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What we’ve learned: The dining industry confronts a new reality

(Editor’s note: Previous issues of Startup Missouri have included the feature “My Biggest Mistake,” in which Missouri entrepreneurs share the hard-won knowledge they’ve acquired while launching their businesses. Because this issue focuses on first-time business challenges resulting from COVID-19, we’ve posed a different question to a sector hit particularly hard by the ongoing pandemic.)

Startup restaurants

From left: Brad Phillips, Blood & Sand’s GM and beverage director ; White Box Catering co-owner Courtney Curtwright (top middle) and employee Bee Feldewert (bottom middle); Arlene Maminta Browne and Stanley Browne, who own and run Robust Wine Bar. (Photos courtesy of Blood & Sand, White Box Catering and Robust Wine Bar)

As coronavirus spread throughout the world and into the United States, government leaders told restaurant and bar owners to do something unimaginable: Shut down all in-house dining indefinitely to stop the spread of the highly contagious and deadly disease.

Coupled with the stay-at-home orders issued by local leaders and Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, this created an economic catastrophe for establishments that constitute many of Missouri’s 523,459 small businesses — which in turn represent 99.4 percent of all business in the state, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

So how is Missouri’s restaurant industry weathering the coronavirus storm? Through social media posts and news articles, restaurants, bars and other food companies are letting their customers know how they’ve adapted to follow social distancing guidelines while still trying to pay their employees and remain in business.

Through home delivery, curbside pickup and apps such as Grubhub, Missouri restaurants altered their menus and began operating exclusively through curbside pickup and delivery.

A month after coronavirus shut down much of the nation, we spoke with industry players to find out how they’re coping, what they’re doing and what they’ve learned so far.

Blood & SandSt. Louis

Brad Phillips, Blood & Sand’s general manager and beverage director, said his team began planning for this pandemic in December 2019 when the virus hit China.

Blood & Sand

Blood & Sand offers romantic “feasts for two” with wine to enjoy at home. (Courtesy Blood & Sand)

“We knew it was eventually going to get here on our shores, and we wanted to make sure we could be as nimble as possible as these different scenarios played out,” he said. They also began to brainstorm an altogether different menu for curbside pickup or delivery because their dine-in menu items would not travel well.

Phillips said the planning began by analyzing how they were spending money to ensure that the restaurant would have a nest egg to fall back on if it had to close due to the coronavirus.

Team members also discussed and decided on a delivery radius limit (5 miles) and how they would use their retail license to sell wine, beer and “make-your-own” craft cocktails for home consumption.

In addition, they were developing a new online ordering system long before March.

“A lot of plans were in place pretty early,” Phillips said. “Then what we did was put our ear to the ground and see what other restaurants were doing to make sure we weren’t out of step and also making sure our prices were on point.”

Started as a members-only club about nine years ago, Blood & Sand opened to the public approximately two years ago. Serving contemporary cuisine focused on fresh, local ingredients and high-end cocktails, the restaurant employs about 15 people.

A typical dinner at Blood & Sand costs on average $80 to $100 a person, but its staff knew that price point would need to be drastically reduced for delivery and carry-out.

“We wanted to maintain the quality of ingredients and menus as well as cocktails, wine and spirits to go, all while being mindful that the average guest was going to spend about $20 a person,” Philips said.

Blood & Sand also is offering what it calls “romantic nights at home” to mimic the restaurant’s dining-in atmosphere. It offers “feasts for two” with price points ranging from $45-$140, including one or two bottles of wine and multicourse meals for two people. The to-go menu now changes about once a week.

“Basically what we do is, every Saturday we sit down and talk about the menu and cocktails, and most importantly we talk about our messaging. I type it out, I give it to the staff to review, and Monday morning we are ready to roll with a unified message,” he said. “There were some growing pains, but I think now we have it down to a pretty clear science.”

Blood & Sand’s goal is ultimately to have its new, to-go guests remember their meals and visit the restaurant once normal operations resume. Before the virus, Philips said, about 90 percent of the restaurant’s business came from out-of-town travelers — now the restaurant has had to tap into the trends and demands of the St. Louis-area dining scene, Phillips said.

Even with their foresight, Blood & Sand furloughed seven employees, although the head chef, wine director and a bartender are still working along with Philips. They told their employees to apply for unemployment about a week before many other restaurants and bars shut down across the state in hopes they would file before the influx of claims began piling up. The restaurant is applying for business grants to bring those employees back onto the payroll.

It also is offering a free meal to anyone in the service industry, which can be picked up between noon and 9 p.m. every day except Sunday.

“It was really about being nimble. I think the goal posts have started to move a little less quickly, but that first week the goal posts were moving every hour,” Phillips said.

White Box CateringSt. Louis

White Box Catering

White Box Catering has pivoted its business toward heat-and-serve meals for people’s homes and boxed lunches for catered events. Because White Box is a scratch kitchen, its staff is preparing food that’s been ordered for home delivery a day in advance. (Photo courtesy White Box Catering)

White Box Catering is a partnership between owners Courtney Curtwright, the former catering director of Whitebox Eatery, and Jen Sanders, the former general manager of Whitebox Eatery.

The two run a scratch kitchen catering service that focuses on healthy foods for breakfast, brunch, lunch and happy hours. They employ four full-time employees and about 10 service industry people who are on call to work at events as bartenders and servers. Their main business is corporate catering, but they also do weddings, parties and other events.

When mid-March hit, Curtwright said, the catering company lost $4,000 in sales in just two days. With a long list of event cancellations, she said, they’re now lucky to have one to four catering gigs a day — a sharp drop from their average of about 20 caterings a day.

“We do a ton of big events, so that has been a hard hit, and all of our events through June have been canceled,” she said. “We’ve had to pivot our entire business towards more heat-and-serve meals for people’s homes, and we are just trying to stay positive and find ways to work during this time.”

Curtwright noted that because they are a scratch kitchen, they are only preparing food for home delivery that’s been ordered a day ahead.

They’re promoting this service on Instagram and on Facebook pages devoted to helping local food businesses stay afloat during social distancing orders.

The pivoting has proved to be a little difficult, she said, especially given the panic-buying at grocery stores during the beginning of the pandemic.

“People bought so much food in the beginning. They say, ‘As soon as we have more room in the fridge, we will order [from White Box],’” she said. “It’s a crazy time, but we are trying to stay positive.”

The White Box Catering team continued  to innovate with such offerings as Easter Day specials that included cookie-decorating kits for children, party trays and heat-and-serve Easter meals.

“We are very fortunate that our first year we saved some of our profits so that we can continue to pay employees their hourly rate, but they are not getting a lot of tips,” she said. “[Our employees] were very scared and nervous at first when everything started. We told them we were going to for sure pay them their hourly pay at least, but not their tips, which are usually a good amount. They are working a couple hours every day.”

Curtwright says they should be able to stay afloat and pay their rent for the kitchen in which they work in Coronado Place and Towers, around the corner from The Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis.

“[The virus] has definitely been a wakeup call,” Curtwright said. “. . . We are pretty grateful that we decided to save some of our profits the first year. I think we will be okay for a little bit, but if this continues for months and months this could definitely become a problem.”

It’s not all bad, though. Curtwright noted that some of the ideas they’ve brought to life, such as heat-and-serve home meals and boxed lunches (to minimize the spread of germs), likely will become a permanent fixture in their catering business once the pandemic restrictions have been lifted.

“I am proud of everyone for being so supportive in this time,” she said. “For local businesses and restaurants, it’s been amazing to see the community come together.”

Robust Wine BarWebster Groves

Arlene Maminta Browne and Stanley Browne opened Robust Wine Bar about 13 years ago in Webster Groves, a St. Louis suburb. It began as a full-service restaurant that offered small plates to pair with robust wines, but its menu has expanded to include entree-sized meals.

Robust Wine Bar

Stanley Browne delivers wine to a customer at Robust Wine Bar’s “Together We Wine Stand.” From 4 to 6 p.m. daily, customers can swing by and buy a bottle of wine in the price range of $12-17. (Courtesy Robust Wine Bar)

Arlene said she and Stanley began dabbling in delivery and takeout without much success a few months before the coronavirus hit the United States.

In the days leading up to the shutdown of bars and restaurants, she said, they began reassuring their customers.

“So when the coronavirus was just being talked about and hadn’t really hit St. Louis or Missouri yet, we did start letting our customers know we were taking precautions to keep everything sanitized — we were washing hands and wiping down surfaces every hour through the day,” she said. “As it got worse, and we found out they were going to shut us down, that’s when we said we were going to do curbside services and delivery.”

On March 19, they shut down the restaurant to comply with government regulations. That was also the day they furloughed about 20 service employees, although they were able to keep on chefs, a sommelier and a manager.

“What I think is so great about our staff is that they support and they want us to do well so they can come back and work for us again,” Arlene said. “They want it to work. They are family to us, and they know that. We are just trying to work really hard and make it work. We have to just stay positive, and it’s hard to stay positive.”

The Brownes have added a 20 percent gratuity to all orders, which they distribute to their furloughed employees. The pair also started a GoFundMe page for the furloughed staff.

Although their dining room is closed for business, Arlene said they are lucky because the restaurant holds a retail license to sell cases of wine.

“That helped really increase our wine sales,” she said. “We started to change our menu up to be more family-friendly, with things like pasta kits and freezable meals.”

During the first week or so of the shutdown, the restaurant was handling a lot of curbside pickup orders, she said. That has shifted to a majority of orders being for delivery — including cases of wine, sometimes handpicked by Stanley, who is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine.

They are also doing what they call “Together We Wine Stand,” an adult twist on the lemonade-stand model. From 4 to 6 p.m. every day, customers can swing by and buy a bottle of wine in the price range of $12-$17. Arlene said it’s been well-received.

“ … Every day we are thinking of new ideas. Out of crisis comes creativity,” she said, noting they are currently working on “Grill and Chill” packages for people to take home and enjoy in their backyards.

The majority of their delivery and pickup business comes from customers who were regulars before the virus forced them to close, she said. Some of those people, she said, are ordering two to three times a week.

The industry as a whole will never be the same in the post-virus era, Arlene said, and some of the ideas they’ve implemented during the crisis will become permanent fixtures for Robust Wine Bar: specifically, delivery (run by people in-house) and being available to customers through a rapid-response, text-message system.

“I feel like we have to be so available at any moment of any day because that could be a sale,” and that service mantra will remain long after the pandemic, she said.

In the meantime, Robust Wine Bar will continue to deliver wine and food while promoting itself online through Facebook pages, Instagram and email blasts.

“Stanley and I do videos as much as possible, just so they can see our faces and know we are here and trying to make it as personable as possible,” Arlene said.

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