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.
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.
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%.
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.
That didn’t mean business stopped.
Folks had lined up for the seafood boils seasoned with her Trap Buttah sauce. Because The Trap wasn’t open, they turned the internet to buy the sauce, sending sales up 400%, Woodruff said.
The demand led the crew back to the restaurant, but with a dedicated day to produce sauces.
Even with one less day, food service sales remained level.
But Woodruff expanded sauce selections, including a sweet option for dessert, and added an advance-ordered, cook-at-home meal kit for pickup on Sundays.
“We almost didn’t miss a beat.” she said. “The restaurant business is a really hard business to get into and a really hard business to stay in. You’ve got to rise above. You’ve got to be able to redirect.”
Shifting to outdoor dining
With many diners limiting outings to restaurants with outdoor seating, Festiva rushed to buy picnic tables to augment its all-season patio.
Considering the safety of staff and customers, the Mexican restaurant never resumed inside seating. Folks don’t seem interested in coming inside the small space, which seats about 30 — 10 with social distancing — anyway, owner George Munoz said.
At least 50% of those making reservations request outdoor seating.
“Right now, as long as we can sit outside, we aren’t going to sit anyone inside,” Munoz said. “When things change weatherwise, we’re going to have to reevaluate.”
With sales down 40% from last year, he bought patio heaters to extend the time frame for picnic table dining.
“As soon as you don’t have that, I’ll lose 50% of my business. If I don’t have that it’s going to be really hard to weather the storm,” he said. “It’s going to be tough for everybody. There are a lot of people that don’t want to go out and eat.”
Offering curbside and carryout services
Oakleys Bistro also invested in systems to help it gravitate to the curbside service that it will continue to offer.
“We have a lot of customers that really like that. There are some older clients who are being really cautious, and they will continue to be,” Oakley said.
“Our job is to provide food however I can give it to them, whether curbside or carryout. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Owner of Festiva George Munoz poses for a photo 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)
Sales at Festiva are down 40% now compared to last year, but owner Munoz said the restaurant wouldn’t have the sales it has without carryout.
Like many restaurants, Festiva adopted an online ordering system at the start of the pandemic.
Those orders now account for 15% to 20% of sales. Festiva gets $200 to $400 in carryout orders each day, compared to about one order a day before the coronavirus.
“The one thing that’s keeping us going is takeout,” Munoz said.
Keeping your distance
Turchetti’s Salumeria has closed to customers since March 15.
Customers can go online to order meats and watch them be cut from a window, a bit of theater, Turkette said.
Those ordering hot food can get it via delivery or curbside pickup. But they don’t enter the shop.
“We’re still not allowing diners inside. And me and my wife have no plans letting anybody inside, really, for the rest of the year.” Turkette said.
The team is considering changes that would address some issues it sees as oppressive to food-service workers.
“We want to eliminate tipped employees and pay everybody a base rate. We are considering eliminating tipping altogether and charging a service charge — a flat percentage for every guest,” Turkette said. “That way we can offer our employees livable wages and maybe even one day offer health care.”
“We honestly don’t really have a plan on reopening to the public (as) a restaurant until we can figure out what that change looks like, and that has led us to consider to expand our grocery and market over into our restaurant,” Turkette said. “It’s possible we may never bring that back. Who knows?”
“COVID leaves us with so much uncertainty. We’re taking it week by week.”
Restaurants still need customer support
Support for restaurants at the beginning of the March shutdown spiked, with diners generously tipping servers and regulars contributing to fundraisers.
“The tips the community gave my baristas astounded me,” said Kimmie Burton, operating manager at Foundry Provision coffeeshop, 236 E. 16th St. “I’m just so grateful for loyal, supportive customers of means who are able to still support my employees.”
Even before the shutdown, restaurants typically ran on a 5% to 6% profit margin and had cash on hand to operate for only 16 days, according to the National Restaurant Association, so the continued business is even more crucial now, owners said.
“If consumers don’t patronize their favorite restaurant, (it) is not going to exist in a couple of months,” said Mike Whatley, the assocation’s vice president for state and local affairs. “When they have a great meal at that restaurant, share it with friends and share it on social media. Let people know about it.”
“Word of mouth is really important in general for restaurants, but now more than ever.”
Contact IndyStar reporter Cheryl V. Jackson at [email protected] or 317-444-6264. Follow her on Twitter: @cherylvjackson.
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