Pivoting: 10 Months into the Pandemic, Some Feel Grateful

Patrice Perron (in the foreground) fulfilled his lifelong dream in 2009 when he came to America and opened La Cuisine in Ocala, Fla. When COVID-19 hit, his loyal customers stuck with him, as his beautifully-prepared French dinners had to be put in boxes instead of on plates. (Patrice Perron La Cuisine)

By Michelle Fishburne, Who We Are Now

“We are blessed that our customers think about us. We survived because of them and I will never forget that.”

Mike Romano’s words sum up what so many local restaurant owners around the country are feeling – gratitude. Grateful that they are still in business after the 10 most challenging months American businesses have experienced since the Great Depression. In return, owners are finding ways to say “thank you” to their customers.

“To help me to stay open, my regulars were ordering takeout at least once a week,” said Romano, owner/chef of Café Italia in Fort Myers, Fla. “I have to tell you, that surprised me. I never closed. I was open all the time.” 

Mike and Cary Romano Cafe d’Italia
Mike and Cary Romano of Café Italia in Fort Myers, Fla. (Photo: Courtesy of Café d’Italia)

To show his gratitude, Romano gave huge, decorative food baskets to his best customers for the holidays. “I gave them a basket because it’s more personal because, you know, what they did for me is personal,” noted Romano.

Supporting Local Businesses
Mike Durkin, of Durkin’s Pizza in McKinney, Texas, also found that people were going out of their way to support them. “We had tons of people coming out of the woodwork saying, ‘This is our first time at your place, Durkin’s Pizza, but we knew it was local, so we wanted to try your pizza instead of calling Domino's,’” Durkin explained. “We feel incredibly fortunate.” 

Mike Durkin Durkin's Pizza
Mike Durkin of Durkin's Pizza (Photo: Courtesy of Durkin's Pizza)

When the price of cheese doubled in the summer, Durkin’s Pizza chose to eat the cost instead of passing it on to the community that had supported them so loyally. “The last thing we want to do is change our product or our presentation, and pricing is considered a part of that presentation,” Durkin said. “The community embraced us because we were a local business. If we can survive and break even and not have to lay off employees and keep everyone fed and be a part of the community, I feel really fortunate.”

Cocktail Drive-Thrus
“Fortunate” is also how Speak of the Devil’s owner Kurt Hernon described his 2020. Hernon’s cocktail bar in Lorain, Ohio, is a favorite with the local community. “Our little place started off unexpectedly fast in 2017,” Hernon said. “By the time 2020 rolled around, we had lines out the door.” That cushion of profits is helping Speak of the Devil ride out the storm.

Kurt Hernon Speak of the Devil
Kurt Hernon of Speak of the Devil (Photo: Courtesy of Speak of the Devil)

Speak of the Devil is currently closed (as of press time) because of spiking COVID-19 cases in Ohio, but Hernon’s found a way to keep providing quality cocktails to the community and, at the same time, earning some income for his staff. “We’re doing cocktail drive-thrus about once a week or so," he said. "Last Wednesday, we sold 70 cocktails in a two-hour window. Crazy. Our regulars are like family. There are so many of them and they are refusing to let us struggle. Our bartender, Jack, said the tips were so unbelievable on Wednesday night that ‘it's unfathomable how these people feel about this place.’”

Virtual Bars and Zoom Meetings
Finding ways to still serve their communities is very much on the mind of restaurant and bar owners. Patrice Perron fulfilled his lifelong dream in 2009 when he came to America and opened La Cuisine in Ocala, Fla., the “beautiful little town” he “fell in love with.” When COVID hit, his loyal customers stuck with him, even when his beautifully-prepared French dinners had to be put in boxes instead of being arranged in gorgeous presentations on plates.

Perron’s customers shared with him how much they missed La Cuisine’s monthly wine pairing dinners. He wanted to somehow make that happen for them but didn’t know how. Slowly it came together – a virtual white wine dinner. “It was white because we were on Zoom,” said Perron, “We had more than 40 people on Zoom. They came in the afternoon to pick up the wine and the dinner, which was a cheese and charcuterie board. We put the wine in plastic glasses in a little container, and we vacuumed it. At six o'clock, we were all on Zoom. I had two guests, the winery in California and a maî·tre d in a culinary school in France. We talked about the food and the culture and everything. It was a great success. It was really a great innovation. So, it gave us a new idea, a new opportunity for our restaurant.”

Moving online to serve his customers is something renowned bartender Michael Neff could not have foreseen in a million years. Yet he did it in 2020 because his customers needed an online gathering place when COVID closed the bars.

Neff, who has owned, managed and governed the bar at establishments in America’s top cities, including New York, Los Angeles and now Houston’s The Cottonmouth Club, always believed that the online world and social media are “the antithesis of what a bar is supposed to be.” The main job of a bar, according to Neff, is “growing groups of people” and creating “micro-communities” where people feel comfortable going.

“We have a community of people that rely on us to, you know, be there for them for whatever reason they need us,” said Neff. “People don't go to bars because they want to get drunk. They go to bars for community.”

To fill this need, Neff launched The Cottonmouth Club Virtual Bar, which livestreams every night at 10 p.m. EST, with trivia on Mondays, cocktail conversations on Wednesday, music on Thursdays and Karaoke on Fridays. “The goal is to take the essence of what bartending is and present it in a digital environment, making it as interactive as possible,” said Neff. He’s now even gone one step further into the virtual world, launching The Cottonmouth Club Presents podcast, which released more than 20 episodes in 2020.

The Cottonmouth Podcast
(Image: Courtesy of The Cottonmouth Club Presents podcast)

The episode titles are oh so relatable for all of us as we weather the pandemic: Bars, Community & What To Do When You Can’t Do Anything Else (Episode 1); In Which We Discuss The Future & Determine That It’s All Going To Be Okay (Episode 2); Reopening in a Pandemic (Spoiler Alert: It’s Not Great) (Episode 12); Bars Are Like Churches & What We’ve Been Asked to Sacrifice (Episode 13); and Bars in Crisis – The Case for a Bailout (Episode 15).

Putting one foot in front of the other, serving their customers however they can, and being grateful for community. For these restaurant and bar owners, this is the key to their success. Romano sums it up well, “I survived to this point, I will survive the rest.”

Michelle Fishburne has been traveling throughout the United States in her RV, collecting contemporaneous oral histories of how Americans are facing the challenges presented by the pandemic. As of Jan. 1, 2021, she had interviewed more than 150 people across 28 states. Her project, Who We Are Now, can be found at: WhoWeAreNow.us.

To read more of Bar & Restaurant’s “Pivoting” reports, click below:
Pivoting in Nashville
- Pivoting in North Carolina, Delaware & New Mexico
- Pivoting in Philly

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