It’s been two weeks since Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered restaurants to close to dine-in customers. She left the door open for them to continue take-out and delivery operations and has since deemed restaurants essential businesses. Instagram was awash with pictures of tacos, steak frites, and gourmet pasta presented as attractively as possible in plastic containers.
But as the days went by, some restaurants discovered the to-go business wasn’t the life raft they thought it was. Rooster & Owl, Tonari, The Green Zone, The Royal, and Tyber Creek all surrendered and fully closed within the past couple of days, hoping to reopen when the time comes. The reasons why they stopped are as varied as the cuisines they serve.
When City Paper last checked in with Rooster & Owl on March 23, the 14th Street NW restaurant was selling out of its to-go tasting menus nightly and had no intention of letting up. Their supply chain became the tipping point. “Our suppliers were so deeply impacted,” co-owner Carey Tang says. “Their businesses were hit so hard. They were trying their best to keep up, but it wasn’t sustainable for them.” Rooster & Owl buys its produce and proteins from small, local companies wasn’t willing to compromise by buying products of lesser quality.
Restaurants that had robust take-away business before the COVID-19 public health crisis were in better shape to pivot to a new operational model. Rooster & Owl wasn’t one of them. “We were so blown away by community support and continued to sell out every day, but the amount of work to keep up with the demand was so intense and the margins weren’t sustainable,” Tang says.
March 28 was the restaurant’s last day in business for the foreseeable future. Now Tang and her husband and business partner, Yuan Tang, get to spend time with their toddler. Family time, which is rare for hospitality industry workers, is the only positive to come out of this crisis, according to Carey Tang.
Tonari, the Japanese-style pasta and pizza restaurant from the Daikaya Group, shut down their to-go operations for different quality control reasons. Because the restaurant only opened in February, co-owner Daisuke Utagawa doesn’t want diners’ first impression of the new-to-D.C. cuisine to come in a take-out box. His team felt similarly when they opened their first ramen shop back in 2013.
“We were the first Sapporo ramen in D.C. and people didn’t know what ramen was other than the packaged stuff,” he says. “We made it our mission to introduce Japanese ramen to the market. Part of our mission was education and the right experience was important.” Daikaya resisted offering ramen to-go until they felt the District had a good idea of the experience and didn’t launch to-go service until Bantam King opened in 2016.
“With Tonari, wafu pasta and pizza is completely new to the market,” Utagawa says. “We never gave people time to understand it in it’s true form. We look at Tonari as a whole experience with the decor, the music, the wine, the cocktails, the appetizers, and freshly made pizza and pasta.”
The group felt comfortable closing down its newest addition since they have other restaurants that are still doing take-out and delivery. But, Utagawa emphasizes, everything is fluid: “Every day we’re getting new news—we can only share what’s going through our minds right now.”
Middle Eastern cocktail bar The Green Zone had one of the shortest attempts at offering to-go and delivery: six days. The D.C. Council passed legislation on March 17 that allows bars to sell cocktails, beer, and wine to-go, so long as each order also includes a food item. For The Green Zone that meant flatbread and dips. With the uneven drink sales and low-margin food items, owner Chris Francke says he couldn’t make the numbers work. “We had one really good day,” he says. “The best we did was on Friday night. That was the equivalent of a Wednesday night for us.”
Francke was most concerned about his staff. He wanted to stay open in Adams Morgan to give them some hours, but when he found out there was relief on the way from local and federal governments, he made the decision to close for their safety.
“By the weekend the CARES Act had passed,” Francke says, referring to the $2 trillion stimulus bill from Congress. It offers loans that can be converted into grants for small business owners who use them to keep staff on payroll. It also promises $600 per week in unemployment benefits to laid off workers, on top of the $444 the D.C. government should start paying out in unemployment soon.
“I see people out and about who don’t look like they’re going to the supermarket,” Francke says. “Why the hell are you out? Go home. There are enough people who aren’t taking it seriously enough. My staff could come in contact with them.”
Paul Carlson, who co-owns The Royal in LeDroit Park has also been tracking the virus. He decided to pause take-out and delivery over the weekend. “We’re getting to what is the more critical time period,” he says. “The main reason we made the decision is the situation is going to be more long-lived than we first thought.”
The Royal was already set up for take-out and delivery, but it was still a challenge. “We put great health practices in motion, but I think what we were learning from the first week to the second week is that if this is going to be a long game, we need to rethink how we’re going to do certain things.”
Carlson shut down to allow his team to regroup and determine how to come back more efficiently. “If we restructure, we can do more and be better,” he says. “We have no specific reopening date. We know who wants to come back to work. We respect those who don’t. We’re going to do a mash-up of our two menus and add some things we’ve never even carried before.”
Like Francke and others, Tyber Creek ownerJordan Stahl wasn’t seeing the sales numbers she needed to forge ahead with to-go business at her Bloomingdale wine bar. “We saw a 60 percent decline in sales year-over-year in week one and a 75 percent decline year-over-year in week two,” she says, comparing sales from this March to last March.
Safety also factored into her decision. “We were running the restaurant with a staff of three, including myself, and over the last week, I became increasingly concerned for our health,” Stahl says. “Even while taking extra measures to maintain distance and sanitation, we were interacting with guests and delivery drivers and increasing the chances of contracting or spreading the virus. The combination of that growing concern and the fact that it wasn’t very profitable made the decision for me.”
She says she’ll spend however long the restaurant remains closed working on the spring and summer menu. Carey Tang says Rooster & Owl will focus on the same thing.
Stahl doesn’t begrudge anyone for their choice to stay open. None of these operators do. “Everything I have seen from health officials says that take-out and delivery are still generally safe when proper precautions are taken,” she says. “If the owners and managers feel comfortable and are following proper guidelines, kudos to them. Everyone, especially small business owners, are making hard decisions right now with very limited information. I wouldn’t judge anyone on the decision to stay open for takeout.”
“There isn’t a right answer,” Carey Tang echoes. “In a way every choice you make will feel both like the right and the wrong choice. It’s a very difficult situation.”
Poca Madre and 2 Amy’s also shut down their to-go operations recently. 2 Amy’s did not respond to requests for comment and Poca Madre declined to comment.
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