The good and bad of operating a dining establishment during a pandemic
Since March 17, the day Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez signed Executive Order #03-20, limiting restaurants to staying open only for takeout and delivery, the island’s restaurant owners have been pivoting -- implementing changes to reposition their businesses and keep providing meals to residents.
In the process, they became experts on new areas, learning PPP, SBA and Florida Disaster loan,s EIDL, grants, etc. But their ability to learn, run their businesses, and keep the lights on, has been a marvel in entrepreneurship and cooperation.
We see businesses that were once hesitant to change learn to adapt and start to thrive in the new normal. In some cases, they ventured far from their comfort zone.
At Milanezza, owners Gladys and Max launched “Milanezza Mercadito” distributing groceries with a one-hour delivery window. At a time of shortages, they offered hand sanitizers and TP.
At Kebo, the upscale Spanish restaurant, owner Jose Castellano and his team quickly shifted, embracing takeout by creating a $14.95 per person to-go menu. And they keep adapting -- recently converting part of the dining room to a wine cellar, lowering prices in the process.
At Costa Med Bistro, owner Antonio Braschi realized his menu needed adjusting for takeout. He temporarily closed the restaurant, turned the kitchen into a food lab, and modified his menu to develop to-go-friendly entrees.
At The Golden Hog, owner Jorge Gonzalez quickly adapted the layout of his Harbor Plaza location, allowing his customers to shop while maintaining social distancing. The team has now developed a remote ordering business that will become a big part of their business.
The Donut Gallery has had a harder time adjusting. Owners Nelson and Ota Zambrano are now trying to reinvent their business, recently introducing new specials to lure in customers.
Perhaps no restaurant on the island faced a tougher challenge than the small Italian restaurant that is La Scala. The cornerstone of their business is accommodating personal service that has created a veritable cult-like following. Owner Chandra DeSilva quickly moved to the takeout business. He did not change the menu, unlike some others, and it paid off as customers did not have to change their culinary preferences. DeSilva has been able to thrive.
One of the best things to come out of the pandemic crisis is a strong cooperative spirit among the restaurant owners. While sitting at La Scala with DeSilva recently, Federico Elkarout, owner of Pita Pockets, walked in and asked for “three onions” to complete a dish. DeSilva and Elkarout go out daily to shop for the ingredients they need. Since the pandemic hit, DeSilva said, he has shared with several other restaurant owners. “We all have to help each other,” he said.
Other innovative survivors include Pita Pockets, Artisan Kitchen and Bar, Sake Room, Ayesha and Tutto’s Pizza and Pasta.
Sadly, the pandemic has claimed the Oasis Cafe, one of the island’s most recognizable brands and a gathering place. On Tuesday, in a social media post, they announced they are closing. Attempts to speak with owner Carlos Flores were unsuccessful.
It is heartening to see the restaurant community -- much like Key Biscayne itself -- is using creativity and cooperation to survive this time of crisis.