‘It’s like opening a restaurant all over again.’ Baltimore eateries push on despite reduced business amid coronavirus pandemic

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A pasta dish from Amicci’s restaurant in Little Italy. Photo courtesy of Amicci’s Instagram.

After Gov. Larry Hogan ordered all bars and restaurants in Maryland to close March 16 to limit the spread of the coronavirus, allowing only carryout and delivery services to continue, Baltimore eateries have had to figure out how to do business during the pandemic.

Terrence Dickson, owner of the Terra Cafe in Charles Village, saw an opportunity to spread joy and promote his restaurant at the same time.

The Thursday after Hogan’s order went into place, Dickson pulled on a tie-dye hoodie, an afro wig, and a pair of pink lensless glasses to sing along to some funky tunes like The Commodores’ “Brick House” and Brick’s “Ain’t Gonna Hurt Nobody” while grilling chicken in front of his cafe at the corner of St. Paul and East 25th streets.

“I really can’t sing, not even in the shower,” Dickson said of the performance, which he livestreamed on Facebook. “But I didn’t want to sound good. What I wanted to do was put smiles on some people’s faces. I wanted to let people know that we’re still standing. And in the midst of it all, we can love and we can laugh.”

With Baltimore restaurants and bars shifting to carryout- and delivery-only models, sales have sunk and owners have had to lay off employees, cut back hours for remaining staff, and get creative with ways to encourage customers to continue supporting their businesses.

Terra Cafe owner Terrence Dickson dons an afro wig and a tie-dye hoodie to sing along to some funky tunes outside of his restaurant in Charles Village. Photo courtesy of Terra Cafe’s Facebook.

Dickson said he has tried to keep his spirits high, but he also acknowledged that the pandemic has hit his restaurant hard.

Terra Cafe’s sales are down about 80-85 percent. A typical Wednesday for the restaurant can bring in about $1,800 to $2,000, but last Wednesday they only made $310, Dickson said.

Business was spotty during the winter holiday season, Dickson said, and the restaurant was relying on sales to pick up again come springtime.

But with the arrival of the coronavirus and subsequent business closures and layoffs, he said most people are using whatever income they do have to stock their homes with essential items, leaving little to spend on carryout or delivery from restaurants.

“Everybody went out and bought up all the toilet paper and all the Oodles of Noodles,” he said. “They don’t have no money left for fish subs and jerk chicken.”

Dickson’s story of decreased sales rings true for many other Baltimore restaurants and eateries across Maryland that are trying to operate in the midst of the pandemic.

Scott Panian, owner of Amicci’s in Little Italy, said his carryout sales have increased compared to usual, but the boost has not been nearly enough to match what the restaurant would be bringing in with its 300-person dining room.

“I pay my bills with big weekends, doing 600 dinners on a weekend, so that’s gone … I can’t do on a Saturday in carryout what I would do in my restaurant,” he said, noting Amicci’s sales are down about 60 percent.

Marcella Knight, owner of Koco’s Pub in Lauraville, said her restaurant’s sales are also down about 60 percent.

At Snake Hill Tavern in Highlandtown, owner Randy Coffren said sales are down about 40 percent, “which isn’t so bad,” he said.

With restrictions on dining-in, owners have had to lay off staff or adjust their hours to meet the lower demand for labor.

Coffren said the restaurant has fewer dishes to clean, so he had to cut his nighttime dishwashers and have the cooks take care of any dishes instead. He also assigned his bartenders to answer phones and enter orders.

Customers who are getting carryout are “tipping like crazy,” Coffren said, but he has also been providing shift pay in case the restaurant has a slow day or people don’t tip well.

The tavern is also not buying as much food as usual and has virtually stopped buying beer, wine and liquor altogether. For the time being, the restaurant is just trying to deplete the stocks it already has, Coffren said.

Knight said she hasn’t had to cut any of her 19 employees at Koco’s, though all of them have had to cut back on their shifts.

Dickson has reduced his workers’ schedules from five or six days per week before the pandemic to just two days per week now.

Meanwhile, Panian has had to cut nearly all of his 27 employees as he runs Amicci’s with his sisters, three kitchen workers and one front-of-house staff member.

Without his normal staff, Panian said he has had to take on jobs he wouldn’t regularly do like delivering food and “getting on my hands and knees to clean.”

“I feel like I’m given an honest day’s work,” he said.

Snake Hill Tavern advertises one of their signature sausages. Photo courtesy of Snake Hill Tavern’s Instagram.

Events have been canceled due to limitations on crowd sizes, non-essential businesses have been ordered to close and residents have been ordered to stay at home except for essential trips to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

And although restaurants and bars are included under essential services, so long as they only provide carryout or delivery, many of these establishments are not seeing the foot traffic they would without such restrictions in place.

In turn, the pandemic has forced restaurants that have been in business for several years–or even decades–to promote themselves more on social media, including with deals and specials, to connect with customers that might not otherwise think to order food from them.

As the Snake Hill Tavern tries to drum up business during the pandemic, Coffren said it’s like they’ve been sent back to when they first opened and nobody knew their name.

“It’s a weird time,” he said. “It’s like opening a restaurant all over again.”

Under normal circumstances, Dickson said Terra Cafe thrives on the person-to-person interactions he and his staff provide while preparing customers’ food.

“When you come in our place and you meet me, I can show you the love and the energy that goes in here,” he said.

But with customers unable to stay and chat due, Dickson has had to translate that personability through social media to keep people buying his food.

For Dickson, promoting his business means thinking outside of the box with attention-getting marketing like his ’70s-themed sidewalk karaoke or tying specials and deals into food-related holidays like National Cheesesteak Day last Tuesday.

Panian said that he, too, has been advertising his restaurant on social media with 2-for-1 deals and other specials. But because Panian has set a $50 minimum on delivery orders to make the trip worthwhile, he said he hasn’t been doing more than three or four deliveries per day.

Instead, most customers have been coming in to pick up their orders themselves.

Knight said Koco’s Pub has kept its prices pretty much as is to make every penny count, but they have been running a different special each day. For example, they offered $2 off their crab cakes last Monday, and they took 10 percent off every bill for Great American Takeout Day last Tuesday.

Koco’s is doing carryout only, not delivery, but staff can bring food out to customers if they prefer to pick up their order curbside.

In order to comply with the 10 person maximum on gatherings, the pub is encouraging customers to call in orders rather than ordering in person so they don’t have to wait around for their food, Knight said.

Chicken cooks on the grill at Terra Cafe. Photo courtesy of Terra Cafe’s Instagram.

Amid the pandemic, community members have looked for their own ways to support Baltimore bars, restaurants and other businesses.

Coffren said he and his girlfriend have been trying to buy at least one meal per day from a carryout restaurant to help support fellow Baltimore business owners.

He also said various suppliers the tavern does business with have been spending hundreds of dollars to open tabs at the restaurant to feed healthcare professionals and out-of-work food service industry members. He said that can be a good way for companies to simultaneously support small businesses and community members.

“That way it’s helping the restaurants and it’s helping feed people,” he said.

One of Koco’s Pub’s crab cakes. Photo courtesy of Koco’s Pub website.

For many Baltimore restaurateurs, the pandemic paints a picture of uncertainty. However, some maintain high hopes for the future of their businesses–or at least a path forward for their eateries to survive.

Panian said he doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him or his restaurant; just continue supporting Amicci’s by buying their food, he said.

“I don’t want anyone to hold a pity party for us,” he said. “We chose this business and I don’t feel like a victim.”

Panian said Amicci’s has weathered many a challenge, including the economic crash of 2008, and he remains confident that the restaurant will survive this pandemic.

“It’s just weird and I don’t know what’s going to come out of the other side, what the restaurant business is going to look like,” he said. “It may change a lot but somehow I’m going to adapt and be one of them.”

Snake Hill Tavern could sustain themselves for four to six more weeks, Coffren said. After that, he isn’t sure.

“I try not to think about it,” he said.

“I think the uncertainty is the scariest part,” he added. “We can weather the storm just being carryout for a little while. But if this gets to the two-month mark, I’m not sure how many people can be able to withstand losing 40 percent of sales.”

Knight said Koco’s Pub could maintain their current conditions for a few months. But if business doesn’t improve in that time, she said they would have to look at making cuts.

“We could scale down even further but we really don’t want to have to lay anybody off. That’s what we’re trying to avoid,” she said.

Dickson is just taking things week by week.

“If I don’t bang it out this week and I’ve got to run payroll again next week out of the little bit of money we put down, it’s going to be a serious conversation of whether or not we open these doors back up again,” he said.

But even if Terra Cafe has to temporarily close, Dickson said he would hope to reopen after the pandemic has subsided.

“We ain’t going down,” he said.

Once Maryland has overcome the pandemic, Dickson suggested that governments, companies and other organizations use more small restaurants to cater their events to help those businesses get back on their feet.

“We’re the ones that really make the city turn, man,” he said.

Marcus Dieterle

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