Empty dining rooms. Quiet kitchens. Lost revenue.
This was the reality for many Delaware restaurants as COVID-19 temporarily shuttered businesses. Some didn’t survive, while many others cooked up solutions, pivoting to delivery and takeout-only models until the state lifted dine-in restrictions in June.
But with reopening came new challenges—socially distanced tables, limited seating, servers required to wear masks and loyal patrons who were still too scared to dine out.
Here, five chefs and restaurateurs share what they went through over the past several months and why they chose to push forward.
What Chef Matthew Kern missed most was what he calls the “kitchen dance.”
“There’s this feeling … you can’t really explain it. Many people have tried to write about it, but it doesn’t translate,” Kern explains. “It’s like being in a band on a stage, and the way you feel when everybody is working in unison—plating, cooking, searing, mixing, tasting. The idea is we’re all working together as a team to put the best product out on the plate.”
When his charming farm-to-table restaurant closed its dining room, the James Beard–nominated Kern performed a solo dance, preparing rotating menus for curbside pickup.
His pop-up kept patrons pulling up by offering Heirloom staff favorites like soups, salads, house-stretched burrata and desserts that were delicious yet easy to take home, says owner Meghan Lee.
“We just really wanted to focus on taking the product, putting it on a beautiful plate and a spread, and enjoying it,” she says.
The joy of welcoming guests back inside, however, tops almost everything else, Lee says.
“When someone sits [down] and says, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve missed your octopus so much,’ it’s just going to put a big smile on my face,” Lee says.
Lee opened Heirloom on Savannah Road in 2015. Nestled inside a historic home, the restaurant garners attention for its cheerful ambiance and Kern’s fresh, innovative eats.
The summer menu consists of robust dishes like Delaware Black Sea Bass with blistered Baywater Farm shishito peppers, charred tatsoi, spring onion, Carolina gold rice congee, mushroom dashi and marigold, and Totem Farm Red Romaine with Calabrian chili, preserved ramps, queso fresco, puffed farro and a black garlic dressing.
If you have any room left, pastry chef Rachel Diener’s desserts—like the Fifer Orchard strawberry galette topped with house whipped cream and bee pollen—are not to be missed.
“It’s like being in a band on a stage, and the way you feel when everybody is working in unison—plating, cooking, searing, mixing, tasting.” —Chef Matthew Kern of Heirloom, Lewes
Kern focuses on ingredients sourced from local farms to show guests how much better food is when it’s grown at home. With the pandemic hitting right in the middle of the spring season, he was still able to feature fresh ingredients like rhubarb and ramps on the new menu by dehydrating and pickling them.
“That perfect dish for us is utilizing everything as locally as possible, supporting our own economy, our own ecosystem, supporting these farmers that we love,” Kern says.
While Lee says she’s nervous about what the spring closure could mean for her business come winter—the slowest time for beach restaurants—she’ll continue to push forward.
Kern has received two James Beard nominations as Heirloom’s executive chef, and Lee wants a third.
“For me, this is a challenge,” she says, “so I accept every challenge in front of me.”
212 Savannah Road, Lewes; 313-4065
Growing up in India, Chef Gyanendra “GG” Gupta learned to cook from his mother, who he’d watch in the kitchen as she dictated recipes for him to write, testing his spelling as they went.
“She is my sole inspiration to being in the kitchen, being in the field,” he says.
He also learned that guest happiness is supreme, so providing people with quality pan-Asian and Indian cuisine at Raas is second nature for him. He prioritizes making his diners feel welcome, and he’ll often step out of the kitchen to visit with guests in the dining room.
“That is the kind of hospitality we are coming in from, so it’s in my blood,” he says.
So, when dining in wasn’t an option, Gupta says he missed the bustle and the sound of silverware clinking against the plates as patrons swept them clean.
The restaurant, operated by Masala Hospitality Group, began limiting service to takeout. Gupta says he found support through social media, and even created an entire vegan menu. Customers began calling his personal cell phone number to place orders.
Before catering to the Delaware beach crowds craving Indian cuisine, Gupta worked for Taj Hotels in India and in the Caribbean. He met his managing partner, Dr. Vinay Hosmane, about 20 years ago while Hosmane was in medical school. A cardiologist by day, Hosmane says he never meant to end up in the restaurant business but has found working with Gupta and the team incredibly rewarding.
Hosmane says that as a physician, he was conflicted by the pandemic closures because he understands both the medical and restaurant business concerns. Fortunately, he says, the Lewes community has been supportive during the restrictions, which keeps him—and Gupta—resolute in ensuring Raas stays open.
210 Savannah Road, Lewes; 644-1747; raaslewes.com
For many restaurateurs, having to rely on takeout only is a business death sentence.
For Chef Wit Milburn, it was a return to his roots.
“Takeout was like first nature for me,” says Milburn, who comes from a line of restaurant and hospitality workers.
His father, Norris “Buddy” Milburn, started Ubon Thai Kitchen & Bar at the Riverfront after success with previous restaurant endeavors. Wit inherited the business in 2018 after Buddy died.
Wit also operates Kapow Kitchen, another Thai eatery located at the Booth’s Corner Farmers Market in Garnet Valley, Pennsylvania. The Kitchen started as a food truck in 2014, so transitioning to a takeout model during the coronavirus restrictions was relatively simple for both eateries.
Ubon offers customers a taste of the Milburn family recipes, melding traditional central Thai and northeastern Thai with a modern twist. With about 15 years in the kitchen, Wit says he loves creating dishes, but he especially enjoys interacting with customers and hearing feedback.
While restaurant restrictions brought food-supply challenges and third-party delivery apps cut into already slim profits, Wit saw a silver lining.
He says the eateries gained new customers as a result and now, with dine-in available, people are flocking there to eat al fresco. The limited capacity has also created more of a controlled flow inside, allowing Wit to really connect with customers.
“This is our life. This is how we put food on the table,” Wit says. “This is how I’ve supported my family for the last seven years. I would rather close from me being a bad business owner than something else.”
936 Justison St., Wilmington; 656-1706
For owner Sasha Aber, keeping the lights on during stay-at-home orders was the only option.
“If you disappear for a couple of months, who knows what happens when you come back?” she says.
While slower business was a concern, Aber still kept a limited staff working and the café’s menu available to loyal customers. Executive Chef Andrew Thorne says he felt a sense of purpose heading into the kitchen every day.
Thorne has been cooking almost his entire life, studying at New England Culinary Institute in Vermont and even learning the agriculture side of the restaurant industry. After a few stints at various Delaware restaurants, he landed at Home Grown, where he’s helped transform the menu.
He loves how food can bring people together. “There’s always good conversation,” he says. “And people always remember what they eat and what you put on the table.”
Home Grown has something for everyone—vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, carnivore—and draws a diverse group of patrons for that reason. Thorne has created a menu using whole and fresh ingredients, and even makes his own vegan scrapple and vegan bacon. His special veggie burger made with soy, beans and mushrooms is a staple and customer favorite.
Throne and Aber used the slow period to craft a menu for summer—a mix of crowd favorites and new seasonal dishes, like the Pecan Crusted Salmon and General Tso’s Tempeh.
This year marks Home Grown’s 20th year, and while it wasn’t exactly the way Aber planned to celebrate, she says her team and customers have kept her going. Thorne has seen it, too.
“Each week we got a little bit stronger and a little bit busier, which is nice,” he says.
126 E. Main St., Newark; 266-6993; homegrowncafe.com
The family-owned German bakery and deli in Delaware’s capital closed for about two weeks before Easter to learn how to operate under a new business model.
“What changed for us was … online [orders], curbside and delivery,” owner Jonathan Urquhart says, noting that his bakery has historically served walk-ins.
Urquhart operates more behind the scenes, while his wife, Chef Monika Urquhart, and brother-in-law, Master Baker Andreas Janke, are the faces customers know best.
The business venture was something Monika had always wanted, her husband says. After putting her plans on pause while Jonathan pursued his career in the corporate field and the U.S. Army, the stars finally aligned in 2017.
“We reached a junction in our life where it was time for us to make the decision,” Jonathan says.
Monika and Andreas trained in culinary arts and baking in their native Germany. They’ve brought their years of expertise to Dover, where customers can get a taste of Bavarian-style sandwiches, European bread, German pastries and custom cakes.
While much of their business centers on large gatherings, customers have continued to come back, he says, and the family appreciates when clients applaud the safety measures the bakery implemented.
“That’s the beauty of what we do,” he says.
1819 S. Dupont Highway, Dover; 744-8598; yourfavoritebakery.com