And chefs and owners face the reality of rethinking their businesses for future survival.
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pandemic options at milton's cuisine and cocktails
Credit: Courtesy of Milton's Cuisine & Cocktails

Herculean. That is the word I would use to describe the lengths restaurants are going to in an effort to weather the pandemic. The innovation, the care for their customers and employees, the sheer determination is impressive as eateries that have always occupied the cozy, neighborhood restaurant persona, expand into virtual spaces and purveyors of raw materials.

In Milton, Georgia, Derek Dollar and his team at Milton's Cuisine and Cocktails closed on March 17th, St. Patrick's Day, as a dine-in restaurant and opened two days later as a 30-minute-meal pickup spot and meat market.

"People couldn't get meat at the grocery store or at Costco. We had a line on quality products, so we started selling meat. We individually Cryovaced salmon, ribeyes, filets, and any other products we had on hand or could get easily. We started selling them right out of the back door. Honestly, it saved our business. Customers lined their cars up caravan-style, filling our large parking lot. We had to be innovative and fight for every dollar we could make," Chef Derek Dollar said. All tips collected while the restaurant was shut down went to aid employees whose hours were reduced. In total, Dollar said they raised about $50,000 that helped keep staff going while dining restrictions were in place.

The pseudo-butcher shop was not the only effort Dollar made. The historic farmhouse restaurant sits on a gorgeous plot of land that is often booked for weddings and special events. Dollar and team moved all dining outside, safely-distanced, once partial opening returned.

"The demand was so high for outdoor seating because over the years we have built a relationship with our community that we will take care of them and treat them right. We're their neighborhood restaurant. Their kids grow up coming to dinner here, and they celebrate birthdays and anniversaries here. We are on a first name basis with many guests, we know their kids' names, what type of dog they have, we are part of the community and when all this set in, they supported us. They were not going to let us fail. It's been humbling," Dollar said. That seems to be a trend with independent restaurants — they are part of the fabric of our communities; they are members of our extended families.

Milton's Cuisine & Cocktails
Milton's Cuisine & Cocktails in Milton, Georgia
| Credit: Courtesy of Milton's Cuisine & Cocktails

Supper Clubs Go Virtual

Milton's is not the only establishment wading into uncharted waters as the pandemic drags on. Urban Acorn in Toronto, Canada is known for their "flexitarian" communal dinner parties. They flipped the model of in-person dinners to Virtual Vegan Supper Clubs via Zoom and Instagram Live. As the husband-and-wife team, Daniel and Marie, say, "...food is the original social media." They coordinate deliveries all over the city so guests can still connect, mingle, and share food experiences.

Juliet down in Boston, Mass., is also going virtual with their Restaurants Without Walls initiative. They are offering takeout of regular menu items, but this is their way to, "...keep cooking and engaging…" with the community while the COVID-19 health crisis continues to make in-person experiences dangerous.

A cool aspect of Juliet is their approach to pay. All staff are paid a living wage and participate in a profit-sharing program that gives them a stake in where they work. It is a program called Open Book Management, and they are not the only Boston business adopting this model.

Mei Mei, the brainchild of the Li siblings, also utilizes Open Book Management. As their website says, "At Mei Mei, we're on a mission to provide not only great food and wonderful service, but also a thoughtfully crafted dining experience that seeks to address the complicated ethics that surround restaurant food and restaurant work. Restaurants can reflect the problems of the world we live in, but they can also be engines for change."

Mei Mei also is offering virtual experiences. They have a selection of classes you can take from Dumpling-making to hand-pulled noodles, cooking with kids to knife skills, and more. They have also branched out into pop-ups where you can buy their famous dumplings at farmers' markets around town.

Some will remember Brother Luck from a past season of Top Chef on Bravo. He also threw his hat in the virtual cooking game. His restaurant, Lucky Dumpling, in Colorado Springs has DIY Culinary Kits that come with a cooking class via Facebook. The featured fare has been everything from pork tenderloin with risotto and peach crumble to green chile-smothered pork dumplings. And, they come with a signature cocktail for extra enjoyment.

Stand-out Offerings Help Restaurants Stand Out

Another kitschy offering comes from across the pond in Edinburgh. Alby's, a much-loved sandwich shop, upped their game with takeout kits and a link to a Zoom sandwich-making party. Their "big hot sandwiches" in the raw like the signature short-rib with red sauerkraut, parsnip chips, and horseradish mayo were a big hit with locals.

Back on this side of the Atlantic, Cadre flipped to a specialty grocer. The French-inspired, Wisconsin restaurant partnered with local farm Vitruvian to make pestos, soups, and sauces they could then sell through the farm. They also are developing new sausage recipes for local butcher shop, Conscious Carnivore. Again, it seems like nothing is off the table as restaurants find ways to survive this time of devastating loss.

Eventually, there is hope we will move towards some semblance of normality. It may not resemble life pre-pandemic — many restaurants are closing permanently even while others are trying to pivot — but there is hope for something closer to the dining experiences we all enjoyed and long for still.

In looking at how restaurants might fare in this new mid-pandemic world, Chef Derek Dollar had some interesting insights: "Restaurant design moving forward, I think, has to incorporate a bar you can walk up to easily or a garage door where you can easily get out and serve. We don't want to think about it, but if something like this happens again and there is a shutdown, the people who fight back and learn to be creative will be the survivors."

He continues, "As an industry, we need to think about pushing everything to the outside walls of our restaurants and give yourself the ability to pivot on a dime. We need to be able to say with certainty we could become a walk-up business if necessary, we can utilize our outdoor spaces effectively and safely, we can change our mindsets about what we serve while still staying true to our commitment to quality and community."