BY CINDY GERLACH
Everyone loves eating out. Perhaps your ideal evening is sitting down to fine dining, with candles and linen napkins, a fine bottle of wine; maybe you like to be perched on a stool across from your favorite bartender, chatting with other regulars. Or maybe your idea of a fun night out is grabbing hamburgers or pizza with the kids. However you do it, it’s a treat to have someone else mix your drink or prepare your dinner and have it brought to your table, served with a friendly smile.
And suddenly, in March, it all stopped. Under orders designed to help contain the spread of COVID-19, restaurants around the state were forced to close to dine-in customers, relegated only to carry-out. Restaurants quickly had to adapt and change. Now, as they slowly reopen their dining rooms to customers, what does that mean? What changes have they had to make? And what does the future look like?
The popular restaurant on the corner of Main and Fifth streets in downtown Lafayette is not necessarily known for its carry-out menu, though it’s always been an option, says Theresa Buckley who, with sister, Cheyenne, and mother, Mary, owns and operates the restaurant.
Most people, says Buckley, choose the Bistro for its atmosphere and service. But when forced to shut its doors, having done carry-out, they were quickly able to adapt.
“We had to adjust what we were offering so it would travel well,” she says. They focused on a menu with entrées that would look appetizing when people opened the box.
Menu changes were made; staff members who had been servers were suddenly delivering meals — anything people could do to get hours.
Flexibility has been important. In general, Buckley says, they try to be as green as possible and not order a lot of disposable products. But with the carry-out model, they had to change. And change again and again, as food shortages might mean ingredients were not available, or a particular carry-out box or bag was suddenly not available through their suppliers.
They used the opportunity to unveil the Bistro Market, allowing customers to purchase specialty food items through the store, including dairy and eggs, bakery and breads, produce, butcher and fresh seafood, meal kits, pantry items (dried beans and pasta, deli items) and even household items such as hand sanitizer and paper products. It was an idea they’d been mulling, Buckley says, but with the shutdown, it seemed like an opportune time to try it. Yet it brought up its own issues, as many of the items purchased arrive in bulk, so plans had to be made for repackaging.
Following a deep cleaning, when the restaurant reopened in June, Buckley had to oversee a number of changes in protocol. The restaurant created a safety promise to its customers and implemented some changes, including one door for entry and a separate door for exits; all restroom doors have foot openers. Customers must have reservations. Employees are screened for their health every day and will be wearing masks, even in the kitchen. Tables are six feet apart, and parties must be six or fewer. Water service will be different, and salt and pepper will not be on the table.
Buckley is doing everything she can to keep the restaurant safe for both customers and her staff. She knows how much regulars miss sitting at the bar, but that reopening will have to wait until it’s approved.
It’s an unpredictable time, says Buckley, as she juggles the already challenging job of day-to-day restaurant business with the extra hurdles of life during a pandemic. Like many people, she has had difficulty getting the proper personal protective equipment needed for her employees. And she is sensitive to the needs of people struggling with anxiety and depression during these difficult days.
The restaurant’s bottom line has suffered, she says; with no Purdue graduation weekend or Mother’s Day brunch, Bistro lost business. With no downtown events, they know their revenues will be down. Ordinarily Bistro would have had its annual Lobster Bake and jazz Thursdays — sadly, not this year.
“We have a high ratio of high-risk guests,” she says. “It’s a lot to manage, and we’re trying to do so super-respectfully of our staff. We’re not comfortable taking risks with others’ health.”
Across the street at Folie, Hallie Gorup and her husband, John, were monitoring the situation long before many locals, as John is a local physician and their daughter was studying in Italy last spring. They were tuned in to what was happening with the novel coronavirus; thus, even before the state mandated closures, the Gorups had decided to shut Folie’s doors for a time.
“We were paying more attention than the average person,” Hallie Gorup says. “We decided the respectful thing to do would be to shut down temporarily.”
Many of their staff members are Purdue students, so when the university closed, they left, meaning Folie did not have to deal with layoffs.
As they pivoted to a take-out model, they dealt with many of the same issues Bistro did, as they tried to adapt a menu that is based on presentation, on a plate, to a box. The menu was scaled way back, and they used the opportunity to experiment with the menu; knowing that volume was down, if food items weren’t a big hit, they had not made quite the investment.
“It’s been a nice challenge for the chef,” Gorup says, as he would try out his creativity with different entrées. “Sometimes it was robust, sometimes it was nothing.”
When restrictions were lifted to offer wine as a carryout option, that helped boost the bottom line as well, Gorup says.
As the restaurant reopened, Gorup says the transition back was not too difficult.
“We were never a crowded restaurant,” she says. “And we have a small kitchen staff, which allows for better distancing.”
Folie has made accommodations to meet the guidelines, which means no bar seating and not filling the restaurant. And while there is a lot more cleaning, Gorup points out that they were already meeting those sanitation standards anyway. Staff members were already washing their hands frequently, and the sanitizing was already happening. Now they’re just more cognizant.
“Our biggest challenge is not being able to seat parties of six or larger,” she says. “But we’re more than happy to comply. You have to be a part of the solution.”
While the restaurant is not yet overflowing with business, they do have groups come in, pleased that there is someplace to go for a special celebration or an evening out. And they are weathering the storm. Summer has always been a slower time, and there is uncertainty about when large-scale entertaining will be back in full force.
“‘Recovery’ is a generous word right now,” Gorup says. “But I’m not complaining.”
Christos, The Bryant, Red Seven and Café Literato
For the Christos hospitality group, adding extra hygiene standards is just par for the course, says owner Manny Papadogiannis.
“For us, all the pieces were there — washing hands for 20 seconds, sanitizing surfaces,” he says. “Those are all in the health department guidelines.”
The restaurants have merely upped the work they were already doing. They’ve added hooks to bathroom doors, enabling customers to open them using their wrists; employees are wearing facial coverings.
Papadogiannis says they’re adhering to the county health department guidelines. But they are also tapping into other resources.
Customers are encouraged to use apps for reservations or to get their names on a wait list — available through the restaurant websites.
“Everybody has to step up their game,” he says. “You want to be safe wherever you go.”
Papadogiannis points out that, for all the worries about restaurants, they are much cleaner than other places. In a big box store, hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people go through each day. Restaurants have much lighter traffic and they are cleaning so much more often.
“If you compare the number of staff and customers we have coming in, we can do that with that ratio,” he says.
“It’s a little bit of an adjustment. But you do what you need to do to get through this. It’s going to take a while. It’s going to be a very long road for the restaurant industry.”
La Scala used to be known for its farm-fresh food and Italian fare in its historic downtown Lafayette locale.
But that was before. It closed the doors on its dining room right before the shutdown.
Owner Kirsten Serrano found herself reeling, trying to figure out what to do as the business she and her husband, Paco, opened 21 years ago was shuttered.
The couple’s first response was to found Community Comfort, a plan to feed the community — because, Serrano says, that’s what she does. With donations, they fed between 1,200 and 1,300 people in one week.
“It was a lot,” she says. They were working around the clock.
But what was next?
“I literally just sat with a pencil and paper one day, and thought, what can we do?” she says. “We have all these assets — a community kitchen, a farm, experience.”
And the answer came to her — not out of pessimism, but out of realism. Because she does not see herself reopening La Scala before the time feels rights.
Hence, she developed Good to Go, a meal subscription service. It is modeled after many other meal-kit services, except with this one, it’s not just ingredients, but food that is chef-prepared, ready to serve.
“Our stuff is cooked, it’s ready to go,” she says. “It’s farm-fresh food; we prepare it and deliver it to your door.”
Good to Go is delivered on Thursdays. Depending on your plan, you’ll get entrees, sides, dessert, and an extra surprise — local products, extra produce from the farm or promotions.
As the service grows, they’ll be able to bring back more of their employees. It’s satisfying, Serrano says. Because, after all, feeding people is what she does best. And this venture? It’s helping La Scala stay afloat.
“We’re building a model that can survive a pandemic.”
Opening a new restaurant is challenging enough. If your grand opening was scheduled for March 2020? Well, it’s tough to open a new business when the entire country is shutting down.
But Revolution Barbeque has simply rolled with the punches, says Debbie McGregor. They just turned the opening into more of a soft opening.
“It didn’t stop us!” she says.
McGregor runs the new restaurant — an off-shoot, if you will, of Revolution Bakery on Fifth Street — with her daughter, Sarah McGregor Ray (the creative force, her mother says) and her son, Jonathan. Her husband, Geoff, a contractor, has helped with the remodeling of the restaurant on Main Street. It’s a true family endeavor.
The restaurant was already set up for fast-casual dining, says McGregor. So take-out food was easy enough to accommodate.
Because they ended up rolling out their business a little slower than they had planned, it allowed them to defer some remodeling in the dining room. And when they did open, they had rearranged the space, removing some tables to factor in distancing requirements.
“Not many people are able to reconstruct their whole dining room,” McGregor says.
Like all restaurants, they’ve paid attention to hygiene and sanitation standards. But of course, she says, they would have anyway.
“You are cleaning all the time; you’re always washing your hands,” she says. “We always wore gloves.” They just added a few extra steps, such as how they take items to and from the table.
And, sadly, they had to put away the cute napkin holders they had purchased for the tables — they’ll have to make their debut at a later date.
McGregor knows that for some people, dining out is still filled with some unease. But she is anxious to make everyone’s experience as painless as possible. For people worried about the exchange of cash or touching a screen to sign for a credit card transaction, she will meet people where they are, at their level of comfort.
Customers who were already regulars at the bakery had been eagerly anticipating the opening of the new barbeque place, McGregor says. And they’ve all been very supportive. From a promotion through Greater Lafayette Commerce promoting purchasing of restaurant gift cards to generous tips from customers, McGregor has felt embraced by the city.
“It has been working,” she says. “We’ve had good support from the community.”
As restaurants work to keep their doors open, anxious to serve their customers, Gorup says she hopes people will stop and realize how vital these businesses are to the lifeblood of Lafayette.
“They live in the community and they’ve always been very giving. When people need donations, restaurants are on the front lines, the first asked,” Gorup says. “I do hope there is better recognition and support for the restaurant community.”