Stephen Brown picked a heck of a time to open a restaurant. He’d originally planned on opening his new place, Gingers Bar and Restaurant, early in the year. But as is often the case, there were little delays involving things like remodeling work and inspections – the sorts of problems anybody who’s ever opened a restaurant can tell you all about. By early March, it looked like opening day was coming soon. But then came another, bigger problem. A problem that no restaurant professional had ever dealt with before. A problem that now needs no introduction.
In mid-March, Brown went from being a restaurateur whose restaurant opening was slightly delayed to a restaurateur whose restaurant opening is delayed by COVID-19.
Brown, whose close-cropped hair and bushy beard give a clue as to where the “Gingers” name comes from, has spent years working in hospitality, but Gingers was going to be the first place that’s his. He plans to have local art on the walls and a menu with just a few staples and lots of rotating specials – maybe curry one night, ramen the next, barbecue the night after that. “The menu rotates around the imagination of what the chef wants to do,” he says. When the shutdown happened, he took it in stride – and decided to let his own imagination go to work on exactly what sort of restaurant he wanted to have.
The restaurant’s Oakland Park Boulevard location had been sitting empty. The building’s owner, Brown says, was happy to see someone going in and doing work, and was willing to work with his new tenants, particularly as COVID-19 changed everybody’s business plans and timeframes. Given more time than he’d expected to have, Brown and his business partner decided to take advantage of it.
“We have had a lot of time to sit back in this place and just kind of look at it, and think of different things – the way we want it to look, the feel we want it to have,” he says. “That has been an advantage.”
For people in the food-and-drink business, just about anything that feels like an advantage has been welcome in recent months. A two-month shutdown, followed by a cautious partial reopening, followed by county crackdowns as places struggled to adapt to the new rules, followed by a reclosing of the bars as Florida COVID-19 numbers grew, followed by … well, what next? It’s a story that changes by the week and sometimes by the day. As this magazine was going to press, Broward County had tightened some rules, but not followed Miami-Dade County into a second shutdown.
When new rules and guidelines come into place, restaurants have to then figure out how to plan for and implement them. How to keep customers far enough apart from each other? How to keep them away from the bar they can no longer sit at? Do we put up plastic? Order one-use menus?
Then there’s the new business model. How do restaurants make the bottom line work if they can only be half full? Is more takeout the answer? Renegotiating rents with landlords?
Some who study the industry give grim assessments on what the near future’s going to look like.
“Restaurants have always been this kind of great entrepreneurial place,” says Kevin Murphy, a professor in the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida. “Everywhere you go you see independent restaurants, you see these restaurants owned by families and couples. One of the reasons is that restaurants have such low barriers to entry, relatively speaking.”
Things like the lessened cost burden of going into a building that’s already housed a restaurant or relatively low labor costs make the restaurant business something that people can get into with a relatively small amount of capital.
“It’s always been this place where you have this sense of entrepreneurial spirit,” he says. “But this downturn is going to kill all these little entrepreneurs.
“Chains tend to have the operational systems in place. I’m not a huge fan of chains…but they have the operational systems in place and they are doing better in this crisis. They will ultimately respond better in this crisis and have the resources to outlast the financial devastation.”
In the average year a big chain restaurant – think Bonefish Grill or Outback Steakhouse – does four to five times the volume of a local mom-and-pop, he says. If your favorite local Italian brings in $900,000 a year, the nearby Olive Garden is probably bringing in $4m to $5m. “It always was doing better, so it will continue to do better,” he says.
For restaurateurs, there’s no other choice. They have to figure out how to survive. Sometimes, that means sticking together. “My competitors have become my companions,” says Rocco Mangel, whose restaurants include Rocco’s Tacos on Las Olas. “There’s a group of us who all talk on the phone, and we try to figure stuff out together.
“Restaurant people are the most resilient people in the world. You can do anything to us, and we can get through it.”
But the last few months have shaken everybody. Mangel believes his current restaurants can survive. But before the pandemic, he was looking at four new restaurants, three in Florida and one out-of-state; that’s all been put on hold.
“With this thing, it happened so fast that it’s really hard to plan your next move,” Mangel says. “I think that in six months, 80 percent of the restaurants you knew are going to be gone. It’s going to be tough.
Learning To Go
By now, restaurateurs are at least used to being in uncharted waters. In March, nobody knew what to make of anything. Mangel doesn’t mind saying that in the beginning, it was all a bit overwhelming. He’d built up a business around something he genuinely cared about, and now nothing was certain.
“I was in my office crying like you’d see a 7-year-old kid cry,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it; it was like the best party you’ve ever been to and somebody comes in, taps you on the shoulder and says, ‘It’s over, go home.’”
One of the worst days for Rocco’s Tacos was Cinco de Mayo. It’s a big day for a place with “Tacos” in the name, and Mangel’s team was geared up to do big takeout and delivery business. Then at 4:30 pm, their online system crashed. What was supposed to be the big back-in-the-game day ended with Mangel refunding order after order. At that point, almost two months into the shutdown, the cascading chain of events was starting to feel absurd.
“If you told me a UFO landed, dinosaurs came out and they were wearing pink roller skates,” Mangel says, “I would believe you.”
Around Fort Lauderdale, other restaurateurs tried to come to grips with their new reality. Italian chef and restaurateur Angelo Elia has worked in Fort Lauderdale for more than 20 years; his restaurants and cafes include flagship Casa D’Angelo and Angelo Elia the Bakery Bar. “It’s scary,” he says. “I never went through this in my life. I never went through this many nights without sleeping.”
Some of his employees have been with him virtually the whole time he’s been in business. As he shut down all his establishments, he thought about them.
“Most of my employees have worked for me for many, many years so to lay them off, I could never do that,” he says. “I had to find some way to make the payroll.”
So he did what many other restaurateurs did. He started brainstorming other ways to make money. One thing that worked: gift certificates that offered a little something extra. Spend $100, get a $120 certificate. All proceeds from that went to payroll.
“We want to make sure at least they get the money every week, they can survive, and we want to make sure I keep the insurance for everybody,” Elia says. Around this time, he also saw lots of regulars showing up. He saw people buy $3,000, $5,000 in gift certificates, people giving envelopes to members of staff they’d known for years.
“It’s unbelievable, they come in to help,” Elia says. “It’s incredible.
“At this time, we all need help. We all need each other.”
For many places, the new reality meant a crash course in becoming a takeout joint. Mike Herchuck is director of operations for American Social, the popular Las Olas restaurant and bar whose competition, he says, was the likes of Rocco’s Tacos, B Square Burgers and El Camino – Las Olas places that packed out on the weekend. Then came March.
“Overnight, our competition turns into Panera and Chipotle,” he says. “It was a complete business model change overnight. We did not have a solid (takeout and delivery) structure in place; it’s always been something we intended to dive into more, but there have been other priorities.”
It sounds simple, but if your entire menu is geared towards in-house dining, there are suddenly all sorts of new details you have to figure out. How do you package the food? How does it travel? What kind of new stuff needs to be ordered? Normally there’d be plenty of planning that went into a change like that; they did it in days.
“You look at it as a new challenge and something that we got some satisfaction out of being able to change and adapt as fast as we were able to,” Herchuck says.
American Social doesn’t do its own deliveries, and a place right on Las Olas isn’t ideal for picking up takeaway, so they now use all the new app-based delivery companies – despite the fact that they all take a substantial cut of the profits on every meal.
“It takes some slim margins and makes them slimmer,” Herchuck says. “We do see that it is worth the time, and it keeps American Social front of mind when (customers) are thinking of food.”
Murphy, the UCF professor, says when it comes to those companies and the money they take, eventually something will have to give. Restaurants’ profit margins on food are always slim; they can’t afford to lose much more and still make it work. But the new food delivery services demand a big cut – as much as 40 percent, he says. “(Restaurants) didn’t have that kind of margin to begin with. That model there is unsustainable.”
But with so much uncertainty in the immediate future of on-premises dining, delivery and takeout will remain part of the plan for many places.“It wasn’t part of our growth model or of our service model,” Herchuck says. “Now it is.”
No Hugging, Plenty of Learning
But eventually, people want to get back out to favorite spots or to try something new. What’s that like now? People in the restaurant business will tell you – honestly, it’s kind of weird.
“Our business is American Social,” Herchuck says. “We’re about being social. We’re a place where people get together. Social distancing – the whole term completely contradicts everything American Social is about.”
But they’ve tried to adapt. “It’s been a challenge. People guestwise have not always understood the restrictions we take on spacing, or time limits. Sixty people in American Social on Las Olas is really sparse. People look in and they say ‘There’s plenty of room.’”
They used to have more bar seating than table seating. Now nobody’s allowed to sit at the bar.
“There have been challenges with spacing out and getting people to sit, getting people to stay at their seat, which is a requirement,” he says. “That is not natural at American Social. That has been the biggest part. You can put as many signs up as you want, you can brief your guests at the front door that these are the standards we have to follow, but at the end of the day when somebody’s used to being able to sit for three hours, go to the bar and converse with the bartender – knowing what the rules are and knowing why they’re in place has been a challenge. Especially when they’ve had a couple drinks.”
Just down the street at Lobster Bar Sea Grille, the focus is on making patrons feel at ease with the changes.
“Being fine dining, we really want to make sure the guest sees all the things we are doing,” says Niko Karatassos, president of the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, which owns the restaurant. That means hand sanitizer everywhere, wipe-downs to start meals, service staff trained to reapply the hand sanitizer every time they walk to their stations. Silverware rolled into a napkin, then into a paper sleeve.
“The guests that came in initially were the ones that weren’t as fearful of coming to a restaurant,” Karatassos says. “They’re very comfortable at the restaurant. I think as others start to venture out, we want to make sure they too feel comfortable.”
Restaurant recycling bins are also filling up more quickly as single-use items get used more and more.
“We’re doing everything single serving,” says chef Jason Smith of Steak 954 in the oceanfront W Hotel. “All the menus are single use. We have a fork and a spoon in a single-serve bag. We’re also feeding the whole hotel; we’re doing everything to-go for the hotel. There’s no room service at the hotel at the moment.”
Then there’s hotel event catering, where buffets are no longer happening. “It’s going to be a lot more work for us, but we have to keep people safe. That’s our number one goal.”
But then there are the other joys of going out to eat. The personalities. The friendly waiter, the funny bartender, the owner who knows everybody. American Social might have the word in its name, but every restaurant has a social side.
People like having their picture taken with Rocco Mangel. Hey, the place is called Rocco’s Tacos, and he’s Rocco.
“I want to shake your hand, I want you to be able to give me a hug, I want you to be able to take a picture with me,” he says. “I’m not happy wearing a mask; I don’t like going into my restaurants.
“I definitely don’t think you get the same experience from a waiter who’s wearing a mask for eight hours a day.”
Restaurants hire waiters who have personalities, who make people feel at ease and welcomed. Now for health reasons, waiters are being told to keep that personality to themselves.
“We’re encouraging the staff not to talk so much at the table,” Karatassos says. “Obviously if the guest is engaging or starts a conversation that’s fine, but we’re trying to respect the guests’ space and not have a lot of talking.”
It’s a strange new reality, and everybody is doing their best to make it work. Mangel spent much of one recent weekday in phone meetings about COVID best practices and procedures. This is important, and he takes it personally.
“I’ve got some young kids working,” he says. “If my daughter was working for Rocco, I’d want to know what Rocco was doing to protect her. It’s a big big big big deal.”
Meetings about temperature checks or a health app that employees use before coming to work – that’s not why he got into this business. And yet, here we are.
“That’s my day today,” he says. “I want my day to be hey, we ran out of ground beef.”
If the daily tasks are strange, the bigger picture can be daunting.
“My landlords worked with me to the best of their ability,” Mangel says, “but not one landlord in my entire organization came to me and said, ‘Hey, you had no business in April, I’m going to waive that month’s rent.’
“I’m paying rent. It might be a little different the way I’m paying it, but one way or another, people are paying their rent.”
Murphy reckons landlords will play an important role in which restaurants survive. “There’s always going to be those landlords who can afford to take the cut because they realize they would rather get half than nothing,” he says.
Mangel called landlords early on and told them he wanted to stay in touch – he didn’t know how this would work out but he wants to work with them. He thinks his landlords appreciated that.
“I’m getting deals for restaurants right now,” he says. “If I weather this storm I think my reputation or the reputation of my colleagues will supercede and survive. This is where you separate a lot of people. How do you manage your money? How do you take care of your people?”
For Stephen Brown, who’s been working to open Gingers Bar and Grill, the team is lean. A long delay plus trying to keep costs down has meant figuring out how to do a lot of the remodeling work themselves. Sure there are the jobs that you have to bring in an electrician or a plumber for. But jobs that require more elbow grease than expertise – patching holes, say, or building outdoor furniture – they’ve got down to themselves.
“People go in and pay people to do stuff like that,” Brown says. “Well, I can patch a hole in the wall. I can cut wood, I can help build this table.”
Getting the place just the way he wants it has been good, but he’s aiming to open this month.
“It’s getting to the point now,” he says, “where we’re all ready to be done with this and ready to be making money.”