Outside of hospitals, perhaps no place in American society felt the merciless onslaught of the coronavirus more acutely than our beloved restaurant industry. Seemingly overnight, once-booming businesses were reduced to crowdfunding campaigns to stay afloat. On social media, photos of food gave way to images of sanitary materials, which gave way to takeout trays, which finally gave way to calls for donations.
Restaurants that were the bedrock of community gatherings became places of contactless pickups, and servers brought food to our cars with nitrile gloves that made them look like extras in a bad science fiction movie. No matter how necessary, these changes were painful. Though state laws have been adjusted to give restaurants a fighting chance to survive, the future for many remains far from certain.
We all love a traditional restaurant week, where cities and towns hold annual celebrations with prix fixe meals and special menus to pack people into their eateries. Well, this was the restaurant week from hell.
March 13 — Friday the 13th
Social media accounts for restaurants across the state continue to highlight their amped-up sanitation practices amid decreased attendance. Instead of pictures of food there are photos of staff members with cleaning supplies, and detailed accounts of how table surfaces are being cleaned regularly and sick employees are being told to stay home.
A Thursday email from chef Tyler Anderson, who runs numerous restaurants in the Hartford and New Haven areas, mentioned removing tables from dining rooms to create added space between diners. All these measures are meant to alleviate fears, but it starts to feel like a restaurant apocalypse is underway.
March 14 — Takeout takes over
Realizing that many customers do not want to eat out no matter how often tables are being wiped down, restaurants start offering contactless pickup options. The razor-thin profit margins of the industry are already being strained and it’s clear things are only going to get worse. Most eateries remain open despite the growing threat of COVID-19, but some move exclusively to takeout.
Bill Taibi, owner of Kawa Ni, Jesup Hall and The Whelk in Westport, where the virus has taken root early, announces his restaurants are moving to takeout only. “At this point we're not feeling comfortable anymore with letting people inside of our restaurants,” he says in a video message posted to social media. “The health and safety of our staff is paramount at this point. And we have to make tough decisions.”
March 15 — Beware the Ides of March
Word is spreading that restaurants in the state will soon be prohibited from serving diners inside. The great pivot to takeout, which has already begun, intensifies. Some restaurants reduce and revamp their menus in an attempt to make them more pickup friendly. They offer discounted gift cards and various perks to incentivize takeout. The layoffs in the industry have already begun and it’s clear more are on the way. GoFundMe campaigns for restaurant employees are increasingly popping up.
March 16 — Last call
Gov. Ned Lamont joins the governors of New York and New Jersey in closing all restaurants and bars to in-house guests. The new rules will go into effect at 8 p.m. Not since Prohibition has the restaurant and bar industry seen such a dramatic change to the fundamental nature of its businesses. Many restaurants continue their efforts to revamp their takeout models, but others make the difficult decision to temporarily close until the threat from COVID-19 passes. Locals 8 Restaurant Group locks the doors of 14 locations including all Plan B’s, Butchers & Bakers in Farmington, and The Half Door and Tisane in Hartford.
March 17 — St. Patrick’s Dry
Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with no bars open is like shopping on Black Friday with no stores open. But restaurants try to make the best of it, bombarding social media with Irish-themed takeout specials. At the Corner in Litchfield posts a photo of a sidewalk-chalk shamrock to peddle their bangers. Hoodoo Brown BBQ in Ridgefield offers up green provolone parsley sausages and Mikro in Hamden has a corned beef brisket sandwich with Irish cheddar and beer mustard. Oxford’s 121 Restaurant & Bar, located on the grounds of Waterbury-Oxford Airport, is the first state eatery to close entirely, with more than 40 employees losing their jobs.
March 18 — Your meal comes with a fresh roll
Conspiracy in Middletown and Vinny’s Deli in Wallingford, among many others, are using toilet paper as a draw. Strange times call for strange measures, but with grocery store and pharmacy shelves cleaned out, it’s what many customers truly need. To-go orders now come with rolls of toilet paper, usually sold at cost with a strict limit of how many you can buy. We’ve entered a world where TP is as appealing as a delicious meal cooked by a world-class chef.
Meanwhile in the beverage world, vineyards and breweries adjust to to-go sales but, like restaurants, it’s a struggle. Hanging Hill Brewing Co. in Hartford will announce within the month that it is shutting down for good. On a brighter note, distilleries across the state start making hand sanitizer, offering it to customers, and donating it to first responders.
March 19 — Alcohol pass
Lamont, by executive order, makes it legal for restaurants to sell sealed containers of alcohol consistent with what is sold on site. The law would go into effect on March 20 at noon. It must be part of a takeout order being picked up by the customer that includes food prepared on premises.
It turns out restaurants are not permitted to sell mixed drinks to go, and there is fairly widespread confusion about this point on social media initially. Mexican restaurants like Cuckoo’s Nest in Old Saybrook, Los Mariachis in Wallingford, and Toro Loco Mezcaloteca in Farmington start pushing margarita mixes to go. Restaurant Bricco in West Hartford provides the ingredients for customers to make their own blood orange vodkatinis at home.
Some restaurants that have tried takeout have already abandoned those efforts and are shuttering for the time being. Others have found new success with menus that are different than their normal ones; barbecue and Italian food seem particularly popular, as do family-style trays of various fare. Some are finding success with take-home meal kits and make-your-own pizzas.
Establishments that offer delivery have expanded their areas of coverage. Crowdfunding efforts for employees continue, some owners are offering free meals for laid-off staff, as well as charitable attempts to take donations for restaurants to feed frontline health care workers and other needy individuals. Fork & Fire in Farmington is donating 25 percent of gift card purchases to their Restaurant Rescue fund, used to assist laid-off staff members.
The future, much like the present, remains uncertain. What we do know is this one week, for the restaurant industry and the world, will have a ripple effect for months and years to come.