As he prepared for the possibility that Virginia restaurants might soon reopen outdoor areas to customers, Hops N Shine co-owner Matt Rofougaran spent last week hustling to make his Alexandria beer garden as safe from COVID-19 as possible. He raced to Home Depot to buy supplies for a plexiglass sneeze-guard that will separate customers and bartenders. He stocked shelves that usually held glasses and plates with face masks and disinfectant wipes. By Monday, he had made a plan to rearrange the entire back patio, going beyond the state’s minimum requirements for 6 feet of distancing by spacing tables 10 feet apart.
Rofougaran was working to create an antiseptic environment in time for Virginia’s targeted May 15 start to the first phase of its reopening plan. Then he heard Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announce that Northern Virginia would diverge from the rest of the state by waiting to lift restrictions on businesses until at least two weeks later.
For restaurateurs in Northern Virginia, chasing moving targets has added to a sense of uncertainty. Everyone is grappling with the same issue: how to sell enough food to cover rent and payroll while also keeping everyone safe. But each individual’s response to the government’s guidelines depends on the buildings they have to work with, the type of food they serve, and their comfort level with being on the front lines of a public health crisis.
Rofougaran knew a delayed reopening was likely in Northern Virginia, because local leaders had already pushed Northam on the issue. Getting more time to prepare was ultimately a relief. He’d be able to figure out the seating configuration and train staff that would need to be brought back. But there was a part of him that felt a twinge when he looked outside, too. The patio at Hops N Shine will sit empty this weekend, which will be a disappointment to the regulars who had been emailing him trying to reserve a table.
“Unfortunately, the weather is going to be amazing on Friday, which kind of is bad timing,” Rofougaran says. “But I understand. I don’t want to open up and risk my employees or my customers getting sick.”
Ivan Iricanin, the restaurateur behind Balkan small-plates place Ambar and the Mexican complex that combine Buena Vida with Tacos Tortas Tequila, also thinks it’s a good decision to wait a little longer. In his capacity as Street Guys Hospitality CEO, Iricanin has restaurants throughout D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. “I’m hopeful to start ASAP, but I’m glad that it’s not this week,” says Iricanin, telling Eater he suspected that parts of Maryland and Northern Virginia would move along with District’s timeline. “The people are interconnected.”
Iricanin is ahead of the curve, because he’s been keeping tabs on restaurants his company owns in Serbia. With some six restaurants in Belgrade already back in business, Iricanin has seen customers flood back, and he’s considering strategies to allay anxieties for stateside customers. He’s thinking about buying fogging machines that can disinfect the restaurants every night and implementing reservation-only, pay-up-front seating. Hosting a separate dining hour for older customers is another possibility.
The most dramatic change for Iricanin’s business is a move toward delivery-only “ghost kitchens.” He’s already brought his Ambar brand to Silver Spring by having the Mexican kitchen at the Buena Vida there and cranking out Balkan dishes in addition to ceviches, enchiladas, and flautas. He says he might also bring Mexican food to the original Ambar in Capitol Hill, which shut down before the pandemic to undergo a $3 million renovation. He says he could reopen it for takeout tacos, or wait until D.C. begins reopening (by June 8 or earlier, according to the latest mayoral order).
“We need to be flexible, we need to be ready for whatever, we need to be smart,” he says.
Is opening patios at half capacity, as stated in Virginia’s reopening plan, going to help the bottom line for restaurants?
“I don’t think it makes any financial sense at all,” Iricanin says. “It doesn’t make any sense, because if you pay rent, if you pay your employees, bring the manager back, I think you can definitely not be profitable.”
Opening patios only is a start, however, and Iricanin sees it as a way to ease back into business.
While restaurateurs like Rofougaran and Iricanin agree with a cautious approach to reopening, some of their peers are growing impatient. Chad Sparrow, the managing partner at Alexandria-based restaurant group Common Plate Hospitality (Mason Social, Urbano 116, Augie’s Mussel House and Beer Garden), spent the last week staffing up and ordering food for Augie’s in Old Town. The property, which has a recently renovated patio, has been completely closed but would have been ready to go Friday.
“I’m definitely surprised — frustrated, honestly — with the delays,” Sparrow says. “I don’t understand how legally, Virginia and Northern Virginia have never been separated on any legal terms in history, and now they’re separating what the governor’s passing and changing it.”
The decision to treat Northern Virginia separately came at the request of public officials across the region, who sent a memo from their health directors showing COVID-19 cases were much more acute in their counties than the rest of the state. Data shared by the governor’s office show that around 70 percent of the state’s new cases are traced to Northern Virginia.
However, Sparrow says he thinks there’s been a real lack of direction for restaurateurs, and that he also doesn’t understand the logic of some of the Phase I rules, including allowing churches to hold socially distant worship inside.
“The restrictions for restaurants are already pretty extreme. Only 50 percent of exterior seating. We’re practicing all types of sanitization, wearing masks,” Sparrow says. “Churches are 50 percent inside occupancy; it doesn’t have any logic behind it. Churches aren’t cleaned the same as restaurants are. You can have mega churches that could be 2,000 people; you could have up to 1,000 people in a space.”
Common Plate Hospitality’s Paycheck Protection Program loan runs out the first week of June, and Sparrow is worried that he still won’t need his full staff at that point, because the first phase will start two weeks later than anticipated.
“I don’t feel small businesses had any voice in this decision,” Sparrow says.
While Sparrow thinks the state is dragging its feet, one of his peers in Alexandria feels reopening may be coming too soon. Nicole Jones, the chef-owner behind the popular, biscuit-centric cafe Stomping Ground and Bagel Uprising next door, says she plans to stick with a carryout model until there’s a vaccine or another science-driven solution that makes her feel comfortable seating customers. Even on the Bagel Uprising patio, she doesn’t see herself hosting diners for the foreseeable future.
Switching business models is too expensive and labor-intensive for her to consider toggling back and forth between spikes in infections, she says.
“I’ve got two tiny little restaurants. The idea of trying to retool my business model yet again to keep people in that scenario, it just doesn’t make sense, and I don’t feel safe doing it,” Jones says.
She questions the timing, given that there are increasing reports of employees at restaurants across the region testing positive for COVID-19.
“We are for the first time seeing family members or staff people in the area actually either testing positive or seeing someone in their family test positive,” she says. “Those of us who have been working during this time are finally starting to see really scary stuff.”
While Jones considers herself lucky that biscuits and bagels translate well for takeout, other popular restaurants in Northern Virginia aren’t so fortunate. Places that proved popular when close gatherings were allowed are now reckoning with how to reopen, especially those without patios.
In Fairfax, Christopher Kim is wondering what’s next for his Korean barbecue restaurant, Meokja Meokja.
“We don’t have an outdoor seating area, so that doesn’t include us,” he says of the Phase I plans. People come to Meokja Meokja for the experience of seeing short ribs and pork belly sizzle on a grill in front of them, he says. Carryout has mostly been a wash.
“There’s no way we can keep the restaurant open on the takeout business alone,” Kim says. “Even if it tripled, or quadrupled or quintupled, what we were doing right now, I don’t think it would be enough.”
He’s thinking through his plans for when the dining room can be open again, whether that’s spacing out tables or asking customers to wait in their cars until their tables are ready. Kim says he will take every precaution he can to help diners feel comfortable, and he says he has a “safety net” to help weather this crisis. But not every restaurant does. “I think that most restaurant owners, especially the ones that are immigrants, they’re probably going to want to open. Otherwise, they’re going to have to close forever if they don’t.”
One such restaurant, Vietnamese institution Four Sisters, won’t be welcoming diners back to its spacious Merrifield dining room right away. But it does plan to open for takeout on May 25 after going dormant for two months. Four Sisters Grill, a casual outpost in Clarendon, has already been running pickup service. At the flagship, co-owner Le Lai says she has slashed the 170-item menu in half, prioritizing dishes that travel well. “You have to think of a nice crispy sea bass,” she says. “By the time you bring it home, the presentation and the taste is not going to be the same as you eating there.”
For the first time in nearly three decades of business, Four Sisters is using social media to market itself. Lai started a Facebook page for the restaurant earlier this month.
“Our restaurant’s been in the business for 27 years, so they call us the veteran Vietnamese restaurant because we’ve been here so long,” Lai says. “We had nothing on Facebook, we have nothing on Instagram, nothing on Twitter. We didn’t need to. We didn’t do any ads; it’s all word of mouth and press. It’s very, very local.”
Lai wants to make ordering as easy as possible for takeout customers, whether they want to use a third-party delivery app or are less tech savvy and just want to call in an order. She also imagines someday operating a fast-casual style option outside, where customers might use a self-service system.
“Thank God we have a patio. We have to be very creative now,” she says. “I can not visualize a server having to wear a mask and take orders to a customer wearing a mask trying to order, and you can’t hear each other.”
She hopes that implementing changes at Four Sisters will keep it going for the long run.
“We are adjusting to a new lifestyle. And hopefully we survive this bump and we can be around with our neighborhood customers,” Lai says. “We’ve been here so long, we just hope that we can continue our business.”
- Northern Virginia Restaurants Could Reopen Outdoor Seating at the End of May [EDC]
- Virginia and Maryland Counties Surrounding D.C. Pump the Brakes on Reopening Plans [EDC]
- Virginia’s First Phase of Reopening Will Limit Restaurants to Outdoor Seating Only [EDC]
- Reopening guidelines for Virginia businesses [Virginia.gov]