The path forward for restaurants and bars around the South, indeed across the country, has been anything but linear during the COVID-19 pandemic. After enduring months of government-mandated closures or periods of limping along while depending on carryout or delivery models in an attempt to maintain a modicum of cash flow to try to wait out the pandemic, many restaurant were finally granted a bit of a reprieve as states allowed them to reopen their dining rooms at limited capacity.
The results of these developments have been spotty, and with little true guidance from government or health authorities, restaurateurs have been forced to figure many things out on the fly. The balance between the need for revenue to support their own workers and purveyors, and the safety of their staff and clients, and the desire to offer the sort of hospitality that is at the core of their very beings have added another layer of stress to the industry. We talked to four chef/owners from Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky to check in and see how they are handling the transition to in-house dining again. We asked how their business was living up to projections, what they wish they knew in March that they do now and when they would consider business to be back to “normal.” Here are their stories:
Our initial interview with Nashville chef/restaurateur Maneet Chauhan had to be rescheduled at the last minute, as she was in the middle of filming an episode of her Food Network show, “Chopped” in her home kitchen. “I didn’t realize that I would have to be the star, the set director, the food stylist, the videographer, the director and sound person all by myself,” she jokes apologetically. As if she didn’t already have enough to worry about managing her four Nashville restaurants, Chauhan Ale & Masala House, The Mockingbird, Tánsuŏ and Chaatable, Chauhan is still an important commodity on television with commitments to appear on several shows. With her serious cooking chops and ebullient personality, it’s no surprise that she remains in demand.
But there have been some major changes to her normal work schedule, primarily the fact that she’s had to stay home for months. “I’ve done no travel at all, and that’s really unusual for me,” she shares. “I’m a bit of a masochist, so I didn’t delete any of the calendar events because I wanted the reminder of what I was missing out on and where I was supposed to be that day. I’ve also really missed catching up on my shows while traveling.”
She’s certainly not binge-watching many shows at home, although she does admit to a bit of a recent obsession with “The Great British Baking Show.” She’s too busy figuring out how to run the three of her four restaurants that have reopened recently. Despite the fact that all of them except for Chaatable share space in the same downtown Nashville building that once was home to a cavernous ultralounge and club, the logistics haven’t been easy. “We’re still working with a very limited team,” she explains. She chose not to reopen her modern Asian concept Tánsuŏ for the time being because it occupies the windowless central space in what used to be the dance room at the club. “Tánsuŏ feels more closed than the other spaces. We designed it with a real upscale, sexy vibe, and that’s just not working right now.” She adds, “Plus we felt that there was a real palpable stigma toward Chinese food at the beginning of the pandemic, so we chose not to open back up right now.”
Chauhan Ale and Masala House and The Mockingbird have been offering curbside pickup for a few months now, with each alternating whose menu is featured on a given day. Chauhan explains, “Each chef is responsible for their own menu, but everyone is working in each other’s kitchens all the time. It’s been a great exercise in teamwork, and it’s a real advantage to be able to just jump across the hallway to another kitchen if you run out of onions.”
Chauhan has taken advantage of the downtime, such that it is, to take a look at her total operations. “The lockdown encouraged us to revisit our menus to see what was working,” she says. At her casual Indian street food concept, Chaatable, that meant redesigning some plates and removing the (admittedly entertaining) cute punny names like the O.M. Ghee (ghee toasted cashews) and Go Shorty (confit short ribs) in favor of more descriptive names for diners unfamiliar with her cuisine. She explains, “It made the menu easier to read, and we’ve added more small plates for people to explore. Incredibly, we’ve actually seen our check average increase since we reopened!”
Safety remains the paramount focus of Chauhan’s team, especially due to the fact that her cozier spaces wouldn’t allow for the maximum constrained capacity limits because of the mandated 6-feet-between-tables rule. Chauhan has broken down the bar area at her namesake restaurant to add a few more tables, but she’s not willing to go any further than she thinks is safe. “We were one of the first restaurants to close,” she recalls, “even before it was mandated. Even though Chauhan and Mockingbird are on a wait every weekend, we’re not going to try to cram more people inside than is safe. We’re not compromising! I’ve never been pennywise and pound foolish because we’re in this for the long game.”
That’s an important attitude, because Chauhan recognizes that this struggle will last for a while. “We had numbers we had to aim for, but 2020 has been written off. Now it’s about resilience and making smart moves that will help out in 2021. Everybody came into this year poised for tremendous growth in Nashville, and now we’re all just focused on how to cut losses. I’m excited about even miniscule numbers because they make the losses slightly smaller. Fortunately our investors have been wonderful, and we’re all in the same boat.”
She doesn’t regret any of the hard work, though. “It’s the most depressing thing ever, walking through a completely empty restaurant. Since we reopened, there’s never been a dull moment. We have to be ready for anything. I’ll get together with the team and spend a day making an entire plan for the next week, and then I’ll start changing plans on the drive home! You have to be on your toes because you don’t know what’s going to change at what moment. We’ve realized that this will be the new normal for a long time, at least until there’s a vaccine or a cure. We’ll just see what cards we’re dealt.”
Chauhan sums up her experience this way: “It’s been an emotional journey for everyone. It will be OK, slowly, but it will! We’ve got no other option, and hopefully we’ll be better prepared for the future.”
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