Their tacos would arrive soon—fish and el ranchero, served not in carryout containers but on real plates.
While Jerry Morris and Brian Dougherty waited, they recounted the restaurants they have patronized via takeout since March.
“We’ve done Dodge City steakhouse multiple times,” said Morris.
“Freshido,” added Dougherty. “Subway Café. Café Fresco. We’ve done Alvaro’s, because that’s right by our house. The Speakeasy.”
On this pleasant Saturday night, Morris and Dougherty, who live in Midtown Harrisburg, were dining al fresco at the eatery trilogy of Mangia Qui, Rubicon and Suba on North Street.
“So many restaurants are such an asset to the city that, if they close, they’re probably gone for at least several years before somebody comes in to take their place,” Dougherty said. “So, we know that we have to do our part.”
In the secret sauce keeping Harrisburg restaurants afloat during the age of COVID, loyal customers are key ingredients. So are financial reserves, government help and creative ideas connecting food and beverages to hungry patrons.
In this atmosphere, agility is gold.
Steve Weinstock, owner of Stock’s on 2nd, credits a seasoned management team with bright ideas that bring in revenue: add-your-own-liquor signature cocktail cubes; Easter and Passover meals to-go that morphed into kosher Shabbat dinners; a food truck trundling into Harrisburg neighborhoods, so successful that a second is contemplated.
“I never thought in a million years I’d be running a food truck,” Weinstock said.
He admits to skepticism over the chef’s idea for livestreamed cooking demos, using ingredients packaged down to the tablespoon of salt. Now, the sessions have “a huge following” and could continue, post-pandemic, as quarterly events.
Mangia Qui’s partners had little time to “flip the script,” maneuvering through such technicalities as finding eco-friendly takeout containers, combining three restaurants’ menus into one, and developing sanitization procedures, said partner and chef Qui Qui Musarra.
How are they managing?
“We pray a lot,” Musarra said. “We’ve all become avid smokers. You just hope that somehow it all balances out.”
In mid-June, hallelujahs rang out as Dauphin County restaurants reopened at 50-percent capacity. In mid-July, hallelujahs turned to howls when Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration dialed back to 25 percent and required food purchases with alcohol sales.
Weinstock, like restaurateurs and journalists statewide, wants to see the data justifying such restrictions.
“I feel like our industry is getting singled out,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair.”
Musarra believes that Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine are doing “a tremendous job.” It’s America’s resistance to precautions such as masks that are slowing reopening, she believes.
“Everybody could have been at 50 percent had everybody abided by the rules,” she said.
Up on Allison Hill, it’s a Wednesday at lunchtime, and socially distanced customers wait to order their Caribbean-themed comfort food at Rice & Beans Diner on 17th Street.
Business seems steady, in contrast to the pandemic’s first month, which “was horrible,” said Starlyn Rivera, co-owner with husband Jose Pichardo.
With only five employees, the restaurant’s minuscule federal Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loan didn’t go far. And by the time Rivera applied for a city small business grant, the fund had emptied.
The restaurant, which the New Yorkers opened in early 2019, stayed open by trimming hours but not eliminating jobs.
“Our employees, they understand,” said Rivera. “We were open more for them than for even us. We’ll keep trying.”
PPP loans helped restaurants get over the initial plunge in business, but layoffs and hourly cuts remained on the menu. At Stock’s on 2nd, “staying afloat” means limiting hours, said Weinstock.
“Everyone wants us to get through it, so the staff is very understanding,” he said. “Some people are happy to have a few days a week versus six days, just to have something in their pocket.”
Todd and Kathy Vander Woude, having dinner on a Saturday night, discovered a new perspective on 2nd Street’s eclectic architecture. That’s what happens when you’re sitting in the center lane of a street that normally carries thousands of vehicles a day.
The Vander Woudes were enjoying Saturday Nights in the City, when the city barricades streets, and diners order from servers or carry takeout food to tables set up by participating restaurants. Vander Woude, executive director of the Downtown Improvement District, and Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse came up with the idea, launched in early June.
Saturday Nights in the City helped restaurants close revenue gaps caused by emptied downtown offices during the day and diminished crowds in the evenings. An extra 22 tables outside help Stock’s make up—somewhat—for the diminished capacity inside.
“It’s the one night we can shine and do the amount of sales that we used to do when we were open 100 percent,” said Weinstock.
The Mangia Qui group turned its North Street block into a dream of Paris or Miami, complete with white tablecloths, red patio umbrellas and lights strung overhead. Customers love the getaway and the tableside service.
“It’s a reprieve,” Musarra said. “Even though we are in the street, people feel they’ve been transported someplace else.”
Restaurant owners know that Saturday Nights in the City is weather-dependent. Heat and summer storms dampen turnout. Even if it’s extended into the fall, as some hope, winter is coming.
Remember date night? Have dinner. Attend a show. Have drinks afterwards.
All a distant memory.
“That’s a hurt,” said Weinstock. “We have a large symphony crowd.”
Restaurants also took a big hit in crowd-based bookings—weddings, political and nonprofit fundraisers, catering. Mangia Qui’s clients are managing work-arounds, perhaps finding larger spaces for socially distanced catered events, or flipping weddings to their own homes.
Delivery services have also become a mainstay.
“If you can’t come to us, we’ll come to you,” said Musarra. “We had people getting takeout and delivery who had never been to the restaurant. They’ve become converts.”
A few restaurateurs have decided to wait it out a bit longer.
Originally, The Millworks reopened in June. Then an employee tested positive for COVID, and owner Josh Kesler announced a temporary shutdown. When test results for other staff were slow to arrive, he suspended operations at The Millworks and his new Watershed Pub in Camp Hill until further notice—not a closure, but a hold.
“The bottom line for me is, I couldn’t ensure my staff’s safety, and if I can’t do that, I’ve got to put the brakes on it,” said Kesler. “We’re just going to take a little time off and get ahead of this experience.”
Fiscal reserves help Kesler pay those bills that keep coming. The Millworks complex of restaurant, brewery and artists’ studios will stay closed until multiple factors—negative test results among staff, sustained low virus numbers in the community, perhaps reliable treatments and vaccines—combine to assure “a more certain environment, health-wise.”
Veteran restaurateurs are survivors. Optimists, too. Kesler, a longtime booster of Midtown Harrisburg as a destination, sees The Millworks and its neighbors bustling again.
“I can’t wait for that to happen,” he said. “Eventually, it’ll be back to what it was before.”
Musarra and her partners don’t fret over how long they can sustain business.
“You have to concentrate on the positive side, because if you predict your own demise, then that’s what you work towards,” she said.
At Rice & Beans Diner, the pandemic has apparently slowed approval of a liquor license, but the hopeful orange notice beckons in the window. Rivera can’t say that business is okay, but she can say with a laugh, “We’re doing better.”
“We’re doing better because our customers, they are great,” she said. “They’re supporting us a lot. They understand. They can go in the restaurant, and if they like our food, then we’re glad the neighborhood is helping us.”
For more information on the restaurants in this story, please visit their websites and social media pages.
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