Mary Ann Ferrie and Dan Grimes had something to celebrate last weekend. At least, until Monday.
Chlöe, the chef couple’s charming BYOB in Old City, turned 20 years old on Saturday, an admirable feat during even the best of times. But they’ve also survived this most hellish of years — despite a debilitating water main break in January, the coronavirus shutdown in spring, a failure to acquire any federal relief funds, and a reluctance to embrace indoor dining — by relying on regulars to support their takeout business.
“Somehow we’re still standing,” Ferrie said. “Because I think we’re too stupid to know when to stop. What else are we going to do because we don’t know anything but Chlöe?”
Ferrie’s irrepressibly buoyant spirit was boosted by the outcome of the election, especially after Jill Biden signed the restaurant’s Biden-Harris campaign poster while the first lady-elect was passing through Old City. But then ...?
“Talk about bouncing between hope and despair,” Ferrie said.
Despair landed harshly Monday with new city restrictions that prohibit indoor dining for at least the next six weeks along with new limits on outdoor dining. With COVID-19 cases spiraling out of control, unemployment rising, and the winter’s chill gnawing at interest in al fresco dining, many restaurateurs described the elimination of even partial-capacity indoor dining as a crushing blow — even if, as many concede, it is the correct move from a public health perspective.
The complete failure of leadership on every level of government to compensate for this loss with meaningful assistance has stoked a pervasive sense of helplessness for an industry facing the abyss of winter without the usual boost of holiday revenues.
“The vibe ... this morning was that everybody is feeling like the extinction event is upon us,” said Tyler Akin, who operates Stock and Le Cavalier in Wilmington, referring to a Zoom call Monday with about 50 local restaurateurs involved with a coalition known as Save Philly Restaurants.
Akin is also a key local representative on the national 16-member board of directors of the Independent Restaurant Coalition that helped craft the Restaurants Act, a $120 billion aid deal with bipartisan support that passed the U.S. House but sits stalled in the Senate as part of the larger Heroes stimulus package. “It’s more urgent than most policy makers can even imagine right now,” he said.
Chlöe, which had finally decided to open their dining room once a week for manageable small private events, had to cancel all seven of the Saturdays it had booked.
“It would have been about $10,000 for us, which I desperately could use,” Ferrie said. “And it feels horrible, like your feet are stuck in cement. ... But I can’t even help myself.”
“We try to stay as positive as possible,” said chef and co-owner Jon Nodler, who with his wife and co-chef-partner Sam Kincaid, has resourcefully managed through various pandemic phases of takeout kits, pop-ups, and outdoor dining. “But it’s slipping away. We definitely feel like it’s slipping away. After working so hard to get to this point ... that’s really unfortunate. But we’re not a unique case.”
Many other restaurants have already begun turning off the lights, closing at least temporarily in hopes of waiting out the winter with minimized expenses. That’s what Cicala at the Divine Lorraine did, offering up its lavish dining room on social media for photo shoots and its kitchen as a food truck commissary (though Cicala’s pizza pop-ups continue). That’s what happened at Laurel and ITV, which owner Nicholas Elmi closed Thursday, “until there is a better path forward for everyone.”
That’s also what happened at Monk’s, the Belgian beer temple where owner Tom Peters decided, after one staffer contracted COVID-19, that he was uncomfortable with the “hall monitor” aspects of enforcing the masking rules of indoor dining, and making customers sign contact-tracing and liability forms stipulating they hadn’t been to any mass gatherings without masks or social distancing.
“Like a Trump rally,” Peters would often add with a tableside quip that made two offended customers walk out.
But that allusion — and the very serious risk of on-job exposure for restaurant workers — is no joke for Karen Baker, a bartender who quit Urban Farmer in the Logan Philadelphia hotel after falling sick with COVID-19 symptoms following a two-night visit from President Donald Trump’s campaign team, including adviser Corey Lewandowski, who subsequently tested positive for the virus.
“Getting that crew to put their masks on was not easy, and one of their aides came up to the bar to get her drink right in front of us with no mask,” Baker says. “I asked her to put her mask on several times and she refused to do it.”
Baker, who’s yet to receive her test results, can’t say for sure where she contracted her illness. Nathan Ayres, general manager for Urban Farmer, says the restaurant closed temporarily for cleaning after one employee tested positive and 11 were put on precautionary quarantine for possible exposure that “was traced to an outdoor, non-work-related gathering.” (The gathering happened after the campaign team’s visit, says Baker.)
The restaurant has since reopened for outdoor dining, but at a fraction of the its staffing levels before the announcement of new restrictions.
Baker’s “mentally exhausting” experience of policing anti-mask diners was a stark reminder of the difficult choice many restaurant workers have been forced to make between their health and livelihoods during the pandemic.
“I was not excited to go back to work. I was scared to get sick, which is what happened,” says Baker, who had been laid off from Urban Farmer for six months before returning. “But there wasn’t a choice. Either you say ‘Yes,’ or they take your unemployment away and then what do you do? I don’t have any other option for making money. ... If you have a college degree, use it. But this is all I’ve known for 18 years.”
Baker’s friend and fellow bartender, Grant Evans, has been unable to find suitable work since being laid off from Southwark in March. He had to postpone his wedding to Colleen Kropp, another out-of-work bartender from Urban Farmer, and now dreads the end of his unemployment aid in December, which an estimated 12 million other Americans will lose if Congress doesn’t act soon to extend the benefits.
But waiting for government to save this country from economic disaster before Biden takes office in January appears futile — even as the potential of significant help languishes in Congress before our eyes.
The Restaurants Act, which would focus its funding on small restaurant groups, with early access for minority- and women-owned businesses, has the bipartisan support of 49 senators with a chance to pass, says Tyler Akin. U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), who has opposed the bill, did not return a request for comment. But U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.) and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa) reaffirmed their support.
“I strongly support the inclusion of this long-overdue, bipartisan legislation in a COVID-relief package,” said Casey. “As Philadelphia enacts new public health measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, restaurants need immediate relief.”
The bill, though, is unlikely to move forward while the larger Heroes Act that contains it remains untouched during the lame-duck period of this chaotic transition, or, at least, one Senate staffer tells me, until the runoff for Senate seats in Georgia is held on Jan. 5.
That’s too late for restaurateurs who will now also miss the boost of holiday dining to help them.
“What are we going to do without New Year’s Eve?” said Ellen Yin, whose restaurants Fork, High Street Philly, and a.kitchen rely now on daily takeout, Thanksgiving packages, retail wine sales, and outside dining. “That’s traditionally one of the biggest revenue generators of the year and can help get us through two weeks of slow business. We all just have to buckle down and support each other.”
Restaurateurs’ frustration with city officials has also mounted as they seek help with tax or rent relief, better access to rapid COVID-19 testing, and the ability to be active participants in discussions to minimize the public health risk without crippling business. That may be the result of new limits on the relatively safer option of outdoor dining, which is now restricted to groups of no more than four “members of the same household,” which is unenforceable.
The only answer, it seems, is for this city’s diners to support their neighborhood restaurants with as much love as they can afford, one bundled-up small family at a time for outside dining (I now eat out in thermal layers!). And then there are takeout options, which are as good as ever.
I couldn’t help but be impressed by the queue of regulars lined up behind me in the frosty 35-degree dusk at Chlöe on Nov. 18 for just such a feast to go: a tangy rack of ribs with mac-’n-cheese, filet mignon with celery root gratin, pumpkin ravioli, and a gnocchi with pork ragù that perfumed my car all the way home.