Re-Opening The DMV: Restaurants

Founding Farmers was just one restaurant who closed their dining rooms for COVID-19, but they're excited to open their doors again.

KENSINGTON, MD — The last couple of months have been tough for Americans as they navigate the financial side effects of the coronavirus pandemic, especially those in the food industry. As restrictions begin to ease around the country, one local restaurant group owner says they’re excited to re-open their doors.

“Fortunately we’ve been able to keep the restaurants going with our take out programs, and our pivot to market and grocery, for us reopening is really about re-opening the doors, but we don’t have to re-open or re-launch the business and that’s been helpful for us,”Dan Simons, co-owner of the Farmers Restaurant Group told 104.7 WONK FM’s Jen Richer. “We’ve still been buying fresh product and cooking fresh product, and so what we’re spending our time on now is thinking about all the new protocols.”

Those guidelines have been a challenge for the way many restaurants do business, but are required to keep both patrons safe from the respiratory illness.

It has Simons and other owners thinking about, “how we’re engaging with our guests, how to make a reservation, how we’re able to greet them at the front door, get them to a table and take their order…but still make it enjoyable,” he said. “Nobody wants to go out to eat, if it’s scary or it’s overwhelming, you don’t want to feel like you’re walking into a hospital, but at the same time, nor do I want to feel like I’m in a place that is ignoring safety.”

That balance has a lot of restauranteurs going back to the drawing board for solutions, but in an industry as scrappy as food service, those are coming in many different forms.

For the Farmers Restaurant Group, parent company to several DC area restaurants including Founding Farmers, Farmers Fishers and Bakers, Farmers and Distillers, and Founding Spirits, Simons said the future will feel familiar, ”you’ll make a reservation online,” but with some caveats.

“I don’t think you’ll be able to just walk in and wait [for a table]. I don’t think you’ll be able to just walk in and find a spot at the bar and stand up, or grab a stool,” Simons explained. “Maybe what’s newis make a reservation for a couple of bar stools, and maybe what’s new is there’s nobody standing at the bar, and if you’re a party of two or three at the bar, then there’s six feet between you and the next barstool. There will probably be plexiglass when you walk in so our folks behind the front desk will probably have a barrier to keep them safe. What would be familiar is a smile, I’m convinced that you can still tell when someone is smiling.”

One of the noticeable differences in the dining experience will be the necessary measures taken to social distance. Simons has been thinking a lot about what that might look like ahead of the doors reopening.

“I think there will be a bit more technology, so you may check in on your phone when you arrive, rather than having to say your name or talk to the person at the front desk, and maybe I’ll text you your table number and maybe you’ll seat yourself,” Simons said.

Social distancing precautions are creating a challenge for the role of the server. “You’ll still have a server, we’re going to find a way [but] you can’t keep people six feet apart in a restaurant, and so I think it’s important that we’re transparent about this and realistic,” Simons explained.

Serving food at a table, while keeping six feet between the server and the diner is nearly impossible, Simons said, but just how much space is broached will be left to the patron to indicate what they are comfortable with. “I might run your food to you on a tray and put the tray table-side, if you’re comfortable taking your own food off the tray,” Simons said.

Finding a balance between safety, comfort, and the expected experience is a challenge many restaurants are facing as the country begins to ease restrictions.

“It’s a challenge many restaurants are facing, “I have to be really thoughtful about how close my staff wants to be, how close the guest wants us to be, and yet still find a way to actually greet people and take orders,” Simons said. “If somebody wants a totally distanced experience, they can already do that, order online, we’ll bring out to your car or to your home, and that’s a totally distanced experience. If someone whats a humanly interactive experience but done with masks and shields [but is okay with] sensible distancing, realizing that we’ll be crossing paths, then come inside.”

The coronavirus may have been a disrupter for many businesses, but Simons says the restaurant industry is uniquely qualified because it is intrinsically adaptable.

“We’ve been making it up for the last decade,” Simons quipped. “This is the thing about hospitality: how do you buy ingredients, turn it into something that folks love, and sell at a price that people want to come back and dine with you over and over and you can keep your business alive.We’ve always been trying to just figure it out…I look at the other chefs and restauranteurs that I know and people choose this industry because they’re built for the fight.”

The coronavirus pandemic is knee-capping the restaurant industry as states and cities struggle to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m scared, I have anxiety,” Simons shared. “I’m worried, I don’t want to just wing it, safety is really important, but there is something about restaurants and entrepreneurship.”

While the food service industry is one level, the lack of restaurant patronage is having an impact on the food supply chain, starting with farmers.

“This is where I feel so fortunate that our business is uniquely positioned to deal with some of these supply chain disruptions. We generally don’t buy through that supply chain,” Simons said.

Farmers Restaurant Group is directly tied to their food supply, as the North Dakota Farmers Union has a major steak in the partnership, and is a supplier for the restaurants, which has proved beneficial during the pandemic.

“They own their own 18-wheeler and twice a month, a truck rolls in from the midwest, and it’s got bacon on it, and it’s got honey on it, and it’s got grains on it that go to our distillery. By really knowing our supply chains, we’ve been handling the typical supply chain disruptions a little bit better than the typical corporate restaurants."

As of today, restaurant dining rooms remained closed in Virginia, Maryland and DC, but will re-open as they being to move into Phase 1 of re-opening, determined by each locality.

Listen to the full interview here:


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