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The owner of Chef Oya’s The Trap talks about what it takes for restaurants to pivot and adjust in order to survive during the coronavirus pandemic.

Indianapolis Star

Kelly Anderson admits to stalking Tinker Street restaurant.

The small, popular Herron-Morton spot has been dark since early June, when owner Tom Main made an emotional post on Facebook explaining that an attempt at reopening as a carryout restaurant wasn’t feasible and he’d be back in August.

Since then, Anderson has watched the restaurant’s Facebook page, awaiting word of its return, and her chance to get back to dinners and complimentary shots of sparkling wine.

“There wasn’t a bad meal there, no matter what we had,” she said. “Any meal we had  was always amazing, from the appetizer through the entree and dessert.”

Anderson doesn’t want her favorite to be among those announcing permanent closures.

Six months after the governor closed restaurants and bars to dine-in service on March 16, Indianapolis restaurants continue to fall, from the Indianapolis location of Tried & True Alehouse to the century-old John’s Famous Stew.

The beginning of September saw downtown lose three popular restaurants in a single day when Black Market, Rook and Dick’s Bodacious Bar-B-Q all permanently closed.

Chains have been impacted as well — all of the Stacked Pickle sports bars and Ponderosa’s lone Indianapolis location are among those that failed to reopen since the March order — but it’s independent restaurants that are forecast to the bear the brunt of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 shutdowns.

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Customers sit in an enclosed seating area and are required to wear a mask upon entering the restaurant at Festiva off of East 16th Street in Indianapolis, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. Restaurants had to adapt to the takeout business during the pandemic. (Photo: Grace Hollars/IndyStar)

Preliminary reports indicate 15,000 to 20,000 restaurants have closed permanently since the start of the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association; and the Independent Restaurant Coalition says that as many as 85% of independent restaurants across the nation could permanently close by the end of the year.

Indiana is one of two states that actually saw an increase in employment in restaurants from February through July, according to the National Restaurant Association. It’s a small increase — 1% — but still significant in a climate that has the country down about 2.5 million restaurant jobs from before the pandemic. However, the Indiana Department of Workforce Development has the state at a slight loss for jobs at restaurant and other eating places, 0.17 percent in July, but that’s compared to July 2019.

That tracks with what’s happening at Turchetti’s Salumeria.

The Fountain Square butcher shop and grocery store saw sales increase 400% at the beginning of the pandemic, said co-owner George Turkette. They’ve since declined but are still up 200% from last year, and overall sales for the company are up 3%.

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George Turkette, the butcher, chef and co-founder behind Turchetti’s Salumeria in Fountain Square, poses for a portrait in the butcher shop and marketplace on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. (Photo: Jenna Watson/IndyStar)

The shop bought a delivery van to get groceries and hot foods to 47 ZIP codes. It also hired an employee.

Turkette said a $100,000 federal payroll loan and a Small Business Administration loan helped.

“That’s the only reason we have made any money this year,” he said. “That and the fact that we have a butcher shop and a grocery, which is obviously way more essential than a restaurant.” 

“I think if we didn’t have that butcher shop and grocery, we would have been toast a while ago.”

They might not have butcher shops, but restaurants across Indianapolis have adopted tactics to continue to serve customers during the pandemic, from the types of foods offered to how they’re delivered, that are likely to stick around permanently.

Experimenting with menu changes

Oakleys Bistro, 1464 W. 86th St., got creative with its offerings.

Regulars can still get bacon-wrapped apricots and a duck entree from the main menu. But it’s the daily takeout specials that have garnered new interest — the fried chicken and taco nights and the TV dinners with Salisbury steak and creamed spinach and peach cobbler served on tin trays.

“We’ve had fun with it,” said chef/owner Steven Oakley. “It’s allowed us to cook different things than what we normally wouldn’t on a daily basis.”

Each day offers several takeout options that might include jambalaya, crab cakes, fried chicken or prime rib, and Oakley digs in the proverbial food recipe crates for the likes of cabbage rolls, duck a l’orange and chicken velvet soup.

“We were thinking of old comforting classic things and making them popular again,” Oakley said. “I think we’ve hit every corner of the world as far as food goes, from the ’70s through the ’90s.”

Adding new products

Chef Oya Woodruff kept her Chef Oya’s The Trap takeout seafood restaurant closed to customers for nine weeks, cautious about the health of her family and staff.

“We have a very small, tight-knit crew. When one of us is gone, it’s OK. We can manage. But if two of us are gone, it’s almost impossible to keep the business running the way that we have to,” she said.

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[email protected] or 317-444-6264. Follow her on Twitter: @cherylvjackson.

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