On March 19, Bodo’s Bagels opened a drive-through. A first for the restaurant, the drive-through required a complete overhaul of Bodo’s signature service system. The result was a contact-free way for Bodo’s legion of regulars to get their bagel fix without compromising public health. Half a year into a pandemic, Bodo’s has served hundreds of thousands of bagels, and not a single employee has tested positive for COVID-19.
Bodo’s drive-through is just one of many extraordinary efforts of Charlottesville restaurants in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. After pausing briefly in March, restaurants sprung into action. The ingenuity and innovation evoke awe.
- The team behind Bizou, Bang!, and Luce built an outdoor restaurant in a parking lot, and another outdoor restaurant at a vineyard’s tasting room.
- Petit Pois owner Brian Helleberg started a CSA grocery service to keep his promise to farmers that the pandemic would not slow his purchases from them. Restaurants like Quality Pie and Orzo did the same.
- The Catering Outfit built its own drive-through restaurant, as well as a food pantry for restaurant workers.
- At Ivy Inn, twenty years after the Vangelopoulos family bought the restaurant, they offered takeout for the first time, including weekly family-style meals. Restaurants like Beer Run, Conmole, Feast!, MAS, The Whiskey Jar, and Zocalo likewise created takeout family meals, hundreds of which Charlottesville families have enjoyed during the pandemic.
- Restaurants that do not typically deliver, like Tavola and Chimm, arranged regular neighborhood drop-offs throughout the area, easing restaurant dining at home. The Local even launched its own delivery service.
- With a decimated events schedule, Pippin Hill for the first time opened dinner service to the public, Evenings on the Hill.
- As food insecurity spiked, Keevil & Keevil built a new model in which its food sales help pay for free meals that Keevil & Keevil provides to those in need.
- Lampo, long known for its “no-takeout” policy, reversed to “takeout-only,” designing and implementing an immaculate process, and even building a new takeout-only restaurant.
- Similarly, restaurants like Al Carbon, Brasserie Saison, C&O, Champion Grill, Hamiltons’, Iron Paffles, Little Star, MarieBette, Milan, Oakhart Social, Pearl Island, Revolutionary Soup, Royalty Eats, TEN, and more created new online menus for contactless ordering and payment.
“These are unprecedented times,” said Al Carbon’s Myriam Hernandez. “As an industry, we have been forced to evolve and experiment with new approaches, making mistakes, learning and hoping they work out for the safety of our community.”
For diners, the rewards have been immeasurable. In lives darkened by a pandemic, restaurants have brought light. Delicious escapes and interludes.
Staff have benefited, too. At Bodo’s, business has been so good that the restaurant is now fully staffed and has even hired back former employees who lost jobs elsewhere due to the pandemic. The core team behind Bang!, Bizou, and Luce is likewise intact. “We’ve created a family,” said co-owner Tim Burgess. “Our job is to keep the family thriving.”
What gave life to this burst of creativity from Charlottesville restaurateurs? The same thing that brought them to the industry in the first place: a passion to serve.
“I like to lift people up, make them happier. It’s a passion,” said Wilson Richey, whose Ten Course Hospitality manages several local restaurants. “It’s so rewarding to see a smile,” said Hernandez. The Local’s Melissa Close-Hart agrees. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” she said.
Amidst all the havoc COVID-19 has wreaked, it could not snuff out the passion that drives Charlottesville restaurants. “Shutting down never seemed a viable choice,” said Bodo’s owner Scott Smith. When a pandemic blocked the usual outlet for restaurateurs’ passion to serve, they just built other outlets.
Winter is Coming
Despite restaurants’ creativity, many are still struggling, with some reporting a 60-70% drop in revenues. In an industry with margins as thin as restaurants’, this is not sustainable.
Worse, winter is coming. Having scraped by for a half year on loans, takeout business, and patio service, restaurants now brace for months of cold weather. “Winter will be a true test,” said Close-Hart. An annual slow period in normal conditions, winter in a pandemic could cause a rash of permanent closures — a fate that has already befallen such icons as Bashir’s, Bluegrass Grill & Bakery, BreadWorks, and Downtown Grill.
“Bleak,” one owner described the outlook. “Uncertain,” said another. “Winter is going to be very hard,” said Richey. “A good handful of places will not survive.” Indeed, the coming chill leaves some restaurateurs stuck between survival and public health. “I will be forced to open indoors to survive, but would prefer not to for staff safety,” said one owner.
On the other side of winter, what will the Charlottesville restaurant scene look like? “There are so many restaurants in this storm that many of us are bound to sink,” said Blue Moon Diner’s Laura Galgano. Come April, will your favorites be gone?
How to Save Charlottesville Restaurants: Culture of Takeout II
Not if diners take action now. When the pandemic hit in March, Charlottesville embraced a Culture of Takeout — a way to help restaurants survive while bringing bright spots into our lives of seclusion. Maya’s Christian Kelly recalls that the pandemic seemed to illuminate the importance and culture of Charlottesville’s restaurants, and, as a result, diners stepped up to put their money where their mouth is. Zocalo’s Ivan Rekosh agrees. “When this all started, the culture of takeout was strong,” said Rekosh.
Over the time, though, business lagged. “It has waned a lot,” said Rekosh, “and it is getting harder for restaurants that choose not to open indoors for safety to compete.”
To survive the winter, then, Charlottesville restaurants will need a reboot of what helped them through the year: a Culture of Takeout. Adopting a habit of brightening your day with a restaurant meal could make all the difference for restaurants’ survival. “An extra trip for curbside pickup,” said Burgess, “could save a place.”
Through their remarkable ingenuity, Charlottesville restaurants have shown how desperately they want to serve us. Now, it is up to us to give them that chance.