OPEN APP
Home / News / World /  How two restaurants have survived Covid-19. So far.

For Chef Dale Talde, it looked like it was going to be a great year.

Last September, he had opened a fine-dining restaurant, Goosefeather, in New York’s Hudson River Valley, and it was a smash: Fans of Mr. Talde, who rose to fame on “Top Chef," sought out the restaurant for its Hong Kong-inspired fare, signature cocktails and hip ambience. Mr. Talde projected that his sales would rise by $300,000 each month during June, July and August.

“Then March came," he says, “and completely wiped out" those sales.

For restaurants, of course, keeping business going amid closures, lockdowns and ever-changing regulations around Covid-19 has been a titanic struggle. Many have closed, and many others are just trying to hang on, often by rethinking everything they do.

Between March and September of this year, sales at eating and drinking establishments plunged 26.9% to $327.6 billion, compared with $448.1 billion during the same period in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By April, more than 8 million restaurant employees had been laid off or furloughed, according to the National Restaurant Association.

What the industry will look like at the end of the pandemic is anybody’s guess. Some experts have estimated that some 30% of restaurants will close for good; others say closer to 50%.

This is the tale of two restaurants—Goosefeather, and Hangar B in Massachusetts—that hope to be among those survivors. Their experiences over the past eight unprecedented months provide an inside look at what so many restaurants have been through—the financial hits they have taken, the emotional toll on everybody involved and what they are doing to stay in business.

Goosefeather

Fine-dining restaurants have been among those hit the hardest in the pandemic. “Takeout and delivery" was never on their radar screen: Precision-cooked meats and delicate ingredients lose flavor and quality in plastic containers, and high-margin alcohol and dessert sales are largely impossible. “For the sit-down operators," says Alex Susskind, director of the Cornell Institute of Food and Beverage Management, “they’ve had to reimagine everything."

Goosefeather offers a vivid illustration. Mr. Talde, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, helped open famed sushi restaurant Morimoto, where he worked as sous chef before landing on “Top Chef" in 2008. Goosefeather represents the first venture with his wife and business partner, Agnes.

Located on a hill in an 1840s-era mansion in Tarrytown, N.Y., as part of the luxury hotel and event space Tarrytown House Estate, Goosefeather sought to bring urban chic to the countryside with eclectic décor. Boosted by social media, Goosefeather was a hit from the outset.

Diners flocked to the restaurant, with many taking a detour to the bar for a signature cocktail, such as the $18 Interstellar, made with spiced rum and lime, plus framboise, fino sherry and chocolate mint.

Goosefeather’s dishes, averaging about $30 for the family-style entrees, reflected a modern take on traditional Cantonese fare, highlighting dim sum, noodles and Chinese barbecue. Mr. Talde says sales were robust for a startup, with profit margins at about 10%.

By early this year, he says, Goosefeather was turning a profit, and summer looked even better: Every weekend through October was booked with wedding celebrations or rehearsal dinners. These five-figure events are more profitable than straight dinner service, with 20% margins.

Then Covid-19 hit. Mr. Talde faced a tough choice: close down, or switch to takeout and delivery. The task of relaunching such a new venture after the pandemic seemed daunting, so Mr. Talde pivoted to a new way of doing business, even though it would erode his profits.

That meant keeping losses to a minimum. In any restaurant, the largest costs, employee salaries and food, can account for up to 70% of revenue. Mr. Talde cut his staff of 40 down to five.

With only three people in the kitchen, versus the 15 to 18 he previously had, Mr. Talde knew he couldn’t offer everything on the menu. Within a day, he slashed the offerings roughly in half, based on what would travel well in to-go containers. Dry-aged beef pot stickers did OK, but those with black truffles didn’t hold up. And rather than listing two dozen appetizer and entree options, he grouped items into complete meals—in part, a way to streamline the cooking process.

“We wanted to offer a menu that was diverse enough, but it was also about what we could execute," Mr. Talde says.

He didn’t cut prices on the new menu—each meal cost between $70 and $80. “To charge less would go against what we were trying to do," which is to offer high-end take out, he says. “We weren’t the ‘feed the family for $30’ midday pizza break."

In the early days of the pandemic, Mr. Talde himself delivered the meals. After a few weeks, though, Mr. Talde turned to Uber Eats or Grub Hub for deliveries. He absorbed most of the delivery costs, he says.

Luckily, he says, more than 90% of business in March through June involved customers picking up.

Despite this flurry of business, spending outpaced income. Meanwhile, every summer weekend event got canceled. “We absolutely lost an incredible amount of money," he says. The emotions, he says, were like a roller coaster.

In June, New York state allowed restaurants to reopen on a limited basis. Mr. Talde rushed to set up new outdoor seating, and prepped the 50 seats inside that he was allowed to use.

He also needed to beef up his staff, hiring about eight new workers. “Some weeks, you feel good about where everything is," he says. “Then the weather turns, and you’re left wondering if you’re going to make it through this."

Mr. Talde figures he spent about $20,000 on Goosefeather’s reopening. Half that sum went toward “an insane amount of gloves" and cleaning supplies, including special sanitizers. Servers must wear both masks and gloves, and sanitize tables, and employees and guests alike get their temperature checked before they can enter. Between costs for PPE, staff training and extra equipment needed to operate outdoors, Mr. Talde estimates his losses since the pandemic started are in the low six figures.

Very little was as Mr. Talde had envisioned. Goosefeather went from offering intimate indoor seating in four dining rooms, each at about 600 square feet, to a sprawling lawn space, at 8,000 square feet, roughly the size of three tennis courts. “What we do in the restaurant business is we build a vibe, an atmosphere," Mr. Talde says. Outside, “there’s very little energy."

Nearly every aspect of running a restaurant—from food service to cleaning—had an added layer of complexity. Given the distance from the kitchen to the tables, it takes “four times as long," Mr. Talde says, for diners to receive their meals at the tables closest to the kitchen; double that for the tables farthest away.

Properly sanitized tables require 10 minutes of drying time before clean tablecloths can be laid. Mr. Talde estimates that tables sit empty for at least 20 minutes between guests, versus perhaps 30 seconds or a minute pre-Covid.

Despite the tumultuous days, Mr. Talde says things are beginning to look up. Sales climbed throughout the summer and have continued upward in the fall, he says. Outdoor events, such as wine tastings on the estate lawns, have proved successful. And some of those who had reserved weekend dates for wedding celebrations are coming back, albeit with smaller parties.

Now Mr. Talde has spent another $10,000 purchasing heat lamps and setting up tables under a heated tent. He will strategically place wood-burning fire pits for cooking dishes tableside as the weather cools.

Even though he is beginning to see the pendulum swing back in the right direction, he says he remains cautious, as he is “not sure what the cold weather will bring."

Hangar B

Hangar B, a restaurant in Cape Cod, Mass., depends on spring-break and summer vacationers to drive business. Needless to say, the pandemic has been pretty devastating.

Owner Tracy Shields spent a decade working front-of-house jobs—as a server or hostess—before starting Hangar B with her then-husband in 2010. Located on the second floor of the wood-shingled Chatham, Mass., municipal airport, the restaurant grew in popularity thanks to meals like the $12 Pilot’s Breakfast—two eggs, fried red potatoes and bacon or sausage. In the boisterous, family-friendly atmosphere, staff members greeted regulars with bear hugs; children watched airplanes take off and land through picture windows.

Ms. Shields says she committed to paying her year-round kitchen staff higher wages (now averaging $22 per hour) than many area restaurants. She also uses ingredients that are as local as possible. For these reasons, she says “my pricing isn’t considered super-affordable."

Hangar B became so popular that the restaurant began selling merchandise emblazoned with Hangar B’s logo. In 2019, that brought in about $63,000, roughly 10% of total sales. For the past decade, revenue has been fairly steady at just under $700,000, she says, with earnings between $20,000 and $70,000.

In early March, as the coronavirus struck and showed no signs of subsiding, Ms. Shields faced a sobering prospect—losing business during her peak season. Though Hangar B is open all year, nearly half of its revenue and all of its income come during the summer tourist months.

Ms. Shields’s reserves began to run dry—then, just in time, Massachusetts announced that takeout restaurants could remain open. Ms. Shields decided to box up meals instead of shuttling them to tables.

But this new approach presented challenges. As diners ordered only online, there were no opportunities for servers to boost sales by suggesting high-margin items. And as sales sagged, she wasn’t bringing in enough cash to pay her staff.

At that point she had only one employee, the chef. As he prepared meals, Ms. Shields washed pots and pans and, with the help of volunteers, ran food for curbside deliveries.

Some menu items had to change. “One of our typical higher-priced bestsellers, eggs Benedict, I simply refuse to offer as takeout," she says. “Poached eggs and hollandaise do not travel well in boxes." Instead, she has transformed Hangar B’s Crab Benedict into a Crab Cake Breakfast Sandwich; listed menu price is $20, and she nets about $2.70 per sandwich.

Paycheck Protection Program money came through at the end of April to put toward salaries, and Ms. Shields capped her own pay, usually $52,000 a year, at $14,000. By now, though, her cash cushion was gone. She began charging her credit card for food purchases and packaging.

In anticipation of opening, Ms. Shields used a loan from the Small Business Administration for an outdoor-dining setup and other goods. When the loan money ran out, she once again put charges on her credit card, amounting to about $30,000.

In late June, restaurants were officially allowed to begin reopening. A larger SBA loan—for $62,200—helped her pay back some vendors and her credit card, and add a position for another full-time server, upping her employees to nine.

But the new outdoor arrangements brought frustration. On a typical busy day pre-Covid, Ms. Shields could serve up to 300 people in her dining room, turning some tables as many as 10 times. Because of Covid restrictions, she was limited to seating only 40 people at any one time, all outside. What’s more, turn times were much slower, given the time it takes to sanitize a table and seats, as well as to travel up and down the stairs from the kitchen.

And her servers had it rough. Tips were way down, and she boosted their salaries to compensate. Other times, she de-escalated situations between servers and customers who didn’t want to wear masks.

Then, in mid-July, disaster struck: Stories began spreading that restaurant workers in the area may have become infected. Although nobody at Hangar B had tested positive, Ms. Shields closed the dining area for two weeks out of caution.

The reputational hit only added to the financial damage from Covid. For the year through September, Ms. Shields brought in about $384,000 in sales—a 29% drop from the same period last year. By the end of September, her net loss for the year was $81,790.

Normally, Ms. Shields says, she would “have a pile of $60,000 or $70,000 in cash going into winter." Instead, she has loans to repay and doesn’t know how she’ll do it.

Looking ahead, Ms. Shields says she is “very concerned" about the cooler months. The fall, she says, is a time when Hangar B typically gets residual business" from weddings or corporate events at area hotels. “We get the spillover business, like the breakfasts the next day," she says. “None of that stuff is happening now, and that makes me nervous."

In addition, she says that Cape traffic has slowed dramatically, citing restaurants and hotels closing earlier this year for winter than they otherwise would. “I, like everyone else, am bracing for what is to come with the onset of flu season and potential additional restrictions," she says.

But Ms. Shields says Hangar B will remain open, offering takeout with online ordering, with the bet that she may be able to boost numbers a bit by being one of few restaurants open in the area. She has had to lay off employees or reduce their hours to cut overhead costs. But she is working to get donations so that she can prepare free Thanksgiving meals for area families. “Like everyone else," she says, she is “hoping for the best but preparing for the worst."

Still, she doesn’t regret the decision to stay open: She believes that had she closed, it would have had a negative impact on the overall community’s ability to do business. And perhaps more important, she is motivated by providing for her son, Booker—the B in Hangar B. “I want to show him that you don’t just give up because it gets hard," she says.

Ms. Kitchens is a writer in Connecticut. Email her at reports@wsj.com.

Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Never miss a story! Stay connected and informed with Mint. Download our App Now!!

Close
×
Edit Profile
Get alerts on WhatsApp
My ReadsRedeem a Gift CardLogout