Fine dining’s survival relies on the creativity of restaurant owners

Fine dining’s survival relies on the creativity of restaurant owners
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One Charlotte chef broke down sobbing as he described his Tuesday.

That was the day he had to lay off his entire staff, just hours after North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper issued an order to close all dining rooms and bars to anything other than takeout and delivery.

We’d rather not say which chef. Does it matter? It could have been any of them, anyone from Chris Coleman, who just opened The Goodyear House, to Greg Collier, who hadn’t even had time to open Leah & Louise on Friday. Or Paul Verica, less than two years after building his dream restaurant, The Stanley. Verica was in Italy on a food-research trip for his next restaurant, Orto, when the spread of coronavirus left him scrambling for a flight home.

The rolling disaster that is COVID-19 has swept over one of our nation’s most vibrant and creative cultures, the making, serving, and selling of the food we eat. And it has left every person in it gasping and grasping for any sign of hope.

When Tom Colicchio, the respected New York chef and longtime star of Top Chef, tells The New York Times, “This is the end of the restaurant business as we know it,” what can anyone in Charlotte’s food world say?

Maybe this: A restaurant world will return. Changed, of course. But it will return. And maybe it will return a little better.

While an entire nation has rarely faced an economic earthquake this severe, there are events we can look back on for guidance. New Orleans in 2005, for instance, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and almost destroyed what had been one of the most unique cuisines in America. In the immediate aftermath, it was hard to believe anything could emerge from the ruins.

Five years later, though, a visit to New Orleans found a dining scene that had shaken off the dust of tired tourist-trap food and rediscovered its own heritage, leading to respected new restaurants like Cochon, Peche, and the original Shaya. Older places, like Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace, even rose to a higher standard.

Bret Thorn, the senior food and beverage editor at Nation’s Restaurant News, an industry publication that covers the food business, does see a few silver linings.

“I don’t want to be ghoulish,” he says. “But when values plunge, there are opportunities.”

Real estate, for one: “Honestly, for the past two years, it’s been so hard to open restaurants in New York and San Francisco, because real estate is up and wages are out of control, that other cities have stepped up.” That one reason that smaller cities, like Nashville, Charleston and, yes, even Charlotte, have been getting more attention from the kind of tourism that is drawn to cities with vibrant food scenes.

“There are some differences in how customers are interacting that started before (coronavirus),” he says. “More food delivery, for example. If people are used to it, we’ll see restaurants get better at delivery. And after it’s over, people are going to go out and eat and drink more than they have in years.”

leahlouise-campnorthend the colliers greg subrina

Greg and Subrina Collier were supposed to open their new restaurant, Leah & Louise, on Friday, March 20. But now they have to do delivery and carry-out service for the near future.

Already, Charlotte’s chefs and restaurants are getting creative, finding ways to draw customers and keep just a little money coming in.

Bardo, for example, has $8 cocktail kits to go, with syrups and mixes (you add your own liquor).

The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority has already compiled a list of restaurant efforts all over the county that’s available at charlottesgotalot.com. They’re calling the project “Pitch In. Take Out.” It’s searchable by neighborhood, with PDFs of menus for about 150 restaurants.

Greg Collier, who owns The Yolk in now-closed 7th Street Market and was just opening Leah & Louise in Camp North End, is trying to use The Yolk to provide breakfasts and lunches that can be dropped off at uptown apartment buildings. At Leah & Louise, they’ll do delivery and carry-out service — not ideal for a restaurant no one even knows yet, but it will have to do.

“We’re looking for avenues to connect with people who are still buying food,” he says. “The crazy part is, it’s a tough time and it’s not normal. But we’ve always had this boot-strap, figure-it-out ethos. The best opportunity often comes from the worst tragedies. It shocks the system.

“Money is important, but taking care of employees is the thing. We’re going back to being hospitable.”

Bruce Moffett, one of Charlotte’s most successful restaurateurs with four locations — Barrington’s, Good Food on Montford, Stagioni, and NC Red — is struggling to at least keep his managers, so he can reopen quickly when the time comes.

He’s offering takeout from 5 to 8 p.m. this week and hopes to expand to noon to 8 p.m. next week.

At Optimist Hall, where Moffett owns Bao and Broth, they’ve already started letting people drive up to pick up orders that are run out to your car.

In previous shakeups, like the weeks after September 11, 2001, and the years right after 2008, his business was smaller, he says: “I was able to hunker down.” Now, he worries about all the independent operators, chefs who own their own restaurants, who may not survive.

“We’re all in survival mode and we have to move forward and save as much as we can, so we still have a vibrant food scene and provide work space for everyone.”

Finding the opportunities that will inevitably grow out of the next month will pay off — for those who do survive, says Bret Thorn.

“You don’t need to be a vulture. But you don’t need to sit around and cry and not do your job, which is to be an entrepreneur and service the community with wonderful service.”

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