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With virus surging and restrictions tightening, St. Louis-area restaurants confront difficult winter

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When St. Louis County Executive Sam Page announced last week that restaurants must halt indoor dining for at least four weeks, effective Nov. 17, Katie Collier had already planned her next pivot during the coronavirus pandemic.

Katie’s Pizza & Pasta Osteria in Rock Hill and Town and Country has unveiled a new system for ordering curbside pickup and delivery online. It has launched in-house delivery to keep its employees on the payroll. It is trumpeting its “perfected” frozen pizzas, a vital revenue stream introduced back when we counted the pandemic’s duration in weeks, not months.

Collier had already noted the area’s surging number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, she said, “and we kind of sensed that this (shutdown) was coming. And so we were really ready this time.

“And we’ve also had eight months of doing this.”

Eights months into the pandemic, this new vocabulary of restaurant operations is indeed familiar. Pivots. Curbside pickup. Socially distanced tables.

Now, though, a long, difficult winter looms over restaurants. The virus is spreading out of control, further federal relief had stalled even before Congress entered its lame-duck session, and enhanced unemployment benefits expired months ago.

Interviews with more than a dozen St. Louis-area restaurant owners reveal no clear path through the storm.

“It's really hard,” said Loryn Nalic of Balkan Treat Box in Webster Groves. “It's hard to put into words, too, just because I think everyone's sort of exhausted — just naturally exhausted from the stress of what's going on and then not knowing what's going to happen.”

Andy Karandzieff of Crown Candy Kitchen is optimistic in the short term because of holiday candy sales at his 107-year-old Old North St. Louis institution.

“But I don't know what happens after Thanksgiving and Christmas,” he said. “January is the one that scares the hell out of all of us.”

New restrictions

This week’s shutdown of indoor dining in St. Louis County has shocked many in the industry, even prompting talk of defying the order and legal action.

Jim Fiala of the Crossing in Clayton and Acero in Maplewood was not surprised, however.

“I didn't expect anything different from Sam Page,” he said. “And I'm disappointed because I don't believe — with all my heart I don't believe — that restaurants are the problem. I think it's low-lying fruit.”

By pandemic standards, Fiala’s restaurants have been doing well. The Crossing has seen strong dine-in and takeout business; takeout has not been as robust at Acero, but thanks in part to its larger patio, it has welcomed more diners. Fiala has also noticed his guests spending more than usual: a nicer bottle of wine, an even more generous tip.

With the new dining-room shutdown, Fiala is not worried about his restaurants.

“It's employees that I worry about,” he said. “There's no (Paycheck Protection Program) money coming. There's no extra assistance with unemployment. I've been very happy that I've been able to keep every employee employed since the beginning, and this is the first time where I'm like, I don't know what's going to happen.”

“We’re completely screwed,” said Qui Tran, who must close the dining rooms of his family’s Brentwood restaurant Mai Lee and the Creve Coeur location of Nudo House, which he operates with Marie-Anne Velasco.

The timing is especially bad, Tran argues. Not only is there no stimulus coming to support restaurants, but restaurants also depend on November and December revenue to pay taxes.

“For someone who's worked so hard to try to keep everybody paid and try to keep everything afloat, and then now this (happens), it's completely devastating,” he said. “Because now I can't hang on to certain people.”

Tran does not blame County Executive Page for the shutdown. Instead, he echoes the pleas of health officials to wear a mask.

“And then when we don't do that, because we're all self-righteous and not considerate, I mean, stuff like this happens,” he said.

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Gerard Craft of Niche Food Group (left) Qui Tran of Mai Lee and Nudo House in 2016 at the Great Taste

No secret recipe

Yet even where dining rooms remain open, there is no secret recipe for navigating the months to come.

In the city, where dine-in service is currently allowed at 50% capacity, John Perkins has begun welcoming guests back inside his Central West End restaurant Juniper.

In July, Perkins announced he was voluntarily closing his dining room “for the foreseeable future” to focus on takeout and delivery. For the past couple of months, though, what Juniper has earned each week has been consistent and “a far cry from what we need to be pulling in.”

The issue is not the takeout-delivery model, per se, Perkins believes, but public perception.

Juniper may change its model, he said, “but that doesn't mean that we've changed who we are in the mind of the public. And people don't come to Juniper for a takeout experience.

“I don't care how well we've adapted to that. It's not who we are and not how the public thinks of us.”

Cafe Natasha's is also not viewed as a takeout restaurant, said Natasha Bahrami, who operates the Tower Grove East restaurant with her mother, Hamishe Bahrami.

Still, she said, “I think we were surprised that whatever our takeout (business) is, it's been staying steady, and it's a massive help to our survival.

“However, that's where the decision to open (the) inside came. Unfortunately, there's no possibility for us to survive off of takeout. Even if that increases double, we still can't survive off of takeout.”

When the weather permits, Cafe Natasha's is seating diners on its patio rather than in its dining rooms. The cost of installing heaters on that patio is prohibitive, Bahrami said, so the restaurant is banking on some pleasant days over the months to come.

“We’re going take whatever we get right through the St. Louis winter,” she said.

Greenhouses pop up at Olio as service moves outdoors

Arthur Miller, the boulanger at Olio, makes Druze pita as he tests recipes before dinner service on Nov. 12, 2020. 

Few restaurants have transformed their outdoor space as dramatically as Ben Poremba’s Olio in Botanical Heights. Poremba expanded its patio into what had been a small parking lot, and alongside regular patio tables he installed individual “greenhouses,” each with a table inside.

When guests make reservations online, Poremba says, “they want to sit in the greenhouses. It’s kind of cool to see.”

In addition to Olio, Poremba operates two other restaurants in the neighborhood — the adjacent Elaia and Nixta — as well as a retail store, AO&Co. (His fourth restaurant, the Benevolent King in Maplewood, remains closed until further notice.)

“I think I can sustain a good chunk of my business through that store,” he said.

Still, if the coming winter is cold, and there is no further financial relief (he is hopeful, but not counting on it), Poremba believes no restaurants will be able to survive without “sacrificing the health of the employees and sacrificing the health of the guests by sitting more and more people inside.”

Greenhouses pop up at Olio as service moves outdoors

La Christian cleans outdoor greenhouses before guests arrive for dinner at Olio on Nov. 12, 2020. Owner Ben Poremba installed the structures in preparation for winter dining during a pandemic. 

Making it work

Some restaurants that have voluntarily closed their dining rooms or have generally not relied on dine-in service have found a way forward.

Stone Soup Cottage in Cottleville pivoted from fine dining that requires reservations months in advance to home delivery of a three-course dinner (candle, linens and stemware included).

The “Cottage to Carriage” program has been a “blessing” owner Carl McConnell said — so successful that he and his wife and co-owner, Nancy, have no immediate plans to reopen Stone Soup’s dining room, even though St. Charles County allows it.

“I think that hard times spur creativity in a lot of people,” McConnell said.

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Chef Carl McConnell works in 2018 in the kitchen at Stone Soup Cottage in Cottleville.

Steve’s Hot Dogs in Tower Grove East sees an occasional guest in its dining room, but owner Steve Ewing said the restaurant’s small size has meant a focus on takeout and delivery. It fits with the restaurant’s mission.

“We're in a neighborhood,” Ewing said, “and the idea is to feed the neighborhood folks, folks that don't want to cook, who want to come home from work (and) get some food for the kids wherever it's convenient.”

To supplement its takeout-only service, Rice Thai Bistro in Winchester has started selling bottles of its stir-fry and pad thai sauces.

Bryan Prapaisilpa, who operates the restaurant with his wife, Nina, said while being open for dine-in service would be better, “I think we can make it through” the pandemic.

After its initial shutdown this spring, SweetArt Bakeshop & Café in Shaw has offered only curbside pickup since May.

“It's been working better than I thought it would, and I am so grateful,” owner Reine Bayoc said.

She credits a number of factors: a “loyal crew” of fans of SweetArt’s baked goods and savory plant-based fare; regular daily specials; new customers seeking to support Black-owned businesses during the turmoil that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Bayoc is optimistic about the future.

“There have been so many other mishaps in these last 12 years that should have taken me out,” she said. “SweetArt should've been dead 12 years ago, eight years ago, five years ago, and for some reason, by the grace of God and the ancestors, I've always managed to keep it going.

“I believe that will continue. I believe I'll close when I want to, not because I have to.”

A fragmented region

That no one formula for riding out the pandemic can fit every restaurant should not be surprising. But with dining rooms now closed in the county and closed since late October in the Metro East, the region’s restaurants do not share the same playing field.

Vito’s in the Valley in Chesterfield was “as busy as we can be, with the restrictions and the guidelines and everything like that,” owner Giovanni LaFata said in an interview before the county’s new public-health order.

The restaurant had a plan for a reduction to 25% capacity, LaFata’s wife and co-owner, Jessica, said in an interview after the county order was announced, "but to go from 50% to zero dine-in is a shock."

LaFata said she feels both “targeted” and “isolated” by the new shutdown.

“It was really only this industry that's having to close indoors, and (we are) also the only county that's doing it,” she said. “I feel like we're kind of sandwiched in between other open counties, and so I don't know how effective that is.”

Matt McGuire of Louie in Clayton, just west of the city-county line, agrees.

“Obviously, it's going to hurt all of us in the county really bad,” he said. "But the frustrating part is, without any coordination, it's sort of like a parable for what the greater national problem is, that we don't have any coordination at all.”

Beast Butcher & Block

Meggan and David Sandusky, owners of Beast Butcher & Block

David Sandusky, who with his wife, Meggan, owns the Beast barbecue restaurants, finds himself on both sides of the divide. Beast Butcher & Block in Forest Park Southeast’s Grove neighborhood remains open for limited dine-in as well as takeout and delivery, while the original Beast Craft BBQ Co. in Belleville had to close its dining room last month.

“We are following the mitigations, and it's destroyed our business,” he said. “We're doing January numbers all year, and that's obviously real bad.”

The Sanduskys are focusing on adding revenue streams. They have already launched one ghost kitchen, Wing Runner STL, and plan additional concepts. They are opening a new location in Columbia, Illinois, and launching a food truck.

“Our goal right now is just to throw as many things at the wall as we can to survive the next few months, hope that a vaccine comes out sometime soon, and hope for the best,” Sandusky said.

“Hope is really the only thing that that we have to hang on to.”

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