By Jan Norris
The dining scene has become a mix of offerings — dine in, takeout, delivery — as the coronavirus pandemic has forced restaurateurs to navigate uncharted waters and follow ever-changing rules.
Jamie Hess, owner of the newest Atlantic Avenue restaurant, End of the Ave, has “pivoted. We’ve adapted,” he said, describing his opening strategies, planned since last fall.
“The day we went for our beer and wine license is the day they shut down everything,” he said. All was delayed or put on hold from early February to June 25 as the restaurant worked to restructure its takeout business and then finally opened in Delray Beach.
Set in a small former surf shop at 1155 E. Atlantic Ave., it’s a spot serving tacos, hot dogs, beer and wine for beachgoers.
A condiment bar that was to offer dozens of toppings is now a behind-the-counter station, with add-ons for the tacos and cooked-in-beer dogs applied by masked and gloved workers.
The restaurant also expanded its offerings, “selling coolers and ice,” Hess said, as a way to make up for slower food traffic now at the beach.
He initiated summer Happy Hour with a BOGO deal of anything on the menu 4-7 p.m. daily and decided to begin catering Taco Tuesday parties or Hot Dog Night for neighborhoods, he said.
Hess also shifted hours, closing at 9 p.m.; the plan to capture a bar crowd later at night was suspended while bars remain closed.
Adjustments made by all
In established restaurants, what was once a social scene of full dining rooms and mingling crowds is now rooms of small tables properly spaced and limited numbers of diners at one seating. Outside seating has been added to many spots, including the Station House in Lantana, which reopened in time for lobster season.
Deep cleaning and sanitizing all surfaces between guests’ arrivals are now the norm at Caffe Luna Rosa in Delray Beach, which has indoor and outdoor seating. Paper menus are used at night and during the day menus are sanitized after each use. Condiments are by request and wiped down between uses.
Ernesto DeBlasi, chef and partner, said masks are worn both in front of house and by kitchen staff. Staffers have their temperatures checked daily. Anyone showing a hint of a symptom is sent to a doctor, and a doctor’s note is required before the worker can return.
DeBlasi takes care of his 93-year-old father, delivering meals and groceries to him each week. He said he is especially conscious of spreading the coronavirus to vulnerable people.
“We take it very seriously,” DeBlasi says, and he is “absolutely worried about the inconsistency” he sees elsewhere, especially downtown. His restaurant is on State Road A1A south of Atlantic Avenue.
“I drive down the avenue after work. I go home late some nights, and the avenue is tightly packed. There’s no social distancing and not that many wearing masks.”
That may change after the Palm Beach County Commission in June made masks mandatory in public settings.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” DeBlasi said. Restaurants want to be busy again, but must also abide by the rules.
“It’s an uncomfortable situation sometimes because different people have different points of view on this whole pandemic.
“But I feel it’s our job if there is a lot of people grouped together in an area especially that aren’t of the same party and they are coming in to dine. We let them know in a nice way that we’re trying to observe the rules that are given to us, and we’re passing them on so we can stay in business and keep giving them the service we’ve been providing them.”
A takeout plan initiated from the start saved the restaurant. “It was slow at first. But after social media kicked in, and I started posting pictures, it really took off,” DeBlasi said.
At one point, he said, 75% or more of his food was takeout. Now, it’s 60/40 with diners coming in outpacing takeout.
Food orders surprised him. Instead of the family-friendly Italian meals he had planned, his customers wanted items off the regular menu — special foods they wouldn’t cook at home.
“I sold a lot of halibut, but the scallops really took off. It was pan-seared diver scallops with cannellini beans, organic spinach and lemon confit,” DeBlasi said. “It’s a $42 dish and we sold a gallon of scallops in just four hours after I posted the picture on our Facebook page.”
DeBlasi discovered that some of his followers online are new customers who had never heard about the beachfront icon. “We’ve been here since 1997 and there are still people in Delray who’ve just found us,” he said. “I’m amazed at that.”
Social media have been a savior for some restaurants in that regard, and Facebook and Instagram have fostered whole clubs of diners locally.
John Brewer, a real estate agent in Delray Beach, helped initiate the Socially Distanced Supper Club, posting special takeout menus for restaurants daily.
“Restaurants have asked us to stay around,” Brewer said. ‘“We need this going forward,’ they told us. We’re trying to find a way to see if there’s a sustainable model for it, whether it’s a membership thing or something like that. Everybody who is volunteering has other jobs.”
The club took off beyond all expectations, expanding into other cities and drawing attention to hundreds of restaurants in the county.
Restaurants use a catering method. They take orders for pickup a few days before delivery. That allows them to control the staff and inventory with no waste, knowing exactly how much food is to be served.
The club helped restaurants reopen, bringing back kitchen staff and others, Brewer said, and enabled some to keep their leases or fend off creditors.
The free program has been especially helpful to smaller restaurants that didn’t have social media savvy or PR groups behind them.
Virtual parties also are part of the shift in dining practices.
At The Addison in Boca Raton, a special occasion restaurant that was booked solid for weddings and parties over the summer, a new way of engaging guests is in place.
Zoe Lanham, Addison vice president, said the business put a focus on smaller wedding parties and events because of social distancing and capacity limits. People are encouraged to use live video to stream events online, especially to include the “grandmas and grandpas” who are more vulnerable to the virus and need to remain in place, she said.
“We’re telling the brides they can still have a lovely small wedding now. As a couple, you’re still getting married. Get married on the regular date you chose, then celebrate your first anniversary as a big celebration.”
The restaurant will even deliver the reception food to grandparents or people with small children who are homebound so they can experience the dinner, too.
The Addison observes social distancing and asks customers to wear masks and have their temperatures taken at the gate to protect the staff, Lanham said. Staffers are checked daily and list anyone they have contacted who might have the virus. They are paid for two weeks if they need to be out, and the restaurant pays for all virus testing.
Servers provide everything tableside. There are no shared bread baskets, no condiments on the table, and no “leaning in” to take orders or fill water glasses. In a way, Lanham said, the Addison is practicing the civilized fine service that gave way to casual restaurants a couple of decades ago.
Servers underwent three sessions of video training while on hiatus. “We had time to focus on things and set up a fictitious dining room, and recorded videos of our guest experiences. Then we set up a remote training day, so all the servers could learn the new protocol,” Lanham said. “It’s all to give our guests an elevated dining experience while maintaining safety and health.”
The restaurant also pitched in to help the community. During its closure, it cooked and delivered meals for Boca Helping Hands. “We provided 700 meals a week for 13 weeks,” Lanham said. “At the end of the day, we have a responsibility to take care of one another.”
In brief: Restaurants coming in with Plan B include The Butcher and The Bar at 510 E. Ocean Ave., Boynton Beach. Eric Anderson, a partner, said plans for an early summer opening were moved to early July. Only the butcher shop is open, serving sandwiches and meats for home cooks. Opening in the same building are Guaca Go, a takeout shop with design-your-own guacamole dishes, and soon, Popo, a South American restaurant. ...
Delray now has Hawkers, an Asian street food shop doing takeout at 640 E. Atlantic.