Temperatures in Philadelphia dipped into the low 30s last week. The biting cold came around the time city officials announced there would be no more indoor dining until January, at least.
If you happened to eat outside on one of those 30-degree days, as this writer did, you know well what restaurateur Avram Hornik does.
“We have an amazing capacity to forget how cold it gets and how miserable it is being outside while it’s spring and summer,” Hornik said last month. In truth, “it’s cold. And it’s windy and it’s wet and it’s dark.”
That frosty reality is setting in as the last days of a relatively mild November slip away. Restaurants have spent the past nine months playing every card they have in hopes of making it through the pandemic. And restrictions are tightening again just as the holiday season — what would have been their busiest time of year — approaches, the cold weather dealing a solemn blow.
With daylight and hopes of more federal aid fading, what strategies will restaurants take to survive this winter? And can they make it to a spring that carries the promise of a widely available vaccine?
One tack some have already taken is to shutter temporarily. After indoor dining halted on Nov. 20, several restaurants announced they would go dark “until there is a better path forward for everyone,” as Laurel’s Nicholas Elmi put it.
“If I could, I would shut down until spring ... but I’ve got families that depend on me,” said Justin Weathers, who owns three locations of Stove & Tap in Montgomery and Chester Counties, as well as the Bercy in Ardmore and Al Pastor in Exton with business partner Joe Monnich.
Weathers’ restaurants can still operate indoors for the time being — Pennsylvania currently allows indoor dining at 50% capacity — but as local case numbers have gone up, business has been slowing. “Public perception of safety is low. Takeout’s already on the increase,” he said. “Even out here in the burbs, when folks see Philadelphia’s shut down, they just assume the whole state is shut down.”
He’s invested in heaters, fire pits, and tents to keep the restaurants’ expanded outdoor dining spaces in play, but he knows that will only last so long. Instead, Weathers will ultimately rely on a blend of creativity and belt-tightening to get through. His team is crafting well-worded marketing and affordable family packages, as well as reducing menu sizes, ordering smaller quantities of food, eliminating kegs of beer (which only stay good for so long), and shrinking the number of employees on any given shift.
“If we had to, it’d just go down to my partner and I running a restaurant,” he said.
Shutting down temporarily saves on operating costs, but rent, insurance, and basic utilities don’t stop in the interim. And then there’s the hurdle of reopening.
While Schulson has kept two of his restaurants closed (DK Sushi in University City and Center City’s Giuseppe & Sons), he’s installed robust outdoor dining structures for the others. The partially enclosed pergolas — open on two sides, per city guidelines — each boast 5- to 10-ton HVAC systems that run on propane and a little electricity. The restaurants also have portable space heaters to break out if needed.
The reception has been “great,” Schulson said. “People are eating outside ... there are times when they’ve actually asked us in that cold weather to lower the heat.”
But these efforts are a means to survival. “Nobody’s thriving during this,” he said. “The goal is just to get to the other side and have a restaurant that’s open.” He also noted that the latest round of restrictions is in some ways even worse for the industry, as many employees at risk of layoffs have already exhausted their unemployment.
And the vast majority of restaurants don’t have such cushy outdoor dining setups (if they have outdoor space at all). Instead, they’ll have to rely on the fortitude of customers braving winter weather. Even restaurant owners recognize that that’s a tall order.
“Personally I have only eaten outside, and I’m in it for the long haul so I know to prepare myself,” said Ellen Yin of Fork, a.kitchen, and High Street. “If it’s 40 degrees, I’m going to wear long underwear, I’m going to wear layers, I’m going to be ready for outdoor elements. It’s going to take a commitment by people to want to sustain that, so I have not put all my eggs in that basket.”
To supplement outdoor dining revenue, Yin has been developing more versatile takeout and delivery options. Her team is searching for ways to deliver Fork’s $45 three-course dinner boxes to the suburbs. And High Street, which is only offering takeout and delivery at the moment, has put pizza on its regular menu at its new Ninth Street space, in addition to loaves of bread and the cafe fare it’s known for.
Many owners cited creativity in takeout, and putting one’s own stamp on those offerings, as imperatives for surviving winter. Franny Lou’s Porch founder Blew Kind and her two newly minted co-owners have been hatching plans for the community cafe’s winter offerings. “We’re really trying to focus on special orders, like cookies, pies, and bars and tea and coffee and hot cocoa packages for the holidays, to send little letters of love to family members and things like that,” Kind said.
Her 5- and 8-year-olds are also scheming about a kid’s meal, complete with a toy or a coloring book, for pickup and delivery. “Simple things that we can connect to the family still, because we are a family place.”
In Center City, Oyster House is likewise playing to its strengths. Owner Sam Mink points to the summer success of lobster roll and clambake kits as templates for future offerings (look out for clam chowder and oyster-shucking kits). The restaurant’s first-ever Thanksgiving pie sales went well, and there are plans for a takeaway Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner. They’re also exploring tented structures to put on Sansom Street when it closes to traffic on weekends.
Mink is confident Oyster House will survive the pandemic. “We’ve been here for 34 years. We’re not going anywhere,” he said sanguinely. He’s in a better position than most because his family owns the restaurant’s building.
But the situation is still dire. “Indoor dining is my lifeline,” he said. “And that was taken away from us. And it feels really, really crappy, because I now have to go and lay off people, and they then have to worry about how they’re going to put food on the table and feed their families.”
“I’m up every night sick about the fact that they have families to support and they have bills to pay,” said Beth Amadio of her employees at Cotoletta Fitler Square. “I really think from November or December to April, it’s going to be very, very difficult.”
Cotoletta started offering takeout and delivery at the start of the pandemic, and it went well. “Actually, I gained a lot of customers from it,” Amadio said. Her downtown business was still relatively new, and being on mainstream delivery platforms gave it more exposure.
This time around, Amadio expects more competition, online and in person. “A lot more restaurants are open, and there’s a lot more options for outdoor seating.” She’s ordered more heaters and blankets, and her team is devising a list of hot drinks.
“I’m trying to make it like a little winter wonderland,” she said.
At Bar Bombon and Charlie was a sinner., Marquis is also warming up her customers with blankets and libations. The team’s latest acquisition is heated seat cushions. “It’s called lava buns,” she said. “We’re throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.”
Asked if the April timeline for a widely available vaccine presents a light at the end of the tunnel, Marquis lets out a deep sigh and asks: Will the tunnel be closed by then?