It could be a long time before your neighborhood restaurant looks like it did before the pandemic. USA TODAY
Herve Mahe is chef/owner at one of Burlington’s most elegant restaurants, Bistro de Margot. His white-tablecloth establishment offers such classy dishes as duck-leg confit, chilled salmon fillet and Alsatian onion tart.
Mahe trained at culinary school in France and has worked with chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris and London. In recent weeks, though, Mahe has trained himself on the fly to package heat-at-home takeout meals.
He deftly places his delicate quiches in boxes. He fills miniature jars with cocktails, chocolate mousse and lemon tarts. With his waitstaff out of work, Mahe greets customers pulling up in front of his College Street restaurant himself and places their orders in their cars.
All of these changes took place after Gov. Phil Scott ordered restaurants to close to dine-in customers March 17 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was honestly reopening a brand-new restaurant,” Mahe said, “except we had two days to do it.”
Vermont restaurant owners pivoted quickly to provide customers a hint of normalcy in an abnormal time. Takeout meals are a thin lifeline for restaurants unsure if they’ll be there to greet in-house customers once the pandemic subsides.
“It’s keeping some employees employed, which is really the only goal. It’s not viable long term,” said Jed Davis, owner of The Farmhouse Group. “Restaurants need to reopen soon.”
Vermont restaurants in jeopardy
The Farmhouse Group runs the Farmhouse Tap & Grill and Pascolo Ristorante in Burlington and Guild Tavern in South Burlington, and El Cortijo Taqueria y Cantina in Burlington and Winooski. Only El Cortijo, with takeout-friendly menus, is serving meals now. Davis also oversees the Bliss Bee restaurants offering takeout in Williston and South Burlington.
Before the pandemic, Davis employed about 230 people. Now, that’s down to about 25. Federal financial aid isn’t enough to help restaurants, according to Davis. He said Scott and the Vermont Legislature are listening to restaurant owners, and he supports Scott’s response to the pandemic.
“I know they are fully aware of how dire the situation is for our industry,” Davis said.
The Vermont Restaurant Coalition created a petition asking for relief funding. The petition cites reports that show restaurants have a 30% chance of surviving if the crisis lasts four months, and two-thirds are uncertain whether takeout can sustain their businesses until they fully reopen.
Few Vermont restaurants have announced permanent closures since the shutdown. That doesn’t mean some haven’t reached the end of the line.
“I think that’s already happened,” Davis said. “I believe there are several restaurants in the state that have simply run out of cash.”
Church Street restaurants pivot quickly
The flexibility shown by restaurants has impressed the new executive director of the pedestrianized Church Street Marketplace, which oversees more than 40 eateries and nearly 100 retail spaces in Burlington.
“I have watched them work themselves to the bone to try and pivot their businesses as quickly as possible to accommodate what we call the new normal,” Kara Alnasrawi said. She said she has seen restaurant owners work night and day to crunch numbers to figure out how to remain in business while offering takeout food.
“If you can get a little trickle of income so you can cover your bills in the hope that the economy can recover, that is the goal,” Alnasrawi said.
Mahe has debts to pay on 5-year-old Bistro de Margot, so shutting down his 80-seat restaurant wasn’t an option. His 14-member staff is down to two full-time people, including himself and one part-timer.
The first week of takeout at Bistro de Margot saw a roughly 65% drop in sales from a year ago. That has improved to a 50% drop.
“The clientele has been following us. We have a lot of regulars and a lot of people who never came here before who always wanted to try us out,” he said. “I’m not worrying about it for now. I’m worrying about it for September, October, November.”
Mahe might keep some takeout menu items post-pandemic, not something he offered previously. Davis already has a sense of what will carry over from now until the time he hopes to reopen his Farmhouse Group restaurants fully again.
“We hear daily from employees that want to come back to work, and we’re just very proud of the employees that are working right now, the job they are doing in a difficult time,” Davis said. “I think employers gain a deeper appreciation for their employees and employees gain a deeper appreciation for their employers, and that’s going to last.”
Contact Brent Hallenbeck at 660-1844 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Brent on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BrentHallenbeck.
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