On a normal Thursday afternoon, Josh McCullough would be deep into the hustle and bustle, preparing Slow Hand for happy hour and dinner service. Instead, he’s shoveling snow and surveying the cold, near-empty streets of downtown West Chester. “We’re surviving with takeout and limited dining capacity, but this is not a sustainable business model,” says McCullough. “It doesn’t make mathematical sense.”
It’s more of the same in Downingtown, where Jeanine Amann owns Amani’s BYOB with her husband, Jonathan, the restaurant’s executive chef. “We’re playing by the rules,” she says. “But it’s unfair to our industry. The state isn’t closing Home Depot or Walmart.”
Still, suburban restaurateurs are grateful they aren’t grappling with the increased restrictions placed on their Philadelphia counterparts. They’re also deeply grateful for the support of loyal patrons. “Our diners and the local community have absolutely saved us—not just financially but emotionally,” says Christine Kondra, who owns Wayne’s Cornerstone Bistro & Artisanal Market with her husband, Nick. “Amid all of the challenges, their support is a blessing.”
Support or no, many restaurants have had to change their business models. Case in point: Soul of Cooking Kitchen, Keith Taylor’s new Norristown dining experience. Opening this month, it features Taylor’s cooking demos, which he’ll broadcast over social media. His upscale soul food will be served in a socially distanced setting with a maximum of 16 guests in a state-of-the-art
demonstration kitchen. That’s a big change from the thousands of guests Taylor initially planned for as a private caterer and culinary consultant to sports arenas, hotels and other large venues. The pandemic erased all of that, so Taylor reinvented his company. “I wanted a COVID-safe way to connect with my customers,” he says. “Even after there’s a vaccine, it’s going to take a while for people to fill up restaurants.”
The unpredictable nature of the pandemic and the fluidity of state restrictions continue to make indoor dining problematic at best. “We’re continuing to serve, but changes—especially sudden changes— make things challenging,” says Pearl Somboonsong, director of development for the Win Signature Restaurants group, which includes Azie in Villanova and Media, Teikoku in Newtown Square, Mikado Thai Pepper in Ardmore, and the Blue Elephant in Pottstown.
Those restaurants were among the many that depended on outdoor dining through summer and fall. Winter has required more expensive and elaborate solutions. Almost from the start of the pandemic, Cornerstone’s Kondra eliminated indoor dining altogether, adding a tented, heated area in the back of the property, along with firepits. “As I was purchasing the heaters on Amazon, they were selling out while they were in my cart,” Kondra says.
The heaters were $250 a pop, and Cornerstone’s tented outdoor space set them back over $50,000. “We don’t normally have to make judgments that could be life-or-death decisions for our customers,” Kondra says. “We had to do what we thought was best.”
On the plus side, the new space nearly doubles Cornerstone’s capacity to 76 seats—when the weather cooperates. Indeed, many local restaurateurs now double as amateur meteorologists, downloading weather apps and keeping their eyes glued to local forecasts. Even slight temperature variances can throw reservations into chaos.
“People change their minds about sitting outside or inside after they made a reservation based on the weather when they arrive,” says Francisco Ramirez, executive chef of Enoteca Tredici in Bryn Mawr. “We’re happy to have them as customers and do as they ask, but it’s a real challenge with seating.”
At the Berwyn Tavern, Casey’s Pour House and Nectar in Berwyn, back decks have come in handy. Patrick Feury has also transformed part of Nectar’s parking lot into a tented dining space bordered by painted palates. Indoors, Feury was able to maintain Nectar’s gorgeous look despite the Plexiglas. “At first, I thought, ‘Are we really doing this?’ But we did,” says the executive chef and owner. “It’s amazing what we’ve gotten used to.”
McCullough likens his seating chart to a puzzle with mismatched pieces. “It’s a game of maximizing space,” he says. “Anyway the game ends, we’re still at only 50 percent capacity.”
And while takeout-only service may be an alternative, it’s more complicated than it sounds. Ramirez now knows more about to-go containers than he ever thought possible. “The food can’t get soggy, and I still want it to look good when the customer opens the package,” he says.
Ramirez worked with general manager Steve Khuu to make that happen. “The sauces alone were a whole project,” he says.
While Tredici’s to-go menu is identical to the one in the restaurant, other restaurants have scaled back. “I never imagined we’d do takeout,” says Amman of Amani BYOB, a farm-to-table restaurant known for its upscale cuisine. “But people want comfort food, and they aren’t spending as much money on restaurant meals. So we changed the menu.”
New bestsellers include a charred octopus bowl with hoisin-chili glaze and a smoked brisket version with barbecue aioli, pickled peppers and roasted mushrooms. Brisket also appears on a flatbread, accompanied by roasted peppers, pickled onions, cheddar, mozzarella and smoked Gruyère. Another inventive flatbread combines shaved Brussels sprouts, roasted beets, Brie, mozzarella and black truffle aioli.
Aimee Olexy also revamped her eatery’s dining concept, turning the tables at Talula’s Table in Kennett Square. For 14 years, the chef’s table at the award-winning market and catering business was in high demand as a dining experience. But the pandemic forced Olexy to shift to packaged products, meal replacements, and everyday foods scalable for multiple servings. “We got deep into breakfast sandwiches,” says Olexy with a laugh.
Olexy and her staff also conceived their own dinners-to-go concept, with chef-driven three-course menus that change weekly. Moderately priced, they feature seasonal products in miniature tasting experiences. “We serve 300 of those per week,” says Olexy. “We have a lot of families use them to teach their kids about different foods.”
Prior to the pandemic, Talula’s operated by cash register. Olexy has since modernized her system. “We instantly became capable of doing online sales,” she says. “It was a must for takeout, and that’s been a blessing.”
Win Restaurants also made a serious investment in takeout, quickly ramping up from near zero. “Luckily, the type of cuisine we have translates to takeout dining,” says Somboonsong. “We kept the original menu because it’s filled with exactly what people want to eat right now.”
Each Win restaurant offers family packages with special prices, and sushi is a bestseller. “It’s something people crave and don’t always know how to make at home,” Somboonsong says. “It also feels like something special to eat.”
Sushi has been good to Feury, too. Nectar’s Asian fusion—especially its wok-made dishes—package quite well. “We limited the menu so we could maximize and minimize ingredients,” he says.
Nectar’s cocktail program is also a success. Feury invested in a machine that prints custom logos his staff affixes to mason jars. Customers drink the cocktail and keep the jars.
Known for its vibrant wine list, Cornerstone expanded its vintages and its wine service. Kondra got her state transporter license, which allows her to deliver wine and beer throughout Pennsylvania. She snagged more than 100 bottles of French wine before tariffs and delivery delays were instituted. Backed by a stock of bottles priced from $22 to $8,000, Kondra works on cellar development and customer acquisitions. Now, Cornerstone has a national reach. Kondra also hosts virtual wine tastings. “It’s been fun to engage with people in a different way,” she says. “There were a lot of lines of business that I wanted to get into. Now, it’s like, ‘Let’s just do it.’ I say that often.”
McCullough has said the same thing more times than he can remember. At one point, Slow Hand was operating a grocery store to provide the community with hard-to-get items. These days, the restaurant is doing a steady business in family-style takeout meals. Clearly though, McCullough is being creative out of necessity. “Doing that dance is a little tough,” he says. “Spring is around the corner, as is the vaccine. That—and our loyal customers—are what’s getting me through.”