Dining: The New Reality in Providence

A look at the pandemic’s impact on restaurants – and what’s next

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"It's definitely been a challenge," says Chris Simonelli, co-owner of Troop. “At this point, it hasn’t been about profit. It’s been more about survival.”

Simonelli is just one of hundreds of restaurateurs in Rhode Island swept up in the maelstrom of COVID-19, but his story overlaps with nearly all of them. Providence is nationally respected for its dining, and Troop is among its darlings. The venue, renowned for its cocktails and fusion entrèes, takes its inspiration from hip-hop and skateboarding culture. Customers come for the ambiance – the live DJs and moody lighting. Tucked into The Plant, a robust brick building in Olneyville, visiting has always felt like an event.

In other words, Troop was never meant to be a takeout place.

The five owners of Troop closed its doors voluntarily, before the state ordered them to do so. Still, a restaurant must serve food in order to survive. Right away, they were forced to lay off most of their 25 employees. With only three people left – Simonelli, co-owner Jason “JT” Timothy, and chef Chad Hart – the Troop team had to reinvent itself. Takeout was just a start; they would have to refashion their menu, build up their online presence, and invent virtual entertainment. They would have to establish online ordering and curbside pickup, which were new concepts to them, and rebrand it as “Troop’s Touchless Takeaway.”

“It’s making us rethink everything,” says Simonelli. “In this industry, the ship hardly ever docks. It’s given us the ability to really analyze what we’ve been doing – and make improvements that we’ll carry forward beyond this.”

Like every culinary professional in Providence, they’re thinking about the future. But the future is hazy, and every kitchen has its own story. All they know for sure is this: The pandemic has pushed small businesses to the brink. Many have been forced to close, and many of those will never reopen. In an era that is routinely described as “novel” and “unprecedented,” the dining industry has tied itself in knots to safely cook food and serve it to customers. But as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. As Simonelli and his colleagues are discovering, the desperate ingenuity of today may become the standard of tomorrow.

When Governor Gina Raimondo announced the closure of all dine-in restaurants on March 16, the plan was to stay closed for two weeks. But the pandemic had other ideas, as we all now know. Two-plus months would pass before a patron could sit down and interact with a server, and even then, the rules for social distancing are strict.

For the restaurant industry, COVID-19 has become the neutron bomb of economic hardships. Restaurants and bars are always delicate businesses. The last thing a restaurateur needs is a deadly virus that thrives on intimate crowds.

“The reality is that people who own restaurants work long hours on very narrow margins,” says Kristen Adamo, president and CEO of the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau. “To have a pandemic, where you can’t operate your business normally, and you have to rely on takeout, the threat that they normally live under is exponentially more serious.”

Such anguish has been felt everywhere in the world, but Providence has a conspicuous reputation for dining. Our food scene has long been known for its innovation and frequently wins the attention of The New York Times; for a city our size, we have racked up a surprising number of nominations for the James Beard Awards. Dining and nightlife are a cornerstone of our urban identity, and they contribute enormously to our economic lifeblood. As small business loans are distributed and spent, and eateries struggle to accommodate al fresco dining, and more and more restaurants appear on Google Maps as “permanently closed,” you have to wonder: Who will still be standing a year from now? And how?

Dining is inextricably tied to tourism, which has also plummeted this year. Major showcase events, such as this summer’s Providence Restaurant Week and Taste of Rhode Island, have been postponed or canceled. When we spoke, Adamo said the Bureau had lost $43 million in business to the pandemic, including conventions, hotel bookings, transportation, and yes, dining. Much of it can still be salvaged; business worth about $11.8 million had been postponed for future years, up to 2024. Tourism is still slated, whether it happens this year or not. But Adamo knows that the troubles are far from over, especially for the restaurant industry.

“When something like this hits, you go into survival mode,” she says. “We’re still in business. There’s going to be an end to this. We will get back. We just have to hang on and get through.”

James Mark doesn’t have one venue to think about, but three: north, big king, and The Dean Bar. He remembers a crowded night, back in March, when he surveyed the youthful patrons and realized how vulnerable they all were to contagion.

“I was like, ‘This is too busy for what’s going on,’” Mark recalls. “It could spread to any of these people, and we are all in direct, face-to-face contact with them. The idea of getting a family member sick was very real to me. We could have stayed open a few more days, but after that night, I was like, ‘We can’t do this anymore. We can’t put our staff at risk.’”

During the closure, Mark ruled out The Dean Bar, a speakeasy-like cocktail lounge in The Dean Hotel. He knew that north, his acclaimed restaurant located in the same building, was too large an operation to sustain during quarantine. But that left big king – a tiny, offbeat restaurant on the West End – which could potentially survive on takeout.

For long and lonely days, Mark operated big king entirely on his own. Then he brought over Andrew McQuesten, executive chef at north, to help refine the takeout system. Initially, customers ordered from Mark to support his business. But as time wore on, many seemed to feel nostalgic for the fine dining experiences they had lost in quarantine.

“Now it’s people who want to go out to eat,” says Mark. “They want to get good food. It’s becoming a new normal.”

Mark is stoic about his prospects. The takeout system is working, and he soon extended big king’s operations from four to six days a week. He’s relieved to have brought back a fraction of his laid-off staff. While he refuses to participate with a mainstream service like Grubhub, Mark is seriously considering an “in-house” delivery plan. But he is also tempering his expectations. Until a vaccination is available and the curve is fully flattened, Mark won’t entertain outdoor dining, no matter how profitable the prospect. When we spoke, he knew his stimulus money would run out by July, and “the math will change.”

“It’s not a solution, what we’re doing,” says Mark. “Beverages drive our profits. We’re able to keep people employed, but we’re making in a week what we would make in two days [before the pandemic]. At north, it’s pretty rough. It’s a stopgap, and we’re just able to float.”

But what choice do they have? As the pandemic continues to loom large, Providence restaurateurs have used every strategy they can think of. Persimmon, famous for its elegant dining, has been selling Bolognese and clams sauces for $15 a jar. Ellie’s created the “Ellie’s At Home Dinner,” a no-fuss – and high-quality – family meal. Small Point Café has sold thematic bags of groceries, from “The Basics” (eggs, milk, bread), to The Being Bad Bag (Brownie Pie, Mexican Coca-Cola, and probably 10,000 more calories). The litany of experiments is encyclopedic, and it goes well beyond curbside pickup.

By the time Gov. Raimondo announced the possibility of outdoor dining on May 18, industrious chefs were already offering meal kits and cocktails-to-go, half-off wines and a spectrum of online order forms. As Rhode Island’s reopening entered Phase 1, restaurants blossomed with Plexiglas shields and makeshift patios. Plant City, for example, erected a decorated tent; tables are spaced eight feet apart, and reservations are required, but guests can finally enjoy the Mexican stylings of Bar Verde again, and in relative comfort. Plus, the City launched a ReThinkPVD campaign to offer free two-hour parking in crucial dining districts, including Atwells Avenue, Thayer and Wickenden Streets, and Wayland Square.

To really compete in such a strained market, chefs and owners have had to reach customers in ways they never imagined. And with so many evolving restrictions, owners are often confused about what tactics are even allowed.

“People want to do the right thing – hence why there are so many questions,” says Dale Venturini, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association. “One answer may apply to 20 people, but not to another 20 people. But we’ve always been symbiotic in how we operate. We want the hotels to be full again. We want the people they house to come out and shop, visit our museums and parks. I think this is an ‘aha’ moment. We’re all working together. It’s building this beautiful community of people.”

As the lockdown has worn on, many restaurateurs are impatient to bring their business back. An “Ocean State Coalition,” representing 150 dining establishments across the state, sent a letter to Governor Raimondo requesting to loosen the restrictions on indoor dining by June 1. Many might find this decision hasty, yet the letter did make an indisputable point: “We are one of the most regulated industries for health standards and our goal has always been to exceed those standards for our guests.”

 

Back at Troop, Simonelli rattles off all the things they’ve done since the pandemic started: They’ve hosted virtual DJs. They’ve held virtual cooking classes. They’ve provided more than 100 meals to front-line workers, many of which were paid for with customer donations. Customers have driven from as far as Cape Cod to pick up their takeout orders.

“It’s been incredible,” says Simonelli. “During these times, we feel a responsibility to our community and to our staff. We respect the small business that shutters. And we don’t take that responsibility lightly.”

Like big king – and countless others – Troop had to weigh the costs and benefits of serving people outdoors.

“I believe it is going to be a challenge,” said Simonelli the day of the announcement. “This is not an area we want to rush into. We plan to start small, with intention, and will expand over time with the safety of guests and staff on the forefront of our minds.”

Without customers, the Troop owners saw an unexpected opportunity: They could re-lay the dining room floors. A professional came in to grind the floors down, but otherwise the Troop staff have been painting and stenciling the surface themselves. It’s a small consolation prize, after all the toil and exhaustion, the anxieties and bare-knuckled accounting, and they probably would have put down new floors sooner or later. But it’s something that will last, long after the quarantine ends. It’s a literal foundation for the future.

Adds Simonelli: “We’re trying to take advantage of this time as much as possible.” 

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