Is the takeout model working for Tampa Bay restaurants? It depends.

Two weeks into a state-mandated restaurant shutdown, some local restaurants have found that to-go orders can’t pay the bills.
Two passersby walk by The Mill restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg. The Mill has closed temporarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two passersby walk by The Mill restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg. The Mill has closed temporarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]
Published April 3, 2020|Updated April 3, 2020

Ted Dorsey tried the delivery thing.

The chef and owner of the Mill restaurants in Tampa and St. Petersburg wasn’t in the habit of offering takeout, but when he was forced to end dine-in business, he figured it was worth a shot.

His restaurants, known for their Americana-meets-steampunk chic decor and composed plates of duck confit with orange gastrique, weren’t conducive to the to-go model to begin with. Even Uber Eats personnel said the menu wasn’t really “the right fit” for the app-based delivery service. On top of everything, the money trickling in was barely enough to pay the remaining staff, let alone pay the bills.

In short: It didn’t work.

“We had to make the tough decision to close,” Dorsey said on Thursday. “I’m certainly not going to see enough revenue from to-go food to cover my rent and expenses and everything else.”

Dorsey isn’t alone. Two weeks into Florida’s state-mandated shutdown to help curb the spread of COVID-19, restaurants are still scrambling to catch up with an industry that is changing by the day.

To keep up, they’re experimenting with different models in an attempt to stay afloat. It’s a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks kind of approach, from slinging to-go Manhattans and gourmet steak deliveries to peddling groceries and home goods as a side hustle.

It’s working, for some. But for others, the reality is more bleak, and points to the shortcomings of a last-minute plan that doesn’t account for a huge once-employed labor force.

Part of what has made the pivot so difficult for many is that restaurants, for the most part, are in the business of entertaining large groups. At their very core, they are spaces designed for gatherings — the very thing social distancing measures seek to curb. And most restaurants have structures in place to support all of this, like the staffing of hosts, bartenders, floor managers, servers, bussers and dishwashers. Under the new delivery or takeout model, most of those jobs are obsolete.

Many restaurants that have chosen to remain open now operate with a skeleton crew — usually salaried employees — to keep the takeout show going, while the rest of the hourly staff has been let go. But even when operating with such a small staff, there are still bills to pay. Many cite these financial constraints as the chief obstacle in pivoting to a takeout and delivery outfit. Under this new model, the overhead costs incurred are sometimes barely covered.

Some larger restaurant operations better known for higher-end dining experiences like Michael Buttacavoil’s Cena and Chris and Michelle Ponte’s On Swann, Olivia and Cafe Ponte, all closed indefinitely without ever making the move to takeout.

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“We’re not known for takeout,” Ponte said. “Let the fast casual guys take it — they’re going to do really well with that stuff. For us, it wasn’t a good fit."

It’s also been harder for restaurants to source food amid slowdowns in the supply chain from both local and national vendors. When longtime Gulfport Italian restaurant Pia’s closed last week, a statement on social media indicated they had experienced delays when receiving a lot of their fresh products like chicken, meat and seafood, as well as imported Italian products.

The statement also cited the safety of their staff as one of the reasons for the shutter. Many restaurant owners who have chosen to forgo the takeout model pointed to safety as their primary concern.

A sign posted by The Mill restaurant in St. Petersburg indicates that they plan to reopen after the coronavirus crises passes.
A sign posted by The Mill restaurant in St. Petersburg indicates that they plan to reopen after the coronavirus crises passes. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]

“What happens if a staff member has the virus and then we’re shipping that to someone’s house?” Dorsey said. “Do I want to put myself and my own children and family in jeopardy — my employees in jeopardy?”

COVID-19 is primarily thought to be spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets, but studies suggest it may also live on surfaces for a few hours up to several days. However, there is currently no evidence that the virus can be transmitted through food. Restaurants already have to adhere to strict sanitary measures, and CDC advisories include all of the general safety precautions — washing hands frequently, proper food storage — as well as social distancing guidelines meant to ensure as little human contact as possible.

Whether Gov. Ron DeSantis’ statewide stay-at-home order will have any effect on Tampa Bay restaurants’ takeout business is still to be seen. But several restaurants that remain open for curb-side takeout and delivery options are beginning to enact stricter measures that encourage no-contact pickup and delivery, often forbidding patrons to enter the business at all.

At the Floribbean in St. Petersburg, diners can order online and pick up their meal at the front door without entering. At both Ava and 717 South in Tampa, curbside tents serve as pick-up hubs for to-go orders. Employees coming in to the restaurants are required to have their temperatures taken with an infrared forehead thermometer before starting their work, said owner Michael Stewart.

“I’m a little surprised at how well Ava on Howard (Ave.) is doing,” Stewart said. “We reacted pretty quickly and we went to a much smaller menu. My chefs feel like they’re just as busy.”

Despite some of the uncertainty ahead, a few restaurants that had previously nixed any idea of jumping into the delivery game are now considering throwing their hat in the ring, warily eyeing a future that may not bring real relief anytime soon.

Walt Wickman owns Dunedin's Old Bay Cafe.
Walt Wickman owns Dunedin's Old Bay Cafe. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

“We’re in a very difficult situation,” said Walt Wickman, who owns Dunedin’s Olde Bay Cafe and Hog Island Fish Camp as well as the new Safety Harbor restaurant Water Oak Grill, all of which remain closed.

“I was thinking it would just be a couple of weeks and we would be able to open back up,” Wickman said. “I have all these long term employees where things are getting difficult for them and any kind of assistance is at least still a month out.”

The Water Oak Grill in Safety Harbor is currently closed.
The Water Oak Grill in Safety Harbor is currently closed. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Jeff Harrell, who owns Bar Fly, with locations in Safety Harbor and Palm Harbor, said both businesses have remained closed the past two weeks. Now he’s looking at opening up the Safety Harbor spot with limited hours and curb-side pick-up a few days a week.

"Sales-wise it’s really not worth it for the type of business that we do,” Harrell said. “I don’t expect to do anything great that’s going to pay any of my bills. I think it’s just in the best interest for the community to provide some type of takeout food. A dollar is better than no dollar.”

With no map for how to proceed and the lasting effects of COVID-19 on the state still unknown, Tampa Bay chefs and restaurants have a long road ahead of them. And with prolonged social distancing mandates, even Dorsey said he may have to eventually reconsider his decision to close.

“I don’t have the answer. I don’t think any of us have the answer,” he said. “I think we are all just doing what we can to save our businesses and our employees.”