As more people become fully vaccinated against COVID-19, area restaurant owners are cautiously optimistic for a return to normalcy - and maybe even a boom. Three Delaware County restaurant representatives recently shared their thoughts on the past year and their hopes for future business.
“I think people are a lot more comfortable now. People are vaccinated and normalcy is around the corner - I hope,” said Tom Thornton, owner of McGillicuddy’s and Sam’s Grill in Havertown and Sam’s Grill in Ardmore. “People are getting vaccinated, that’s going to give a certain level of comfort. We saw the other day with the CDC dropping down the mask mandate when you are outdoors and with small gatherings.”
“We’ve seen a huge shift in the last month, pretty much when the vaccines started to become more widely distributed, we noticed more people coming back to the restaurants,” said Loic Barnieu, the owner of the Sterling Pig Brewery, Tap 24 and Le Belle Epoque, all in Media. “I’m cautious about looking at the future. There is a chance the economy will really boom because of how much it slowed down last year, but I’m also one that thinks we’re not completely out of it yet and there are a lot of unknowns. I want to be a little more cautious, but I am a lot more optimistic than I was even four months ago.”
Thornton said despite the loss of two years of major social events such as St. Patrick’s Day and March Madness’ and the Christmas season, he was able to maintain a minimum level of business by getting creative with ideas like family takeout meals and slushie drinks to go, as well as tents as the spring and summer arrived.
Marc Dent, director of marketing for Brick & Brew which has locations in Havertown and Media, agreed creativity has been important in weathering the pandemic in his restaurants. They pivoted, creating catering events and packaging up food in a "Whiskey Wagon" and going to events at back yards and block parties.
“We did whatever we were allowed to do and pushed the envelope as far as we could without any major violations,” Dent said. “Our community responded, they purchased growlers of whiskey sours and margaritas. With the whiskey wagon, we brought our entire cocktail platform to the people and events were in the backyard or a cul-de-sac of a neighborhood.”
Dent also praised local communities for supporting them through the worst days with gift cards and takeout.
“The community around us, we can’t thank them enough for supporting us throughout these crazy times,” said Dent. “We’re not alone. We’re in a competitive business and some restaurants didn’t survive. It’s a testament to the community and also a testament to the Brick & Brew experience.”
Barnieu said they had to lay off their entire staff when the pandemic first hit, but were able to bring staff back with the help of federal PPE money.
To lessen costs, Barnieu also adjusted menus for more efficiency. While he wasn't able to use tenting at two locations, he was able at the Sterling Pig Brewery which was helpful into October. He was also able to make use of a canning line to can beer for sale at the brewery.
Both Barnieu and Thornton said while the outdoor tents were helpful, once the winter temperatures came in November, tents and heaters were not useful.
“It got cold out there and wasn’t really worth people sitting outside at that point,” said Thornton.
Like many savvy businesses, both Brick & Brew and Thornton took the challenges of a crisis to open new businesses.
Brick & Brew moved to a new expanded location around the block on Eagle in Havertown and is turning their old Darby road location into an events space, while Thornton has opened a new Italian restaurant, Franco & Giuseppe Cucina Italiana on West Chester Pike in Upper Darby.
Thornton said he found the September opening of his new place to have been less hectic than other restaurants he’s owned.
“It was a slow start but, to be honest, that wasn’t a bad thing,” Thornton said. “A lot of times when you open a restaurant, you get hit right out of the gate and may not be prepared for that. This was not as stressful as other restaurants we’ve opened in the past.”
Dent said the events catering business has been a boon for his restaurant.
“The events and catering business, which came out of the pandemic is going well beyond any expectation we had,” Dent said. “At the same time, the ability to have 75 percent capacity (inside their restaurants), we’re kind of hitting on all cylinders. We’re very pleased to still be a healthy restaurant/gastropub in Delaware County and the trajectory of our business is really nowhere but up.”
They hope to open the Darby Road events space this summer. The company also has a third restaurant in Malvern.
Barnieu said he just received his first shot of the vaccine, as has most of his staff.
“Most of the brewery staff has gotten the vaccine, not 100 percent in the front of the house, but we are pushing our staff to get the vaccine. We can’t force them,” he said. “It is so much easier to work without having to be tested every week. We had to shut down because of that. We had to get everybody tested and closed a couple of times. We’re trying to do the right thing.”
Dent said a number of staff at his restaurant also tested positive, but it did not materially affect the business.
Both Thornton and Barnieu agreed that Gov. Tom Wolf’s shutdown around Thanksgiving and Christmas was very difficult.
“That kind of stung…that was a really busy time of the year for us. People weren’t coming out, they were shutting it down on their own,” Thornton said. “I get it, people had things to do on their own, quarantine, keeping themselves safe.”
“That was hard but we didn’t lay off anybody, we just weathered the storm,” Barnieu said. “The second round of PPE money really helped.”
“We have not laid off one single person at any of our places, that’s something 30 years from now, when I’m talking to my grandchildren and telling them about the pandemic of 2020, I’m going to be very proud of,” said Thornton. “The fact that we were able to maintain and not lay one person off and conduct business as usual to a certain extent. There were a lot of things we sacrificed."