Restaurant Report: Q&A with Industry Insiders

The trio gives their two cents on the past, present, and future of restaurants in Rhode Island

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Here in Rhode Island, we’re fortunate to have a thriving and ever-growing restaurant scene. But all that ground to a halt in mid-March of 2020. To find out where we are today and what the future may hold, a virtual roundtable was held with Casey Montanari, owner of The Bike Stop Cafe in Narragansett; Rick Simone, executive director of the Federal Hill Commerce Association; and Dale Venturini, president/CEO of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association.

CASEY MONTANARI: We shut down on March 16 [2020], and at the time I thought it was only going to be for a couple of weeks. We didn’t reopen until mid-May and we went with curbside only and that’s what we’re still doing. Everyone has to choose the best way to run their business. For us, like I said, it’s the curbside, so we did that and then we also started some grocery sales and that all kind of helps to balance things out.

RICK SIMONE: I think that it was an always evolving pivot. [Hearing from] restaurateurs and their staff, this was the most challenging thing they’ve ever dealt with, but they managed. It was a constant pivoting evolution. It tested people’s creativity and how to make things happen. They had to do more with less. People were ingenious. They came up with ways to not only take care of their staff but keep the lights on, keep the doors open, and figure out what the future would look like. From delivery to private catering jobs to creating packages – it’s not that they made a lot of money on [these things], but it kept the funds coming in.

DALE VENTURINI: I think restaurants are still hungry…because they still need help. We’re very anxious for the new relief package on the federal level. We’re lucky because we have a great RI congressional delegation [and] the chairman of the board of the National Restaurant Association is a Rhode Island restaurateur [Brian Casey, president of Oak Hill Tavern and The Company Picnic Company]. His messaging has been resonating about how critical the small, independently [and family] owned restaurants are to the economy.

CASEY MONTANARI: I think anybody you talk to in the restaurant industry will tell you, we’re all still here because of the grants and the PPP loans and all of that stuff. It keeps all of us going. There’s not a lot of profit in [restaurants]. People that run restaurants do it because it’s a labor of love. You’re doing something you really enjoy doing and take pride in that. You’re not really making any money, there’s not that huge profit margin to help when things like this happen for long, extended periods of time.

DALE VENTURINI: Going forward I feel there’s a sense of optimism. I think about it as a triangle: consumer confidence, the weather, and getting financial aid. We need all three in order for us to move forward. We’re getting to the other side of this. Is it going back to normal? I don’t see that. I think we’re going to redefine what that means. There are some good things that came out of this. People taking a step back and reimagining their business a little, thinking about what is going to happen going forward. The negative side of that is the ever-changing landscape – sometimes daily, and certainly weekly, things change. It’s hard for the industry to keep up with that. My job is to keep up with it, to be part of the process of making the change.

CASEY MONTANARI: We’re starting to get things ready [to reopen]. I think there’ll be some good things coming out of all this too. Hopefully people will have a better appreciation of the service industry. Nobody wants to increase their prices because you don’t want to lose any business. The thing is when you go out to eat, you’re not [only] paying for the food. The cost of your meal is the labor, it’s the insurance, it’s the rent, it’s the utilities – all of that goes into it.

RICK SIMONE: I’m happily surprised with the [new] restaurants that are opening. But I am hearing from others that are trying to find ways to bounce back that the challenges of opening a restaurant in the future are going to be great. We’re fortunate we have a foodie culture. It may take a little bit longer than most things, but it will bounce back. I’m encouraged by what we’re seeing now.

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