Marx Cafe streatery in Mount Pleasant
Marx Cafe streatery in Mount Pleasant Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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“It took 50 years for dining habits to transition from the home as the primary place for meals to the pre-pandemic world of large numbers of meals being eaten outside of the home. Then it took 24 hours in March of 2020 for a huge reversal,” says Ruth Gresser, chef-owner of Pizzeria Paradiso. Ever since, restaurants and bars have been reinventing themselves as restrictions fluctuate and consumer behavior changes. 

There are now more tools to protect against serious illness from the virus, but the pandemic continues and it’s tricky to predict when we’ll enter an endemic phase. Nearly two years of modified living have permanently altered most aspects of public life. Bar and restaurant professionals believe the hospitality industry must become more efficient across the board while simultaneously evolving into a more nurturing place to work. Diners, they say, also have a role to play. 

When restaurants had to operate as shadows of their former selves during the early months of the pandemic, some sent SOS signals to their ride-or-die regulars. Not knowing how long dining rooms would be closed or operating at reduced capacities, restaurateurs openly discussed their precarious positions and the support they needed.

“It felt like a veil was lifted because, in an immediate moment, customers became aware of the dire situation,” says Republic Cantina owner Chris Svetlik. “In restaurants, our job is to hide the chaos, pretend everything is OK, apologize profusely, and bear the full brunt of anything going wrong.” 

Once the fourth wall fell, Svetlik and others felt confident setting time limits on reservations, charging cancellation fees, and talking candidly with diners about staffing and supply struggles. “Restaurants as theater—where staff are constantly adjusting the scene to accommodate guest behavior with few questions—has diminished in a way that’s healthy,” he says.

The heightened transparency comes as some owners say it’s no longer possible for them to eat rising costs instead of passing them on to consumers. “Labor and food costs have increased to an extent that restaurants cannot absorb without increasing prices,” Gresser says. “Plus, the pandemic debt that restaurants took on to continue operations also needs to be paid back.” The government bailed some businesses out, but not all of them.

Educating consumers about the true costs of a meal doesn’t have to feel like “sympathy talk,” according to Queen Mother’s Chef Rock Harper. “It’s so expensive and we don’t have people—those things are real and I don’t want to minimize them,” he says. “I hope we can educate consumers on how much it costs to get this beautiful piece of chicken to your plate instead of saying, ‘Woe is me.’” 

Harper, who sells fried chicken sandwiches out of a shared kitchen in Arlington, acknowledges that customers have also gone through a pandemic and might be on tighter budgets. Still, he says, restaurants need to be able to articulate their value. Everyone has to get paid, from the farmer and the trucker to the cook. 

That same notion, Harper says, applies to correcting customers’ toxic behavior. “With the respect piece, you’ve got to educate your customers on how to engage with us, what’s tolerated, and set clear boundaries in a graceful way like my grandmother would do.” 

Aggressive and dangerous behavior contributed to an exodus of hospitality employees during the pandemic. In the fall of 2020, some restaurant workers enrolled in de-escalation training with a local organization to learn how to spot objects that could potentially be used as weapons, like pint glasses, before approaching an unruly customer.

Caitlin Schiavoni worked her final shift as a server and bartender last month and will now focus on her passion for wildlife preservation. She says enforcing the city’s strictest policies, such as the 10 p.m. alcohol curfew, caused distress. “People not putting on their masks and getting right up in our faces—it was ridiculous,” she says. “We don’t make the rules, we’re trying not to get fined. We’re already here working in unsafe conditions. … A lot of the reason workers aren’t coming back is they saw how disposable they can be treated.”

In addition to the city deputizing restaurant employees as COVID cops, D.C. reopened indoor dining two months before restaurant employees became eligible for vaccines and OK’d those Instagrammable igloos, fudging the definition of outdoor dining. Meanwhile, cooks had one of the most dangerous jobs during the pandemic and fled to other sectors, such as construction, where they had greater job security and felt less anxious about potentially contracting the virus.

They were in good company. When bars and restaurants fully reopened earlier this year, not everyone rushed to clock back in. “People who saw this as some form of income and not passion found a different career path,” says The Green Zone bartender Will Alvarez. “They’ve gone into real estate or coding. I think all of us thought about it.”

Alvarez stayed because his employer takes care of him. “We’ve done some form of [revenue] sharing to incentivize people to stay around and health and dental care are provided, things you wouldn’t normally see in restaurant jobs or bars before,” he says. When almost everyone is hiring, the power dynamic shifts. Prospective employees feel empowered to demand better pay and benefits.

“Everybody knows what their worth is now,” says Mick Perrigo, who almost left the industry to become a farmhand before landing a bartending job at Hook Hall’s Cocktail Club. Its parent company, Pirate Ventures, offers all workers access to an Employee Assistance Program, health care for full-time employees after 60 days, and a matching 401K after a year. “Not too many companies I’ve worked for put their employees first,” Perrigo says.

Maria Bastasch is experimenting with how to pay staff at Disco Mary, a long-term pop-up with apothecary cocktails and vegan Mexican snacks. “I think back on even the most lucrative night I had [as a tipped worker] and don’t know if I felt fully compensated for the amount of labor I was putting forward,” she says. “And that’s me, who came from a privileged background.”

She pays staff a minimum of $20 per hour, $4.80 more than D.C.’s minimum wage. “We think it needs to be more, but we’re working toward that goal,” Bastasch says. A 25 percent service charge, explained on the menu, helps the bar cover labor costs. Bastasch distributes a share of service charge money to kitchen workers. A number of bars and restaurants distanced themselves from tipping and instituted service charges during the pandemic when it was hard to predict how many customers would visit. 

Bastasch hopes her actions will inspire others. “Places that do have resources, whether that’s years of experience or name recognition, have a responsibility to start doing this so it becomes more normative,” she says. “We can almost use our privilege to blaze a trail.” 

Photo of El Pollo Sabroso by Darrow Montgomery

While restaurants scramble to attract employees, restaurants are learning how to do more with less. Technology is often the answer when businesses need to operate more efficiently. Among the most discussed changes is the implementation of QR codes because they can challenge preestablished notions of service and hospitality. 

Bars and restaurants experimented with them when they only had a few employees on payroll. Some used them as a replacement for paper menus, while others asked diners to order and pay through them too. The QR codes didn’t disappear when restaurants fully reopened. They’re likely here to stay, despite some diners balking at using their phones during dinner. 

“I predict table service will be something very special in the future and only offered at fine dining restaurants,” says Jenn Crovato, chef and owner of 1310 Kitchen & Bar. “Asking your server what they recommend at more casual dining establishments may become a thing of the past at many places, with QR codes and food runners staying in place as an alternative.” She hasn’t started using QR codes at her restaurant yet, but thinks it might be inevitable. “The margins are so paper-thin at this point, you’ve got to figure something out.” 

The costs of integrating QR code technology into point-of-sale systems have already come down because of widespread use, according to Walters Sports Bar owner Jeremy Gifford. “I can now, for $50 a month, throw a QR code on all of my tables and essentially replace my servers,” he says. He used to need 15 to 20 servers on a busy night, but now he only needs six to eight. “I hate it and it takes the customer service and hospitality out of the business, but before and after a baseball game, it allows the masses to get a beer as fast as possible.” (So does Walters’ self-pour beer wall.)

It’s possible to retain a human touch, according to Stellina Pizzeria co-owner Antonio Matarazzo. A bucket on each table at his restaurants contains a special red spoon. Raise it like a flag and a manager or a host will come over to answer questions or recommend wines. He says cutting back on front-of-house staff allows the pizzeria to keep its kitchen full and focus on the food. 

Servers might be worried about shrinking job opportunities, but a handful of owners insist QR codes enable servers to take larger sections of tables without being overwhelmed. “[QR codes] allow people who are passionate about food and wine to focus on that rather than schlepping from tables to computers,” Bastasch says. “Small transactions take up a lot of time when I could be talking about why hawthorn berry is incorporated into this cocktail.” 

Schiavoni liked working at a bar with QR codes because she didn’t have to leave her drink-making space to hand customers menus. Plus, she says, printing paper menus isn’t environmentally friendly. 

The pandemic also popularized online ordering because anything contactless provided a theoretical extra level of safety. Dolcezza Gelato & Coffee switched its point-of-sale system to allow customers to order ahead even though co-owner Robb Duncan laments putting lids on top of latte art and letting beverages sit too long. “It’s like drinking your Guinness out of a sippy cup,” he says. “But COVID-19 was from the future. All these things you heard about like Zoom conferencing appeared immediately overnight and became a way of doing business. It’s all in the name of existence.” 

As restaurants look to become more sustainable and prepare for unpredictability, Shilling Canning Company chef and co-owner Reid Shilling says to expect more prix fixe menus. In addition to a tight a la carte menu, his restaurant serves a $60 three-course menu with several selections per course and a $95 seven-course menu with different portion sizes of the same dishes. If you don’t know how many cooks you’ll have on the line or how many people will come in to dine, the best thing you can do, he argues, is streamline.

Shilling explains other prix fixe plusses. “When someone sits down, you’re getting the money you need out of them as opposed to someone who [just] wants a snack and a beer,” he says. “There’s also less purchasing, less staffing, less prep work, and less electricity so you can maximize profit.” Cutting back on dishes staves off burnout in the kitchen, Shilling adds.

But prix fixe menus can be prohibitively expensive and the U.S. cultural norm of valuing as many choices as possible is hard to shake. “I know consumers are frustrated with selection and pricing,” Shilling says. “That’s why we change the menu every two to three weeks. I can’t offer you 20 entrees tonight, but I can offer three tonight and three totally different ones in two weeks and you’re getting the best of what we have to offer every day.” 

The pandemic also forced chefs to develop new revenue streams that met diners in their homes. They launched takeout-only ghost restaurants, entered the consumer packaged-goods space, rolled out frozen-meal lines, and debuted subscription supper clubs featuring heat-and-eat meals. Stellina Pizzeria is behind one of the more novel approaches—a vending machine stocked with pasta kits, jarred sauces, desserts such as tiramisu in a jar, and gourmet coffee. It’s rotated to various locations and is now sitting in a residential building in Buzzard Point where Stellina regularly holds pasta classes. 

The pandemic also changed where restaurateurs choose to locate their businesses to better set themselves up for lasting success. Mark Bucher, who is trying to open 20 Medium Rare steak frites restaurants in five years, is done with leasing empty shells. “Would you rent an apartment if they said there’s no walls, no air-conditioning, no bathrooms, no floors?” Bucher asks. “As an industry, what are we doing? Why are we letting developers or landlords say, ‘You’re a restaurant, you have to build the whole thing.’ I cook food, I don’t build.” 

He thinks developers can get projects done faster and more cheaply because of their connections, but restaurant owners are so eager to beat their competitors to a space that they ink crummy deals. “They saddle themselves with bad economic real estate decisions that are like getting herpes in college—it never goes away,” Bucher says.

Restaurateur Erik Bruner-Yang believes future tenants will focus more on protecting themselves before signing leases. Business interruption insurance failed to kick in and rescue restaurants when they couldn’t operate because “global pandemic” wasn’t in the fine print.  “Try exploring more opportunities to own the buildings you’re in,” he says. “All of the money we put into these properties, someone else is benefiting from that. It might take three to six more months to do the project you want to do and it might not be the 100 percent perfect location, but the best way to invest in your future and protect yourself from a pandemic-related event is to own your land.”

That location might not be in the District. “Suburbs are going to rule in terms of opening and where businesses are going to succeed,” says Julie Verratti, co-founder and chief brand officer of Denizens Brewing Co., located in Silver Spring and Riverdale Park. “Everyone is working from home in D.C. Why would you proactively drive from a suburban home to downtown D.C. to go to happy hour when you can go two blocks up the street?”

Verratti wonders how many of her colleagues will opt to renew when their 5- and 10-year leases expire out of sheer exhaustion. “There’s no more joy left, which sucks because people who go into this want to make people happy and throw a party,” she says. “That’s not a happy way to send people into the holidays, but it’s the truth.”

“Today, the bloom is off the restaurant industry rose,” Gresser adds, before offering a shot of optimism. “But people love food, they love to eat, and they love to gather. And then there are those of us who love to cook and love to care for others. At its heart, the restaurant industry is still about hospitality, comfort, nourishment, and sustenance, and the bloom will never be off that rose.”