Reservations canceled. Dining rooms closed. And more than anything, uncertain futures.
Editor’s Note: As of Tuesday, March 24, Gov. Ralph Northam issued an order that all dining rooms must be closed, and restaurants are only permitted to distribute delivery and to-go orders.
Every year on St. Patrick’s Day, Jon Cropf makes corned beef and cabbage.
The chef, known best for leading the kitchen of Trummer’s Restaurant in Clifton, typically serves dozens of plates of the traditional dish to locals while they dine in the spirit of the celebratory holiday.
But this year, the dining room wasn’t the same.
“We opened up three different dining spaces for only 15 people,” says co-owner Victoria Trummer. “People literally sat farther away from each other than they ever have.”
The holiday came and went in the midst of the global spread of COVID-19. Restaurant owners across the region and beyond were already scrambling to stock up on cleaning supplies, disinfect dining rooms and continue to serve guests.
In an order issued on March 17, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that all restaurants were mandated to reduce seating or occupancy to 10 patrons, or close their doors. If possible, locations were encouraged to continue carry-out and delivery services.
The news shook the service industry. Some pivoted entirely to carry-out options. Others, like Trummer’s, decided to stay open while maintaining social distance between patrons.
“Our poor server was running between three different rooms,” says Trummer. “We were going to make sure that we were keeping people apart, following the rules and just being as cautious as possible.”
With corned beef and cabbage still getting served, the restaurant noticed an uptick in calls with locals requesting to-go orders. The only problem? Trummer’s has never offered take-away as an option. The only boxes they had to package food were for patron’s leftovers.
The team adjusted, but not without heartbreak. Servers and bartenders went home. Trummer says while her mind was—and still is—running in a million different directions, she started physically moving from one thing to the next. Putting one foot in front of the other.
She wasn’t alone.
Chances are by now you’ve already heard about the detrimental impacts the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic is having, and going to continuously have, on local businesses—especially your favorite restaurants, cocktail bars and hangout spots. It’s inevitable.
That local coffee shop where you wish you could post-up for hours on end while teleworking? It’s delivering lattes and pour-overs to your car instead, even without a drive-thru window. The quaint restaurant you’ve been waiting to try for weeks? The aprons are still hanging by the backdoor, waiting to be picked up again. Craving your favorite dish from that restaurant your family has loved for years? It’s doors might be shut … for good.
“We didn’t feel it. We didn’t get ready,” says Juste Zidelyte, chef and owner of Maple Ave. Restaurant in Vienna. “Then about two weeks ago, we were kind of tracking, and then last weekend the last straw for me was, it’s so close. We can’t keep operating, we can’t keep putting our customers and employees at risk. It’s not worth it.”
The micro-restaurant, as Zidelyte calls it, with its roughly 10 tables, closed up shop. It transitioned to pick-up only a few days later. But she was skeptical.
As of the publication of this piece, Gov. Northam has kept the order of 10 patrons in restaurants, bars and public spaces across the commonwealth, but many have decided to close up entirely. It’s a hard time to know what to do, says Zidelyte, when it seems there’s no solid ground to stand on. No strict decision from the administration (or financial support yet) to help businesses navigate the rocky waters that will surely be the next few weeks.
“I feel alone. I feel abandoned,” says Zidelyte. “Putting that kind of decision [whether to close entirely or stay open to the public in a limited manner] on the shoulders of small business owners really is not fair. You know, our customers are really supporting us. But the government, and even the health department, anybody that should govern us, really didn’t guide us what to do.”
For Trummer, it felt the same.
“We saw a lot of restaurants closing in-house dining and we were expecting our governor to do the same,” says Trummer. “But he called for 10 patrons or less, and at first it was a recommendation, not a mandate. That was around 11 a.m. Then Tuesday night it turned into a mandate, which we totally agreed with, but I really think what he needed to do was tell all restaurants, bars and entertainment places to not let people inside. As much as that hurts me to say, I think that’s probably the right call. So we just made the call ourselves at that point.”
Trummer’s, like Maple Ave., has transitioned entirely to a take-away menu for local patrons. Both kitchens are diligently cleaning and maintaining smaller, more portable menus.
Daily specials for Trummer’s are posted on social media and the restaurant is taking online orders through Toasttab. There’s even a “dinner for two” option, perfect for a quarantine date night. For Maple Ave., a new website for mobile ordering gives local fans the chance to order empanadas to-go or wings by the pound in its signature sauce. For both locations, orders have continued to come in as an outpouring of community support.
“I just want to thank everyone, sincerely, from the bottom of my heart. We feel so much love and support,” says Trummer, who was holding back emotions that, she says, just keep coming. “We’ve always been supported by the community, but now it’s this totally different, deeper level of love and support that we’ve never felt before.”
Even as both kitchens continue to operate, the uneasiness remains.
“When we closed, we didn’t have a plan, because we don’t have a budget, you know, set aside for emergencies like any other restaurant,” says Zidelyte. “We’re just taking it day by day and seeing how we can react and how we can save money.”
She worries that employees will ultimately have to be laid off, and has tried to find unorthodox ways to support them, including giving them food to take home while the restaurant remains closed. “We’re very family oriented here,” says Zidelyte. “But we asked everybody, just in case, if they could start looking for alternative income because [the end] could happen at some point sooner or later.”
Zidelyte says the challenge is one she didn’t see coming, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t one she can’t overcome.
“When you work for a restaurant, there’s always something to learn, and I’ve always loved that,” says Zidelyte. “We’re trying to manage everything and do all of this, and it keeps giving me hope that we can find a way to adapt. If we give up hope, then what can we tell our employees?”
Trummer is ready to battle too, with whatever it takes.
“As much as everyone’s worried, we’re worried too,” says Trummer. “But I don’t want our guests to worry so much that we’re not going to be here, because we are going to be here at the end of this.”
In the past few days, Trummer’s has started donating two meals a night to a nearby elderly resident or immunocompromised local. The team shows up at the door with gloves to deliver the meal and places the bag at the door. The only thing they touch is the doorbell, says Trummer.
“In a strange way, I feel more connected to my community now than I did when we were allowed to actually be together,” she says. “We’re farther apart physically, but somehow there’s a connection emotionally and mentally that is becoming deeper and stronger every day, and that’s got to do something good at the end of this all.”
This is a developing story. For more on the local impact of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, in NoVA, click here.