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Tampa Bay’s restaurants try to adapt to an unprecedented crisis

Chefs scramble to change their business models due to the coronavirus, while others say it’s not enough.

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On Tuesday morning, chef Ferrell Alvarez did what he never dreamed he would have to do. He closed down all four of his restaurants. He laid off the majority of his staff. He reimagined his entire business model, and started from scratch.

Then he cried.

“If I don’t make this decision now, my whole company goes down,” he said.

The next day, he got back to work. Alvarez, a James Beard-nominated chef, and his partners Ty Rodriguez and Chon Nguyen have launched Rooster Re-Dux, a collaborative takeout and delivery concept run out of their Seminole Heights restaurant Rooster & The Till.

From 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week, the group will sell an abbreviated to-go menu, a mashup of their restaurants’ best-selling dishes: gnocchi with short ribs from Rooster & The Till; sloppy joe nachos from Nebraska Mini Mart; pork belly tacos from Gallito Taqueria, which has locations in Tampa and Lakeland.

It’s a last-ditch effort to keep the restaurant afloat during the coronavirus pandemic, which has prompted federally mandated restrictions on restaurant operations and social distancing recommendations that are keeping diners at home. As COVID-19 continues to wreak unprecedented economic havoc on businesses everywhere, Tampa Bay restaurants and bars are scrambling to figure out a way to survive.

Local governments across the country have taken drastic action to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, including Florida. On Friday, Gov. DeSantis ordered all restaurants in the state must close, except for takeout and delivery. This comes after the governor ordered all bars in the state to close for 30 days.

Related: Governor orders all restaurants closed except for takeout, delivery service
Notes on the doors at Casa Tina Mexican restaurant in Dunedin informed people that the establishment had closed due to concern over the coronavirus pandemic. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Many Tampa Bay restaurants, including Alvarez’s, had taken it upon themselves to either close completely or operate with a takeout-only policy before Friday’s order, citing both a steep decline in sales as well as a threat to public health.

“For us to stay open right now was just not the right thing,” Alvarez said. “The social responsibility that we possess is much greater than the need for group dining right now.”

Related: A list of Tampa Bay restaurants that have closed or are offering takeout

So what does it look like for a group of chefs who, up until a few days ago, were still plating six-course tasting menus and carefully composed dishes of sea bass belly with glass noodle salads and oysters served with a strawberry shiso sorbet?

It means swapping tweezers for to-go containers and plastic bags. It means driving boxed dinners of carne asada tacos and fried chicken sandwiches to customers from the seat of a Subaru Crosstrek. And it means hoping that someday soon, they’ll be able to hire back at least some of their staff.

Takeout orders at Rooster and the Till in Tampa on March 19. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

The response from restaurants across the Tampa Bay area has been varied. Some are merely sending out email blasts ensuring diners of their enhanced sanitation practices. Because of the high cut third-party applications take from a restaurant’s already shaky bottom line, many restaurants are now delivering food themselves, like Shells Seafood Restaurant in Tampa. (If your order at Rooster Re-Dux is $40 or more, Alvarez or Rodriguez will personally drop it off at your door.)

Many other places opted to close their dining rooms this week, but continued to fill orders. At Bandit Coffee Co. in St. Petersburg, a team of employees is selling cold brew and breakfast sandwiches from a makeshift stand in the parking lot. At Il Ritorno in St. Petersburg, gloved servers are delivering family packs of pasta and salads to diners who pick up their orders by parking two blocks or less away. Pia’s Trattoria initiated discounts on takeout for Gulfport’s elderly residents. Lots of local spots are advertising offers to support the area’s struggling service and hospitality industry.

Josiah Kent, from Tampa, talks with Ashley Finegan, left, and Madison Binder while ordering a curbside nitro cold brew coffee at Bandit Coffee Co. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

For smaller businesses, the pivot to full-time delivery is more manageable. At Dunedin’s The Restorative, which has temporarily rebranded as a takeout restaurant called The Temporary, owners Jason and Erin “Cricket” Borajkiewicz said they only had to cut one employee from their small staff to keep the place going.

“We don’t have the payroll overhead that so many other people have to deal with,” Cricket Borajkiewicz said. “I think our tiny size, which doesn’t help us to make a lot of money normally, is going to save us in the long run.”

Erin "Cricket" and Jason Borajkiewicz at the Restorative restaurant, which they are temporarily calling The Temporary. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Many Tampa Bay restaurants remained open right up until DeSantis’ order. At Donatello’s in Tampa, despite an “80 to 90 percent” drop in business, owner Gino Tiozzo said they would stay open for as long as “authorities allow.”

Famed Tampa restaurant Bern’s Steak House served approximately 200 diners on a recent evening. A takeout menu has been added to the long-running steakhouse’s offerings, but the dining room remained open up until Friday, despite declining sales.

“We are adhering to all federal, state, and local mandates to protect our guests and staff,” owner David Laxer said. “However, we want to, for as long as we can, keep a sense of normalcy for everyone.”

An increasing number of restaurants have closed completely, including Cena; Italian newcomer Rocca; chef Jeannie Pierola’s Edison: Food + Drink Lab and Counter Culture; and all three of Chris and Michelle Ponte’s restaurants, Olivia, On Swann and Cafe Ponte, which has been open since 2002. For larger restaurant groups like these, a pivot to delivery won’t be enough to make ends meet.

Pierola’s recently opened Counter Culture is equipped with a 16-foot grill that could cater to a takeout operation, but the chef said sustaining the restaurant on takeout alone is a shaky preposition.

“I’m not certain that trying to crank out takeout in this two-week period is the right move when everyone is trying to do it anyway,” Pierola said. “How much business can we all really get from it? And is it the kind of threshold that is worth it?”

Pierola said that deciding to close was ultimately a decision made in the interest of the health of both her employees and customers.

“We’re just so afraid,” she said. “I can’t even begin to tell you how debilitating it would be to consider the fact that a choice that we would make for economic reasons would make any of our people sick. It just seems like the right decision is the socially responsible decision.”

A sign promoting takeout at the Crown & Bull in Dunedin. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

“We’re in uncharted territory, for sure,” said Chris Ponte, adding that his business plummeted as soon as the order to operate restaurants at 50 percent capacity was announced.

“It was like from 100 to zero,” Ponte said. “We made the decision as a group to shut down all the restaurants. I don’t want to expose my guests or my employees to anything that could harm them. I think the sooner that we take this and respect this and do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll be okay. The longer we prolong this I think it’s just going to be worse and worse.”

Despite all efforts, layoffs have rippled across the Tampa Bay dining industry, including 120 people at Pierola’s restaurant group and 250 people between Ponte’s three restaurants.

Alvarez had to lay off 41 out of 53 employees.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do," he said.

Rooster and the Till's general manager Ellie Charles hands a to-go order to customer Sean Norausky. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

On Thursday afternoon, a few hours after business kicked off at Rooster Re-Dux, things were moving fast.

They had already run out of to-go containers for guacamole and plastic ramekins for ketchup. Sales were good so far — $915 dollars by 1:30 p.m. But not enough to pay everyone what they had planned, unless dinner was really busy.

They’d need about $3,000 in sales per day for the existing plan to work, Alvarez guessed, and that was with the owners taking no salary. In comparison, an average weeknight at Rooster & The Till used to bring in about $4,000. On weekends, more like $8,000 to $9,000.

Alvarez figured he could cut down on a few hours, but at this pace, he couldn’t spare any more people. Over near the bar, Ellie Charles, Rooster & The Till’s general manager, was taking orders. Alvarez’s wife, Nicole, was “running the pass” — organizing, expediting and compiling orders. Chef de cuisine Ben Pomales was in between the fryer and prep station.

Rodriguez was greeting a steady stream of customers, many longtime regulars of the restaurant, while bagging up their Korean cheese steaks and chicken tinga tacos. An elbow bump and a heartfelt thanks, and they were on their way out the door.

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