Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Restaurants are reinventing in real time. Their future will emerge from what remains.

As Philly’s restaurant scene remains uncertain, altered by reduced revenue and public health concern, there's an urgency for the industry to emerge more ethical and sustainable.

Darrell Shoaff, who works in facilities for STARR restaurants, installs clear acrylic dividers at Morimoto in Center City Philadelphia, Pa. on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. The dividers are in place for when restaurants are allowed to re-open following the coronavirus shutdowns.
Darrell Shoaff, who works in facilities for STARR restaurants, installs clear acrylic dividers at Morimoto in Center City Philadelphia, Pa. on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. The dividers are in place for when restaurants are allowed to re-open following the coronavirus shutdowns.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia’s restaurant comeback has officially begun. The big question: Will its dining scene be recognizable in six months?

An array of newly permitted tables bloomed on sidewalks and patios last weekend, as outdoor dining was finally allowed for the first time since the shutdown in March. Clear acrylic sheets are being carved into partitions intended to keep guests’ airspace contamination-free when dining rooms eventually reopen. Our masks are on, the menus are accessed on our phones, the bill can be paid contact-free. And servers? They possibly just had a “wellness check” with their temperature taken before being allowed to approach your table — provided they felt comfortable taking the risk to come back to work.

“If an employee has [an elevated] temperature, they’re immediately sent home,” says Josh Levine of Starr Restaurants, which has spent over $30,000 to retrofit its 20 restaurants in the region, rewritten service manuals to minimize contact, and created a new role in some locations solely focused on sanitation.

There’s little doubt this awkward coronavirus-era dinner dance is going to happen — and that the pent-up public craves it, too. The Center City District released a survey Tuesday that 55% of its 1,910 respondents plan to eat at a restaurant within the next three to four weeks. (An earlier survey of Eater Philly readers was less optimistic.)

But there’s no question the historic disruption of the past three months of devastating revenue and job losses — plus the added dynamic of the social justice movement following the death of George Floyd — is reshaping the restaurant industry.

With the prospect of dining rooms reopening soon at 50% capacity, everything is on the table to be rethought, from restaurant design and operations to inventive business models. There is also a push to address deep-seated flaws in restaurant culture that have fostered wage disparities, poor access to health care, workplace harassment and systemic racism.

“How will the history books remember this time?” says Pat O’Malley, the baker and now sole owner of Hungry Pigeon who finds his restaurant at the center of several of these swirling forces. “Are we going do anything different together [as a restaurant scene]?”

The much-lauded all-day cafe in Queen Village was already struggling to make its labor-intensive concept profitable, cutting hours drastically at the end of 2019 before the pandemic sent the Pigeon into a take-out meal scramble. Then came the swiftly negotiated resignation of his former partner, chef Scott Schroeder, over Schroeder’s racist Instagram post following the Floyd protests that was called-out on Medium by laid-off and former staffers, who also alleged harassment. It was one of several food institutions that stumbled over their reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement after being taken to task on social media by employees.

So now O’Malley, who disavows Schroeder’s comments and behavior (“I don’t talk like that. I don’t think like that.”) is in the process of both reinventing Hungry Pigeon’s business as a cafe more focused on its bakery while trying to repair its reputation and strengthen its commitment to social causes by revamping its operation as a more equitable and nurturing place to work.

But survival is hardly a given for the Hungry Pigeon and so many other restaurants, with projections by the National Bureau of Economic Research showing fewer than 30% of independent restaurants will survive an extended pandemic — even with aid from the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program.

“We’ve all had a kickstand under us with the PPP,” says Tyler Akin of Stock, Res Ipsa, and Le Cavalier, under construction at the Hotel Dupont in Wilmington. “But speaking with my colleagues here in Philly, it’s a bleak picture. We barely make ends meet when we’re on full throttle and now we have to spend extra dollars on personal protective equipment and revenues are generally 20 to 40% the norm.”

Akin is a board member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition which backed a bipartisan bill proposed Thursday in Congress to make $120 billion in assistance through a stabilization fund available to 500,000 independent restaurants employing 11 million workers impacted by the pandemic.

Even so, Akin’s Res Ipsa, a Top 25 Italian BYOB with one of Philly’s best roast chickens but only 10 seats at 50% capacity, has no liquor license, no outdoor seating, a handmade pasta menu that doesn’t travel well for takeout — and likely no future in its current form, he says.

“What we stand to lose [across the region] is a generation of intellectual property and vision,” says Akin, “not to mention community institutions.”

It’s a genuine concern shared by many kinds of restaurants, although BYOBs with limited seating, which embody Philly’s intimate, yet sophisticated restaurant scene are especially vulnerable. Several have transformed into hybrid restaurant-neighborhood markets [Helm, Spot Burger] or busy take-out operations like Kalaya, June BYOB, and Pumpkin.

“I’m too stubborn to close,” said Ian Moroney, who’s been turning-out 100 three-course take-out dinners for $35 on busy nights at 26-seat Pumpkin, where they’d normally serve 50 diners. “It would be financial suicide at this point to open [for inside dining] at half capacity.”

Cadence in South Kensington saw its busy take-out business evaporate overnight after the protests began, as the cause took precedence over both dinner plans and the social media networks that were previously used for menu news. But the award-winning BYOB’s co-owners, Jon Nodler and Samantha Kincaid, have since turned their sights on a two-part strategy to diversify revenues. They’re determined to make the most of their 12 outdoor seats for now and deliver an elevated dining experience — which must be reserved and paid in advance — supplemented by new daytime hours featuring inventive tacos to go made from house-ground masa.

“It’s crazy to think you’re taking your entire business and livelihood day by day,” says Nodler, whose restaurant celebrated its two-year-anniversary the night before the shutdown. “But that’s all we can do right now.”

Prepaid meals are among the many blue sky revenue solutions that have failed in the past, but that restaurateurs have revived out of practicality. With customers already embracing cashless prepayment to minimize contact, it’s become a reflex, at least for takeout.

A renewed effort to do away with tipping in favor of a set service charge has also regained traction to correct persistent wage disparities between the kitchen and front of the house, and also to fund health care. Martha in Kensington announced such an initiative last week.

Marc Vetri decided to opt out of the usual FICA tip tax credit at Fiorella, his 20-seat pasta counter, to distribute gratuities among the entire staff on top of a guaranteed minimum wage for all.

“This Fiorella model — manageable, not open every day, with a small squad where everybody is responsible for everything — that’s the future,” said Vetri, who recently installed movable acrylic barriers for his counter in anticipation of reopening the dining room.

Angelina Branca of recently closed Saté Kampar says, “we really need to come together as an industry and figure out what is a reasonable baseline wage that includes benefits like health care and is also inclusive of workers who have earned the job, whether or not they are documented. ... If humanity is driving everyone’s actions, then laws can be rewritten.”

Branca closed her much loved Malaysian grill house on East Passyunk Avenue due to lease and landlord issues. Her situation will no doubt become a recurring theme as other hobbled restaurants try to negotiate a sustainable path forward after this year.

Meanwhile, she has kept her small staff employed by cooking hundreds of meals per day for front line health care workers and others in need funded by nonprofits like Off Their Plate and Save Philly Eats which, along with José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen, has sustained several restaurant staffs across the city. That charity-minded impulse will continue once the pandemic is over as South Philly Barbacoa, a WCK hub, has plans to convert their former El Compadre space into a full-time community kitchen.

“I’m trying to create the most radical restaurant concept I can,” says chef Ben Miller, who aims to fund-raise and produce hundreds of meals a day for $6 or less. “We have so much hunger and poverty in this city, that’s a great use of this commercial kitchen.”

At the other end of the spectrum, big restaurant groups like Starr are spending what it takes to retrofit their dining rooms and redesign floor plans to get back to business with social distancing. About 1,600 square feet of clear acrylic sheets have been divided into hundreds of partitions, including 47 panels to extend the booths at Morimoto alone. Kitchens have been reconfigured to allow for more space between workers. New technology platforms for online menus and contact-free payment have been launched alongside new policies, like time limits on seating for the reduced number of outdoor tables at Parc.

“We’re fighting to pay the rent, basically,” says Stephen Starr, whose company has already seen a bounceback of business at its restaurants in Florida following reopening there. Up to 70% of revenues have returned to restaurants like Makoto, which have large outdoor seating areas. But Florida has also seen a dramatic spike in new COVID-19 cases that’s drawn concern that Sunbelt economies rushed to reopen at the expense of public health.

The virus remains a threat. Some restaurant employees are reluctant to return to work out of health fears: ”Of the 30 to 40 offers I made to come back to work, five of them were accepted,” said Akin, who reopened Stock.

And Richard Stokes, the Philadelphia-based architect who redesigned 25 floor plans for Starr and other clients in recent weeks, said COVID-19 will leave a legacy of design changes on new projects. Community tables and big open rooms are out. Flexible private dining rooms will become a new priority, as will outdoor seating and take-out windows to allow restaurants to streamline this now essential revenue stream.

The city itself, meanwhile, has been busy rethinking its own public spaces to accommodate more outdoor dining with streamlined permitting, “streetery” parklets transforming parking into space for tables, and proposed street closures that could allow pedestrian-friendly zones where restaurants could also expand. The city estimates a closure of 13th Street between Walnut and Chestnut, for example, could allow for 226 seats with social distancing, according to Nicole Marquis of HipCityVeg, who’s been a vocal advocate with the Save Philly Restaurants coalition lobbying various levels of government for changes.

“Let’s embrace outdoor dining — like the streets and alleys of Old San Juan and Europe,” said Marquis, whose vegan empire includes HipCityVeg and Latin-inspired Bar Bombón on 18th Street, where she had yet to get her official permit but had already begun seating on Moravian Street, the dumpster-lined alley she’s vowed to beautify.

But the reopening wave is already happening, propelled by an urgency for the industry to emerge more sustainable, ethical, and equitable.

“This was the first weekend,” Marquis said, “that we’re starting to feel that energy again.”