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How the Delaware Restaurant Industry Hopes to Stay Afloat

Restaurants were limited to takeout and delivery to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

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The novel coronavirus has shuttered eateries and limited them to takeout/delivery, obliterating jobs and revenue. Here’s how the industry is hoping to stay afloat—with a little help from everyone.

In times of celebration and sadness, restaurants are always there.

Whether it’s to mark a new job, a marriage proposal, a breakup, or the loss of a loved one, a comforting meal at your favorite bistro, steakhouse or pub has always been there.

But now, as the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, blankets the United States, restaurants—including those in Delaware—are feeling the impact. Governor John Carney hoped to limit the spread of the virus by confining eateries to providing meals via takeout and delivery after March 16. He then amended his state of emergency to allow restaurants to sell alcohol with food purchases. Eateries either adapted to the restrictions or closed altogether; many cut work hours or simply laid employees off.

A stay-at-home ordinance has been ordered through at least May 15, pushing hope of dining out and a return to ordinary life out of reach, at least for the time being.

“In the long run, it’s going to hurt a lot of people,” says Matthew Kern, chef of Heirloom in Lewes. “Restaurants had to lay off people and put their own financial well-being in jeopardy.”

With about 10 percent of Delaware’s workforce in the restaurant industry, the restrictions are hitting the state hard. To aid employees displaced by shutdowns, the Delaware Restaurant Association announced the formation of a new industry relief fund on March 23, which will be administered through its 501(c)(3) Delaware Restaurant Association Educational Foundation/DRAEF.

The fund, called Restaurant Industry E.A.T.s (Emergency Action Trust), will provide direct cash support to Delaware restaurant workers laid off because of COVID-19 restrictions.

RELATED: A Guide to Delaware Restaurants Offering Takeout, Delivery

“We have been working around the clock” on the relief fund, says Carrie Leishman, the Delaware Restaurant Association president. In addition to offering direct financial assistance, the organization is also focusing on promoting restaurants’ to-go menus.

DRAEF will be funding the new trust with donations from individuals and grants from local foundations and corporate partners. The Beer & Benevolence Foundation, created by Dogfish Head founders Sam and Mariah Calagione, provided an initial $50,000 donation, with another $50,000 to be donated when the fund reaches $150,000. They will also donate profits from the sales of hand sanitizer produced by the Dogfish Head Distilling Co.

The fund had already raised $65,000 when it was announced.

An understandable decision

Heirloom chef Kern says the call to limit dining onsite at restaurants wasn’t unexpected.

“Everybody knew it was crushing,” he says. “It’s crushing, but it’s a necessity. All of us follow the news. We all see what happened in Italy and what happened in China. This is scary.”

He stresses that while restaurants aim to make people happy, public spaces simply aren’t considered completely safe at the moment, and “it kills us,” he says.

In response to the new restrictions, Heirloom began offering pop-up weekends, where customers could call ahead and place orders for homemade bread, soups and side dishes. Kern says he also told his kitchen crew about available work nearby at Totem Farms in Milton, giving them the opportunity to get jobs planting seeds and performing other farm tasks.

“It’s crushing, but it’s a necessity. All of us follow the news. We all see what happened in Italy and what happened in China. This is scary.”

“That really made me super proud,” he says. “People pulled together, and I think more people will follow suit.”

Dan Butler, chef and owner of Piccolina Toscana, is used to takeout since it’s a part of his business model already with Toscana To Go.

While the restaurant didn’t have to shift gears too heavily, Piccolina Toscana is nonetheless feeling the effects of the shutdown. He has work for only a portion of his staff now, he says, and there’s still overhead to cover, plus ongoing industry uncertainty about whether a takeout-only business can provide adequate revenue.

“We’re all hurting,” Butler says.

Leaving the burner on

Andrew Cini, former chef at Domaine Hudson, began making pho soups in his kitchen as a way to help the community during these tough times. With every soup purchased from him, he donates a soup meal to someone in need.

“There are some people who are uncertain when they’re going to have a meal or not,” he says. “I’m currently putting little packages of noodle soup together, asking anyone who can donate some money to pay it forward. They’ll get a soup for themselves and then also if someone [contacts me] and says they need a meal, we can give that to them.”

Kern is also giving home-cooking tips via Facebook. “I can walk you through everything in your pantry. Think you are out of options? I assure you you’re not! Hit me up with any food or meal prep questions you have, and I will do everything in my power to help you cook many delicious meals with whatever you have available,” his post read.

Other eateries are also joining in to help out the hungry. Wilmington’s Wildwich used Instagram to promote its free prepared food for people out of work, Brew Haha! posted about a virtual tip jar for its employees, and La Vida Hospitality, which represents Crooked Hammock Brewery, Fork + Flask and others, announced it was dispersing 100 percent of its online gift card sales among staff members affected by the partial closures and shutdown.

Bardea Food & Drink in downtown Wilmington decided to close altogether when the restrictions were announced, but co-owner Scott Stein says he wanted to support the restaurant’s staff by sending them home with unused food items from the kitchen, giving weekly tips out early and encouraging staff to file for unemployment. The restaurant also set up a GoFundMe account for its employees with the goal of raising $25,000.

While these temporary measures are crucial for now, Cini emphasized the need for customers to return their local spots once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

“Support your neighbors that have local establishments and are trying to get back on their feet,” he says.

Fighting to keep doors open

With 78 percent of the industry’s workers living paycheck to paycheck, according to the restaurant association, immediate support for employees and their families was critical, says Leishman.

“We are seeing mass layoffs due to COVID-19, and I am blown away by the humanity of our amazing industry leaders and restaurant operators—each one asking the same first question: ‘What can be done for my employees?’” she says. “Together, we hope to raise awareness and funds to provide grants to full-time restaurant workers in Delaware who are dependent on wages to cover basic living expenses and provide for their families. Our goal is to provide $500 grants to as many qualifying displaced workers as possible. Our initial goal of raising $1 million would provide 2,000 grants to those most in need.”

At press time, Restaurant Industry E.A.T.s hoped to begin distributing funds to applicants in April.

Carney also announced the Hospitality Emergency Loan Program (HELP) to provide financial relief for businesses in the hospitality sector. The 10-year no-interest loans are capped at $10,000 per enterprise per month, with payments deferred for nine months. The money can be used to cover rent, utilities and other unavoidable bills.

“Restaurants, bars, hotels, and other hospitality-related businesses, and their workers, are among those most seriously impacted by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Delaware,” Carney said in a news release. “We feel it is crucial that the state step in to assist these businesses and their employees.”

For more information on Restaurant Industry E.A.T.s, visit delawarerestaurant.org/relief. For more information on the HELP program, visit delbiz.com.

Published as “#SaveRestaurants” in the May 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.

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