Restaurateurs in the era of coronavirus are taking bold steps to keep revenue flowing.
The big guns who chose to remain open are focusing on specialties, at least in the short term. Marc Vetri sells fresh pasta out of Fiorella and Stephen Starr offers pizzas at Pizzeria Stella and bread from a window at Parc, for example. In the grand scheme, the revenue doesn’t move the needle, but it does keep the public happy and a few employees collecting paychecks.
Others have pivoted in an attempt to bring in revenue not only to survive but to subsidize the costs of reopening their dining rooms someday. Chefs Townsend Wentz and Jason Cichonski revved up pasta businesses. Edward Garcia and Jeannie Wong, who owns Queen & Rook, a game cafe in Queen Village, started delivery. Keith Taylor, who had been catering while between restaurant locations in Norristown, found luck and even made a little of his own.
Keith Taylor: Connecting to new business
Let’s start with the success story. Chef Keith Taylor, who closed his Zachary’s BBQ restaurant on the outskirts of Norristown last year pending the opening of a new restaurant in downtown Norristown in late 2020, dodged a bullet. He and his crew have been catering out of a commissary kitchen in Philadelphia’s Bridesburg neighborhood, which means he operates with less overhead. He also does not have an idle restaurant to worry about.
Though off-premises caterers everywhere are suffering as companies are not hosting meetings and families are skipping large parties, Taylor had more luck.
A large client is an Amazon fulfillment center, which is busy. Taylor’s smart management of a 10,000-name email list just yielded a large contract.
Taylor sends one-page newsletters every two months — “nothing outrageous,” he said. “You don’t want to overdo it.” He keeps it light and not sales-focused. A percentage of the newsletter recipients are clients who enjoy replying to the chatty chef. “I call those the superfans,” he said.
A superfan had heard that the Air National Guard in Horsham needed catering. He said he spoke to a sergeant in charge, who told him: “Taylor, we can’t get food." (Taylor recounted this, barking in the military voice from his days in the Army’s 508th Infantry Regiment.) “Slowly over the last month, the restaurants [that served the base] dried up,” Taylor said.
Rather than find another restaurant, the Guard decided to use a caterer to get meals on demand at odd hours. Taylor was hired for lunch and dinner three days a week, and recently added breakfast.
“I have clients that keep us in business,” Taylor said. “This is a client that puts me in a place of profit, not just survival.”
Townsend Wentz: Solo act
Townsend “Tod” Wentz had quite a year. He closed his East Passyunk restaurant Townsend. He moved it to Walnut Street, near Rittenhouse Square. Then he opened a bar, The Pearl, next door to his Spanish restaurant, Oloroso, near 12th and Walnut Streets, and set up a wine bar at Townsend’s former location. Meanwhile, his Italian restaurant, A Mano, was chugging along at 23rd Street and Fairmount Avenue.
Now, since the bottom fell out, it’s Wentz alone at A Mano. Every day but Monday, he makes fresh pasta, sauces, and 12 sheet pans of focaccia, advertises it on social media, fields and processes the phone orders, packages the food, and sets the bags out on a shelf for contact-free pickup.
“Financially for me, it’s not great,” said Wentz, whose staff of 65 is out of work. The income “allows me to pay maintenance bills like my insurance, but I miss my team and my customers.” Wentz said he had already pretty much written off 2020 and was expecting to “play for the end of 2021” to be debt-free.
Jason Cichonski: Pasta business revs up
Since selling his Queen Village restaurant Ela in late 2018, Jason Cichonski has been operating Attico, a rooftop bar in Center City, as well as Messina Social Club, a private club in South Philadelphia. Over the years, he and a partner had been noodling around with fresh pasta for a prepared-foods concept called Little Noodle that he is running out of Messina.
“Pasta just makes sense,” he said. It can be made in batches. The variety can change on a dime. It’s also easy to vacuum-seal. Customers can heat it in 3½ to 4 minutes, he said, “and it tastes like something that was made in a restaurant.”
Orders go through the Messina website, and pickups are available Tuesday and Friday. Cichonski’s displaced staff members are handling local deliveries, as well.
This is one idea that may continue on the other side of the crisis, he said.
Edward Garcia and Jeannie Wong: Changing their game
Edward Garcia, who works for the city Commerce Department, and his wife, Jeannie Wong, opened Queen & Rook, a game cafe, last fall in Queen Village.
It’s hard to imagine a more social environment than a game cafe, where you rent and play games with friends and enjoy snacks. When the city shut down restaurants on March 16, Garcia and Wong realized that while they could send food out for delivery, they could not do the same with rental games or with alcohol. The popular delivery services handle only food, and it would be impractical to lend games that would have to be sanitized. Queen & Rook did not have permits for alcohol delivery.
The couple, who are carrying insurance premiums for staff, recently began using Relay Delivery, a bike courier service that delivers food as well as new, wrapped games from their online store. They’re also in line with the Liquor Control Board for permits for beer and wine bottle carryout.
For now, that is how they’re operating. Garcia concedes that revenues are off by 90% to 95% — “and that’s hustling in every way we can think of.”