Samir Zaiter recalls that he’d already signed the lease, hired a team, and had an opening date slated for March 2020 for Palo, his Spanish tapas bar on Steeple Street, when the shutdown ground everything to a halt. “While my initial business plan did include reserve funds for ‘rainy days’ and I did include the possibility of a delay in opening,” Zaiter begins, “there was nothing in my plans to account for a pandemic such as coronavirus.”
Zaiter wasn’t alone in feeling blindsided. Saje Kitchen in Federal Hill didn’t open until July but had also planned to open doors in March. Co-owner Ethan Jaffe explains they used the pause to really hone in on the small details to keep diners safe, and how to put themselves on the map until folks could visit and experience the full ambiance inside. “Since we didn’t have an existing customer base, the pandemic forced us to get even more creative in ways to let the Providence area know of our presence.”
Most of these efforts went into menu development at Saje. Along with their crowd pleaser chicken and waffles, summer specials like campfire s’mores and baked lobster mac and cheese are geared toward families. “We look forward to participating in Federal Hill’s Al Fresco dining on the weekends,” Jaffe says. “This was very successful last year and it’s something we’re thankful to participate in. We found people really enjoyed the outdoor dining and we added to the ambiance with live music, space heaters, and chic outside decor.”
Between each wave of COVID, the accessibility of PPP, and an unforgivingly frigid winter, new businesses have taken risks and weathered the storm. “From November through January, the forecast was pretty bleak and I had to entertain the possibility of never making it out of the pandemic as we were losing thousands of dollars weekly,” says Zaiter. “We have been ineligible for the government loan/grant programs because we were not yet open in February 2020. This meant that we were excluded from PPP and EIDL funds.”
But this February saw a turn for the better in sales, giving Palo a fighting chance to come out of this and see future summers of WaterFire foot traffic, opening up their bar, and even hosting their own festivals. “The restaurant community in Providence is close-knit and has gone through so much in the last year,” Zaiter continues, “that we’re looking forward to seeing the community come together on the other side of this to once again celebrate life and each other.”
Meanwhile, other nimble restaurateurs maneuvered lockdown to finally see through a long-standing vision, like Julia Broome of Kin Southern Table & Bar when her former job was impacted by COVID. “Opening during the pandemic made me approach everything with caution,” she says. “Believe me, I was terrified. It made me think about the flow of the room and our menu. We transformed what was a raw bar into our designated area for take-out.” After a sell-out opening this April, Broome has created a space to share soul food and passed-down family recipes from the heart of Downcity on Washington Street.
When Erin and Jay Trumpetto opened No Bull Steak House in Westerly, they saw an opportunity to create the kind of business they would bring their kids to: a family-oriented steak house. “[We] researched everything we needed to know as far as restaurant safety and protocols,” Erin explains. “Fortunately, my husband is a carpenter, so we were able to make the barriers between the booths in the restaurant and bar seating.” In a region that sees a lot of tourism, the Trumpettos look forward to expanding with a new patio area on warm days.
Spring weather and ramped up vaccination stand as beacons of hope for many restaurants that we’re approaching something of a return to normal, but the lessons forged over a tumultuous year will serve as reminders of what the industry’s faced. “I learned that in spite of all of the planning in the world, you can never truly account for everything,” Zaiter reflects. “Businesses in today’s world need to have flexibility built into their fabric. You can’t be married to one idea or one concept or only your way of doing things, and this pandemic has clearly illustrated that.”