These Delaware Chefs Are Still Cooking Amid the Pandemic

Photo courtesy of V&M Bistro/Luigi Ciuffelelli

One year in, Delaware chefs and restaurateurs reflect on how the coronavirus pandemic affected their businesses and the industry at large.

Restaurants can act as shelters in times of crisis, but they’ve been the ones seeking respite over the past year.

March 2021 marked one year of the coronavirus pandemic altering daily lives, forcing restaurants to change their business models to meet evolving state restrictions and health protocols.

This uphill battle created a sense of solidarity among hospitality workers, says Carrie Leishman, Delaware Restaurant Association president and CEO. Everyone was working toward the same goal: Stay open and keep working.

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Meanwhile, patrons realized if they didn’t support their favorite eateries, their doors may close by the time the pandemic’s hold on society lifted. Leishman says the past year has taught the restaurant business a lot of hard but helpful lessons. Today, the industry is in transition, hoping to make it to recovery.

“This was about survival and it still is,” Leishman says.

In their own words, Delaware’s chefs and restaurateurs share what this past year has taught them and where the industry goes from here.

Wilmington’s V&M Bistro returned to its roots when the COVID-19 pandemic hut, changing its business model from upscale dining to old school pizzeria./Photo courtesy of V&M Bistro/Luigi Ciuffetelli

Vincenza Carrieri-Russo, co-owner of V&M Bistro, on how the upscale eatery transitioned back to their family’s roots of running an old-school pizzeria.

“My family got their start in the takeout business. Over 50 years ago, my grandfather, Nonno Italo Carrieri-Russo, started an old-school takeout pizzeria. Then my father, Vincenzo Carrieri-Russo, along with his brothers, continued in the same business and opened multiple locations in the tri-state area. My sister Margherita and I grew up in the takeout-style pizza business, so it wasn’t new to us. It came to us naturally.

“We immediately knew that in order to survive, we had to adapt to the restrictions—and quickly. We modified our menu to assure that our dishes carried out well. We adjusted our social media presence to create more visibility to our customers. We transformed our famous Limoncello Ice Martini, made with our house-made lemon ice, into a takeout-style cocktail. We rearranged our restaurant operations to provide the customers and staff the safest and most effective experience. Every single day, we kept thinking about what else we could do to survive. When you have so much to lose, you will do whatever is in your power, whatever it takes, to save something so important to you.”

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Restaurants are serving more dishes in takeout containers or in outdoor settings since the pandemic began. Take a pizza home from V&M Bistro./Photo courtesy of V&M Bistro

Greg Vogeley, owner of Drip Café, on the art of the pivot.

“During the first month [of the shutdown], my team worked quickly, and late in the evenings, creating new takeout and family-style menus featuring our most popular menu items, as well as revising operational procedures to manage the higher volume of takeout and heightened cleaning and sanitizing to ensure guests’ safety.

Enjoy breakfast from Drip Café on the go./Photo courtesy of Drip Café

“Luckily, we had installed our new coffee roaster just before the closures. We were able to utilize the roaster and our newly designed website to connect with customers in a new way. We set up an emergency delivery service for our family-style meals and our new roasted coffee from Drip Roasting Co. Our customers reached out and wanted to help the community in any way possible, so they began purchasing meals that would be delivered to healthcare workers and first responders throughout the area. We packaged and delivered over 1,500 boxed lunches to our frontline workers during the spring [of 2020]. It was truly remarkable to see our community come together to support each other.

“With our new website and ecommerce up and running quickly, we recognized that we needed to start utilizing new technology to reach our customers. Throughout the next few months, we introduced online ordering for takeout orders and launched our new branded app with rewards program. Recently, our customers have been able to use the app for contactless ordering for table service within our cafés.”

Tyler Akin, chef-partner of Le Cavalier at The Green Room, on the future of the restaurant industry.

“I see the restaurant industry, over time, abandoning the tip model in favor of service charges that can equalize pay between front-of-house and back-of-house. I see prices going up to reflect the true cost of serving food and also to account for minimum-wage hikes that are finally adjusting for inflation after so many decades in a holding pattern. I see Black chefs given the platform they have long deserved but has often been unavailable. I see stalled growth in the fast-casual sector as downtown office districts lose some office tenancy in the long run. And I see restaurants continuing to create channels with which to make their voices heard.

“Organizations like the Independent Restaurant Coalition, born out of necessity during the pandemic, will continue to shape policy at both local and national levels. The industry will thrive again. The enjoyment of food and the entertainment value of eating out is so ingrained in our culture now that we can count on that much.”

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At Raas, guests can dine on the outdoor patio with dishes like Thai curry and naan flatbread./Photo by Meg Ryan

Gyanendra ‘GG’ Gupta, corporate chef and managing partner of Raas, on what he’s learned about himself and the industry over the past year.

“Nothing is impossible. You just have to be patient. One needs to evolve all the time. Every difficult situation will also provide you with so many solutions. You just have to be positive and always be loyal, true and caring to your guests. One always has to have a plan B and C ready all the time, and one has to keep working on those plans side by side.”

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