Just three weeks ago, the music was thumping and the crowd was bumping at Johnny Brenda’s, couples clinked glasses at June BYOB, and families bonded over breakfast at Ants Pants Cafe.
Philadelphia’s internationally known restaurant scene was alive. But on March 16, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the shutdown of “nonessential businesses,” the bars and dining rooms fell silent.
Many restaurants gave up. They await the all-clear, barely recognizable behind boarded-up windows and stacked chairs and tables. But others have shifted from hosting guests to handing food through windows, enforcing the social distance code that goes against everything their industry stands for.
The reality is that even in a strong economy, most restaurants struggle to succeed. The pandemic has thrown the usual variables, such as tight margins, out of the window.
And the window is where we find many of the owners and the workers who have chosen to keep going. They seem to be taking this (temporary) normal in stride.
Richard Cusack and his wife, Christina, opened the white-tablecloth June BYOB last summer at 1911 E. Passyunk Ave. and were basking in great reviews when the word came down.
“It’s a really eerie and bad time," said Rich Cusack, 32, who decided that the appropriate response would be to keep cooking. “I might as well do something fun to try to get through this. … My idea was that people want comfort food now. And I didn’t think that foie gras and truffles would be a hot seller. So I figured I’d do Asian fusion this week. Last week, I did pastas for $5 and little chickens, just to feed the neighborhood. … I’m still deciding on which direction to go with this. It’s kind of hard. But in the meantime, we’re just trying to have fun.”
At Johnny Brenda’s, whose revival in 2003 as a hipster bar helped foster the notion of Fishtown as a cool neighborhood, bartender Jen Zimmerman says she misses the culture of dining out and the sense of community. “Regulars will drop by to say ‘Hi’ and to ask how I’m doing," she says. “This is normally a place where people come for the atmosphere and to hang out.”
At Ants Pants Cafe, partners Liz Fleming, Nancy Silverman, and Paul Puma decided to close their Queen Village location but open with limited service at their Graduate Hospital flagship at 2212 South St. The setup is simpler, as the front window opens next to the kitchen.
“At first, we were just trying to do it for ourselves, for our mental health, to get out of the house,” Silverman said. “Then it became more that we’re doing something for our neighborhood. We bring in limited staff. We are not endangering anyone. We’re keeping it real tight.” Hours have shrunk to 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays. “We are not trying to make money off the pandemic,” Silverman said. “We’re trying to have some money coming in so we can make sure we can reopen.”
Even the eateries that already had dedicated takeout windows are adjusting.
At Geno’s, the 24/7 cheesesteak destination across from Pat’s at Ninth Street and Passyunk Avenue, Stephanie Nagy, who works the window, felt stressed when word of the coronavirus began spreading. “Everyone’s kind of uncertain what’s going to happen from one day to the next," Nagy says. "But thankfully, [owner] Geno [Vento] and everybody here really assured us that we will be fine.”
But consider the virus’ impact on Chad Durkin, 37, who in December opened a curiously quirky combination sandwich shop called Porco’s Porchetteria and a bakery called Small Oven Pastry Shop, side by side at 22nd Street and Washington Avenue. The sandwiches are served through a window, while customers would walk in for sweets and coffee.
“I invested everything I had into this business — with all the hopes and the forecasting and all the business mathematics you do to stay sustainable and to grow quickly,” Durkin says. “And then this happens, and it totally puts the kibosh on all of that.”
His concept for Porco’s was based around the takeout window, but after the ban, he found himself running the pastry shop out of the window, too. “I have a lot of regulars that come in every week that are like, ‘We’re here for you, we’re buying that,’” Durkin said. “And whether they spend $2 on a cup of coffee or a couple of pastries, they’re giving me hope every day that we’re doing the right thing — giving them some normalcy, and also for ourselves.”