims the entire restaurant industry would lose $225 billion in the coming three months, while at the same time getting rid of five to seven million employees.
When restaurants do finally reopen, they won’t be able to open at 100 percent capacity, but more like 25 to 50 Percent capacity, no matter how many customers may choose to dine.
COO Peter Veytia III, Marketing Director for Red Mesa, a restaurant that has three locations in the St. Pete area, says they have been open since the shut down, but offering takeout and delivery only. “We plan on reopening our dining spaces once officials say it’s OK to do so. We cannot predict what the norms will be after this [pandemic] passes.”
Stephen Christianson from the popular The Brass Monkey agrees, “I think we would be naive to think that this pandemic won’t change anything.”
The Brass Monkey, a small family owned restaurant on Pass-A-Grille Beach has tons of fans that post glowing reviews:
“Love it here. Always friendly, great food and atmosphere. The view of the sunsets is amazing. It is family run and they always make you feel like part of their family.”
Since the pandemic, the support remains:
“Been here tons of times before but first time doing take out cause of the quarantine and it was so good. We had the fish and chips, large portions and very tasteful. Staff was upbeat and friendly considering everything going on with the virus. Definitely will be doing take out and eating in again once it’s allowed.”
Survival is for those who are flexible; they are smart enough to adapt and they never give up.
As Pullaro accurately assesses, “The business model that you knew one month ago no longer exists. If you are going to get to the other side of this, you are going to have to adapt to new challenges literally every day. The situation has really forced everyone to think outside of the box.”
Just how are businesses adapting?
Celine Duvoisin from Valhalla Bakery is not only thinking outside of the box, she’s creating the box by offering a “Build Your Own Pandemic Box.” This is available for delivery along with whole cakes, all with a private courier.
Celine has been adapting to the new normal and staying relevant by, “Doing live videos and making sure we are staying current and up to date with all media.”
“All of the money for delivery [is] going straight to the drivers who are friends of ours that have been unable to get their unemployment checks,” explains Celine.
The National Restaurant Association said as of March 25, about 3 million restaurant workers have been laid off.
National restaurant chains are competing with small, family owned restaurants for relief funds. For example, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse received $20 million in small business relief, yet furloughed all hourly workers with the exception of managers and cooks.
Each family-owned restaurant owner expressed profound concern for their staff, especially as collecting state unemployment seems to be an obstacle for every employee. Statistically, less than four percent of unemployment claims in the state of Florida submitted since the shutdown have been processed, while many families are in dire need.
When asked how employees are holding up, Celine answered, “Honestly, that’s hard. And everyone is feeling this. If we manage to get PPP funding, we will be able to financially help our staff which will remove such a burden off of everyone.”
Stephen at The Brass Monkey adds, “A majority of the staff has had a long tenure here at The Monkey. So, naturally, they are family. Since our capacity has been severely restricted, we do as much as we can to give shifts to our staff, including odd-end jobs around the building.”
Sabrina’s concern for her employees is heartfelt, “My employees have suffered. They cannot get onto unemployment, the system keeps crashing, they have bills to pay and children to feed.”
The day the closing happened at the Salt Public House, Sabrina brought her employees into the restaurant and generously opened up her walk-in cooler, giving away all of her meat, vegetables and dairy to her employees in need: “They have families to feed.”
Sabrina remains hopeful, “I’m hoping we are the little engine that could. We only have 52 seats. I’m just praying that we can hold on. We’re not going out without a fight!”