The State of Gainesville Restaurants: In Their Own Words PART I

We're almost six months into this pandemic with only hopes that there's an end in sight. While I've spoken out numerous times over the last few months about the need to support our local restaurants, old favorites closing, and new faces popping up...I thought it best to let 10 local restaurant owners share their thoughts in their own words. From food trucks to more upscale fare, counter service to sit-down, and from longtime stalwarts to opening during the height of the pandemic...this is what they're seeing first-hand. This is Part I of a two-part article. Part II will be released this Sunday, August 30th.

(In alphabetical order by restaurant name)

Nataly Meth - Co-Owner Cilantro Tacos

2020 - What a tumultuous year. As a sibling owner duo, what does it take to run a small business in the midst of a pandemic? My brother Nate and I had the difficult task of navigating our growing business of 36 employees, food trucks, catering, and brick and mortar during this time.

February 2020 marked our one year anniversary of Cilantro Tacos being in Tioga Town Center and it was a time of perspective for our company. After operating for 5 years in the quaint downtown area of Newberry, we felt excited to form the bridge in between Gainesville and suburban Newberry. When the shutdown took place in March, we scrambled to figure out how we were going to keep our staff employed and customers safe, not to mention the rising food costs due to shortages everywhere in the country. With food trucks no longer operating, we felt the pressure to keep our staff and the expectations of our community. We hand picked each of our staff each week and made travel guidelines. We educated them about safe hygiene, as well as providing them the proper utility to come to work everyday. Because our location dining space is so small, we had to adapt and start serving takeout only as most food establishments. With the help of our friend Victoria Liu, from Byppo Technologies, we were able to transition quickly into curbside pickup and online ordering.

After many months of sleepless nights, we both can agree that this pandemic has pushed the depths of our critical thinking. We did not let go of any staff due to COVID-19, and we are proud to say it. We watched as some of our seniors graduate and some long time members move into their career paths. We even adapted our catering events to serve safely with sneeze guards, individual packed lunches, and even Hero Lunches to our local hospitals, schools, and police departments. We watched as the Gainesville community uplifted local businesses and saw small businesses support one another. Although we are sad to see some businesses close, we would like to remind everyone what small businesses build in the community. We are so thankful everyday for the patrons that continue to support us, and we are excited for our future endeavors. Like everything, this shall too pass. This will not be our forever, but for now it is face masks, gloves on, and a never ending fire to serve our community.

Fred Brown - Owner

Crane Ramen

The last 6 months have been the most financially and emotionally stressful period in Crane's nearly six-year history. Crane Ramen is a tiny restaurant that relies on high customer volume and turnover to be profitable. For the restaurant to succeed, we need to be turning tables constantly during our service. Florida’s Coronavirus rules allow service in our dining room at 50% capacity, but due to the small size and limited seating, including bar seating being a quarter of our capacity, it is impossible for the restaurant to operate profitably under these conditions. Even at 50% occupancy it remains a losing proposition economically.

For the safety and peace of mind of our staff and customers we have chosen to keep our dining room closed. We remain open for take-out and delivery through Bite Squad and 352 Delivery. Our staff is striving to stay positive and stay creative, offering more vegetarian and other enticing weekly specials along with the bar staff’s to-go cocktail creations.

Commendably, the City of Gainesville is currently working on a plan to help by closing off some downtown streets, allowing for additional outdoor seating, and permitting people to walk around with alcoholic beverages. But for that to work people will need a reason to come spend time downtown. Without programming and attractions, and a necessary comfort level of people being out in public, this model may not work. But as the temperatures cool down in the coming months this could be a benefit for all of the hospitality businesses downtown as it has been in other cities. In Crane’s case it would enable us to have nearly full capacity with minimal seating inside, so it’s probably worth a try.

As far as the restaurant industry writ large will go, it’s not clear what the future holds. I read articles almost daily that talk about the paradigm shift that restaurants will have to make to survive in the post-pandemic world. In the short run, yes, restaurants need to find new ways to generate revenue when they can't fill their dining rooms. Unfortunately, many restaurants don't have the flexibility or the sort of food that will allow them to find those solutions. Nor do many have the cash reserves or access to credit to weather the coming months, and we will see many more places shut down. I believe that in the long run this pandemic will fade with the advent of a vaccine and treatment, and the restaurant industry will come back. We hope to be among the survivors. I long for people to again be clamoring to slurp ramen shoulder to shoulder at Crane Ramen. I hope that is in our future, but nothing’s guaranteed.

David Anders - Owner

Dave's New York Deli

It's hard to believe that we are in our sixth month of dealing with the effects of the Coronavirus Pandemic. No sports, no schools, closed businesses, open businesses with restrictions and more. People are still afraid to leave their homes for fear of contracting the virus. And then, there are the restaurants. We are essential, we are needed, we are doing everything we can to keep our staff employed and safely serve our customers. For those of us who chose to stay open, we were immediately tasked with figuring out how to do so with over 50% less business overnight. At Dave’s New York Deli in Tioga Town Center, when we were required to close our dining room, we immediately ramped up our takeout, we added curbside delivery and hired DoorDash as our 3rd party delivery company.

We were faced with many challenges from the beginning and we are still dealing with many of them now. Our biggest challenge has been the supply chain. Shortly after the closing of schools, colleges and restaurant dining rooms, the large scale food vendors who supply not only independent restaurants but also colleges, schools and more were left with millions of dollars in inventory with no place to deliver it. Many stopped ordering food and supplies until their inventories were reduced. Many food manufacturers stopped producing due to the lack of orders. This has had a trickle down effect on all of us. About midway through, many of the items we order every week were becoming scarce with limited or no availability. This just added another level of stress to an already bad situation.

While we dealt with the effects of the supply chain, we concentrated on delivering the best food experience possible to our customers. Pivoting from dine in to take out and delivery was a very easy transition for us. We have great customers. The amount of support we received was incredible. The generosity of our customers was humbling. We were thanked every day for remaining open.

As a business owner, I feel like I made the right decision to stay open. We have been open through all of this. I have kept my staff safe and employed, I have kept my doors open and I have safely served thousands of customers since this pandemic has started. As things begin to normalize we still have a long road ahead. We will lose more small restaurants as they close their doors permanently. We are now open for indoor dining at 50% capacity and we are uncertain when the restrictions on Bars and Restaurants will be lifted. We have learned how to do more with less. We have been blessed with the support of our customers and we continue to start and end each day with a positive attitude. We look forward to returning to normal, whenever and whatever that may be.

Hirofumi Leung - Co-Owner Dragonfly Restaurants

When things started to take a turn sometime in March, all our leaders got on a "Fix it" mentality. We created a long list of things that needed to get done but always fell a step behind as the Government mandates changed by the week. Furthermore, we had to minimize our staff with the pressure of getting more done with fewer resources. We realized this thing wasn't going away and we needed to do things differently.

That's when we realized as leaders that we had to stop and put people first. There's no use in charting the huge waves of uncertainty when your people are feeling uncertain of what the future may bring. We had many conversations talking about the pain and uncertainty we were all feeling and spent more time on the ground level working side by side with our team (bussing and running food) while balancing the need to keep an eye on the future. Family mealtimes (free employee meals before we open our restaurant)" were used to connect with and recognize people demonstrating our cultural values. Most importantly, we showed our vulnerability as leaders to show that we are in this together.

Other things we've done include giving out goodie bags with basic essentials to employees (i.e. toilet paper when there was a shortage and of course, a bottle of wine) and to the public who have been furloughed, paying out Extra Hazard pay when we could, and even doing small gestures like sending out weekly text-messages/calls/dad-jokes to our leaders at individual stores so they know that they are not alone.

All this hasn't been easy and there are more we could do but it's so important that leaders and owners must understand the emotional rollercoasters our employees are going through if we are to prevail and reinvent ourselves through this crisis. Let yourself feel the grief and keep going!

Drew Stuerman - Owner Halo Potato Donuts

When COVID first began, Halo Potato Donuts shifted to an online-only pickup model. When local and state government mandated masks and social distancing, Halo shifted back to a walk-up only option. Luckily, Halo’s walk up only model was built for situations such as a pandemic, as we learned. Customers are outside, distanced, and masked, which allows for peace of mind when visiting. The challenge we faced that we had to address was our online ordering flow. From the outside, it may have appeared organized, however on the inside it was overwhelming. Preparing 2-3 hundred orders to go out within 5 hours was a bit much. Our free online ordering system was never designed for the curbside pick up model, however, we had no other choice. We spent hours every night handwriting hundreds of bags and boxes to ensure orders were accurate. Since COVID began, we’ve adapted quickly and concentrated our resources on perfecting our processes, recipes, coffee and customer service. We’ve grown from 6 employees at the start of COVID to currently 19 employees and have seen a 25% increase in revenue. We’ve reinvested any profit back into our employees, as well as adding on an additional food trailer and equipment to keep up with demand. We are extremely optimistic for the future of Halo, post - COVID. Although COVID has forced businesses to close, I am optimistic for the food landscape in Gainesville. COVID has forced businesses to interact on social media, partner with each other, expand menu options and has enhanced customer service throughout the food industry. Humans are social creatures and crave interaction. Food is the center of social interaction and will continue to bring people together. I have hope people won’t take social interaction for granted and will become more engaged when eating their next meal together when life returns to our new normal.

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© 2020 by Ken Peng & Ken Eats, LLC. Title image courtesy of Jesse Adrian Scanlon Media.

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