Chris Staples and his team at his Richmond restaurants have been cleaning for days — and they don’t have any plans to stop.
As director of hospitality and marketing for EAT Restaurant Partners, Richmond’s largest local restaurant group, Staples said his group sprang into action last week to implement new cleaning protocols at EAT’s 12 local restaurants to address any guests’ potential coronavirus concerns.
“Once the first case was in D.C., we started gearing up,” Staples said. EAT’s restaurants include Fat Dragon, Boulevard Burger and Brew, Foo Dog, Beijing on Grove, Pizza and Beer of Richmond, and Wild Ginger.
In addition to the usual cleaning and sanitation regimes required by the Virginia Department of Health, EAT restaurants have added hand sanitizing stations throughout the restaurants and brought in a hospital-grade disinfectant to wipe down everything — menus, tables, condiments, ordering kiosks, door handles, faucets and more — after every use.
“We’re just going to project cleanliness,” he said. “What you as a guest are going to see if you walk into any of our stores is clean things and people cleaning.”
EAT isn’t alone. Across town, Richmond restaurants are cleaning, disinfecting, sanitizing and then doing it again — anything to ease diners concerns about the potential spread of germs or viruses as the coronavirus pandemic spreads throughout Virginia. Some restaurants are changing their hours and menus; others, including Dutch and Company in Church Hill and Perch in Scott’s Addition, have removed some tables to increase space between customers; and many, including Perly’s, Parterre and Tarrant’s Cafe, are advertising and encouraging existing takeout and delivery options.
Some are even adding new options outright, including Secco Wine Bar and Perch, two restaurants that just launched special dinners for two to-go, featuring multicourse gourmet menus — and pickup options that limit interactions with people (Secco is offering curbside delivery and Perch is doing pickup through a special window).
“There are a lot of concerns from all the closings [and this] shows the team we are working hard to keep the business going and the guests we are adaptable,” said Mike Ledesma, chef and owner of Perch.
Local restaurant owners say they’re doing anything they can to weather what they know is a coming storm. A bad one.
They’re taking their cue from Seattle, which saw the first U.S. death related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, on Feb. 29. Within two weeks, more than 40 local restaurants were shuttered due to lack of diners, according to Eater Seattle, a restaurant-specific publication — some of them permanently.
In New York City, more than two dozen restaurants have closed temporarily, according to Eater New York. In the nation’s capital, reports put D.C. restaurant sales this week down between 25% and 40%, a fraction of what Seattle is currently experiencing. The Seattle Times reported Thursday that one restaurant group saw sales decline up to 90%.
“We’re all worried about it. There’s the fear of getting sick balanced with the fear of not being able to afford to stay open,” said Liz Kincaid, co-owner and chief operating officer of RVA Hospitality, whose restaurants include Tarrant’s Cafe.
Kincaid said business is already down at some of their restaurants, with some seeing a decline in sales of up to 40%. She said there was a slight decline when the stock market first took a dip, but the real hit started Monday, after the first Virginia case of COVID-19 was reported.
“There’s only so long small businesses can take the loss. We’re lucky we’re pretty financially conservative without investors to worry about, but yeah, we’re scared of the health, emotional, financial and spiritual impact of COVID-19. I think you’d be pressed to find an operator that isn’t right now,” Kincaid said.
In addition to extra cleaning, spacing tables, and promoting its takeout and delivery options, RVA Hospitality restaurants are closing an hour early to save on labor, extending happy hour until 9 p.m., and adding a free kids meal for children under 10 with any adult meal purchase until schools are back in session.
Longoven restaurant in Scott’s Addition made the dramatic decision Saturday afternoon to close after Saturday’s service and remain closed until the crisis is over. It was a striking change; just 24 hours earlier, the restaurant planned to operate with a limited menu and reduced hours.
“We take the rapidly changing circumstances of the COVID-19 virus very seriously, and what has become obvious is that taking steps to curb the spread of the virus by limiting non-essential social contact is the most effective means we have at this time to lessening its impact on our community,” the restaurant wrote on social media.
And while most Richmond restaurant owners are encouraging sick employees to stay home, some have taken the added step of offering paid sick leave to employees to ensure they do. Tazza Kitchen implemented a paid leave policy this week as an extension of an existing PTO bonus program it had in place for employees of its three Richmond-area restaurants, according to spokeswoman Susan Davenport.
“Because of the unprecedented situation around COVID-19, we realized that we needed to do something more immediate,” Davenport said. “This current fund is a temporary, emergency policy to get us through this period and to support our employees if they have specific symptoms related to COVID-19 or a communicative illness. Our resources will probably not allow us to replace someone’s entire income, but we want to lessen their burden as best we can. And honestly it’s something that may change daily.”
The need for immediate change is something all restaurant owners are planning for.
Donnie Glass, owner of Grisette, said it’s business as usual for now at his Church Hill restaurant, aside from more frequent and deeper cleaning, but he plans to reassess operating hours and increased takeout options after the weekend.
“We always do food to-go and we’re not yet looking into [delivery service], but we’re certainly open to it,” he said. “Perhaps we change course. I don’t want to change course, but we’re prepared to do that.”
And paid sick leave for employees has always been the policy at Grisette.
“Everyone who works here has paid time off,” Glass said. “In our industry, a lot of people feel pressure to work and to show up to work. We’d rather our employees stay home if they’re sick.”
But the hope for many Richmond restaurant owners over the next few weeks is that the diners show up, too. If not, no one is quite sure what it will mean.