Chef Rob Rubba is alone in the open kitchen of Oyster Oyster, pickling 30 pounds of ramp shoots. The lights are on. Music is playing. But there are no guests—and Rubba has no idea when there will be, due to the coronavirus outbreak and the restrictions on D.C. restaurants and public life.
Rubba and his partners have been planning Oyster Oyster for three years now. The highly anticipated plant-based based tasting menu restaurant in Shaw was set to soft open this week after clearing a few remaining administrative hurdles.
They submitted their certificate of occupancy to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and, normally, the Department of Health would schedule a final inspection within 72 business hours of receiving it. DOH did not respond to requests for comment about whether they’re still conducting inspections.
If the restaurant eventually passes, as they expect, then a Basic Business License will be issued, and Oyster Oyster can finally open its doors to the public. But now? “I have no idea,” Rubba says. “It’s out of our control.”
Even if he is able to get the restaurant open, Mayor Muriel Bowser closed all restaurants and bars for on-premise consumption until April 1. Rubba is talking to his partners about opening the restaurant’s so-called garage space. They intend for it to be a bar at night and grab-and-go café during the day. They hope to make some take-out and delivery options available, like other restaurants struggling to keep some cash coming in. Since hiring staff was put on hold, Oyster Oyster would have to build and train a lean team to make it happen.
Opening a restaurant inherently comes with unforeseen delays due to issues surrounding construction, permitting, inspections, staffing, and finding cash to cover unanticipated expenditures. But the coronavirus has upended an already difficult process, leaving restaurateurs in an unexpected and unprecedented limbo.
Pennyroyal Station in Mount Rainier, Maryland was supposed to have an electrical inspection today, but chef and co-owner Jesse Miller is unsure that will happen now. The kitchen equipment is scheduled for delivery and installation next week with the final inspection to happen soon after. Staffing was set to happen in the same time range. These were to be the last steps in a nearly three-year process to open the restaurant.
“We’re finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “And then this shit happens. You feel like everything’s going against you. But I’m not complaining because that’s selfish. Everyone is affected by this.”
Even if Pennyroyal Station does open, Maryland is also currently prohibiting in-restaurant dining. These measures clash with the restaurant’s business model. Even a lifting of that blanket prohibition might not be enough to make the restaurant viable.
“If there are heavy restrictions and people are still terrified to go out, you won’t be making nearly as much money as you need,” Miller says. “Let’s hope that when we do open, we’re back to the norm and people are ready to go out, because we’ll be ready to serve them.”
Work hasn’t completely stopped on the restaurant. Contractors are working on some of the final details while Miller is at home with his fiancé. They’re compiling addresses for their wedding invites, though they don’t know when they’ll send them or when the wedding might be. Everything is in flux.
Restaurateur Andrew Dana and his business partner and fiancé, Daniela Moreira, are also in the middle of planning their wedding and opening two new restaurants: a Capitol Hill location of Call Your Mother that was set to welcome diners next week and the “sorta South American” Mercy Me in the West End. The latter is a collaboration with Chef Johanna Hellrigl and her mixologist husband, Micah Wilder. The team was hoping for an April opening. Both projects are now in a holding pattern.
“We’re just trying to keep our eye on the bigger picture, stay level-headed, and remember everybody is in this fight with us,” Dana says.
It’s been a tough 24 hours for Dana and Moreira. They closed all their restaurants until further notice yesterday. Staff were encouraged to take home any perishable food, and the owners donated whatever was left over to Food Rescue US. During the closure, both salaried and hourly staffers will be paid for at least two weeks and potentially up to two months, depending on the length of the restrictions and the business’ cash reserves.
Right now, Dana says he’s “still pretty positive” things will all work out. “But check back in a couple of weeks and you might get a different answer,” he says.