It had been thirteen days since Bear Branch Tavern opened its doors, and Logan Skidmore says the restaurant was getting a great reception from the community: “We were heading into the strongest week of the year—March Madness and St. Patrick’s Day – it’s normally very big for us.” Skidmore is the director of operations for Vintage Restaurant Group, which includes Bear Branch Tavern, Dogwood Tavern, Rhodeside Grill, William Jeffrey’s Tavern and Ragtime, all located in Northern Virginia.
At that same time, the COVID-19 virus was spreading, and governors across the United States were shutting down operations of everything except essential services. Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam ordered restaurants to close on March 17, 2020, and St. Patrick’s Day became the restaurants’ last day of normal service. “It was surreal, uncertain, scary,” says Skidmore. “Information was sparse and changing by the minute.”
Shutting It Down
All Vintage Restaurants shut down completely for the first week and a half so management could figure out what to do. They made hard decisions about staffing and finances and decided to distribute perishables from the restaurants’ kitchens. “We set up a grocery day for our hourly staff. We let them take the perishables home in boxes,” says Skidmore. Then they began a deep cleaning and repairs, work that is hard to do in a busy restaurant.
When they were ready to begin their takeout program, Vintage owners, Adam Lubar and Chris Lefbom, brought back a skeleton staff, striving to follow best practices, especially considering the limited amount of information they had to work with. Skidmore said the announcements came with levels of ambiguity, which was a source of frustration at times.
Planning to reopen for takeout was an endeavor in and of itself. Restaurants made the majority of their revenue from full service, and though most offer takeout, it’s not a lucrative system. “We got our act together,” explains Skidmore. “We set up online platforms in all five locations to allow for automated ordering. We looked for contact-free solutions for takeout. At Bear Branch it was easy, because we have an open-air window in the back.”
More Challenging for the Small Restaurant
When the small fine dining restaurant Maple Avenue shut its doors, the owners began a robust takeout system, including selling groceries and yeast so her customers could bake bread at home. For Juste Zidelyte, co-owner of Maple Avenue, the work prior to this was exhausting. “I worked all day, every day,” she explained. Maple Avenue is usually open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and has a huge community following, especially among the Vienna Foodie Group. Currently they’re only offering takeout dinners, but her customers remain very supportive. “We broke a record on Mother’s Day – that was amazing! We aren’t open inside for Phase 2 because we are so small, but we are selling restaurant space for small groups that want to have a social trust party,” says Zidelyte.
Making it Work
For fast casual restaurants like CAVA Grill, the changes had a drastic effect on profitability. “The business was really doing well, then COVID-19 hit, and our sales were significantly disrupted,” says Chelsea Grieco, communications specialist for CAVA. The company implemented safety procedures to protect their frontline workers and still sell their meals at their 97 locations countrywide. Urban and suburban restaurants were impacted differently, but nevertheless, CAVA quickly implemented contactless service operations, including curbside deliveries and creating off-premise digital kitchens to respond to the increase in Uber Eats and other online orders.
To respond to the changes going on in their customer’s lives, CAVA promoted their Family Meal Feast, which can feed up to six people. It was a beneficial option for people who were working and schooling at home, and wanted to streamline shopping, cooking and cleaning duties.
CAVA stores needed to adapt to different state and county regulations, working through the diverse timelines for Phase I and II. “The hardest thing about Covid is that there is such a lack of clarity from state to state – for some it’s masks suggested, in others, it’s masks required,” notes Grieco. “There is so much variability. We had to stay on top of the C.D.C. guidelines as well as each county’s rules, and those rules can change weekly.”
Phase I meant restaurants could begin service on their patio, and while guidance from Virginia’s health department was helpful, it was not always clear. The management team at Vintage Restaurant Group were constantly waiting for more information on what to enforce. Since the re-openings, Skidmore has seen customers eagerly return, and others stick with takeout. “We partnered with local crab fisherman and did crabs for takeout. We did Seafood Steamer Pots and lobster rolls,” says Skidmore. “We wanted it to feel like a beach trip you can’t go on. We do it at all our restaurants, but Vienna is the strongest supporter of our larger scale endeavors.”
Vintage Restaurant Group applied for PPP loans which were ultimately helpful but posed some unique challenges. Some employees were ready to come back while others were hesitant, especially those with young children. In Phase II, Vintage restaurants began serving customers indoors at fifty percent capacity while adhering to medical guidelines for their staff like checking temperatures and wearing masks. Another challenge – some quality food purveyors shuttered making it hard to access supplies of beer and wine. Bear Branch Tavern supported its bartenders by creating DIY craft cocktail kits and disposable growlers of craft beer. “The governor did allow for takeout wine beers and spirits, and we really leaned into that,” says Skidmore.
The New Normal
At CAVA Grill, indoor dining means keeping tables six feet apart, closing beverage stations and placing signage on tables that describe their store’s hygiene rules. “We are hyper-aware of safety practices and our cleaning concierges keep up with high-touch surfaces,” explains Grieco. “We’re on a reimagined culinary journey; adjusting to local laws so our customers and team members stay safe, and we can remain the same CAVA that communities know and love.”
Although Maple Avenue doesn’t have outdoor patio dining yet, regulars are continuing to order Zidelyte’s delicious comfort food. “Everyone got really excited about our fried green tomatoes, but they are enthusiastic about our fried chicken and pulled pork barbeque sandwiches too,” notes Zidelyte. She is dedicated to operating safely to protect her customers and her employees. “Our limited physical space is working against us now, so we’re taking the situation day by day.”
At Vintage Restaurant Group, Skidmore says margins were already tight before this happened and now they face extra layers of complications. “But we will work together to figure our way through this. I don’t think ultimately restaurants are going anywhere, and we want to position ourselves to be in a good place on the other side of this, whatever this is, and however how long this lasts. That’s the best we can do.”
CAVA Grill has donated more than 130,000 meals to families of frontline workers in partnership with World Food Kitchen.
Maple Avenue has been collecting donations for food-insecure families, and through the Vienna Foodies, are distributing food to local families in need.