After nearly 80 years in business, The Roanoker Restaurant has built a loyal following. A steady stream of carryout orders has come in over the last two months while its dining room has been closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, owner Butch Craft said it’s not enough.
“When you have a 300 seat restaurant and you take that away, you cannot sustain the business on just takeout and curbside,” she said.
Craft estimated The Roanoker has lost at least two-thirds of its business.
Even the good days are challenging. Craft said The Roanoker put together a special offering for Mother’s Day, which drew many orders. But with a smaller staff — she said the restaurant has kept on only a dozen of its more than 60 employees — it was difficult to meet demand.
The restaurant has reduced its hours, including in the morning. While The Roanoker is ordinarily a popular breakfast spot — its biscuits are famous — Craft said she’s read and seen from personal experience that people aren’t willing to venture out to pick up breakfast.
Usually three cooks are at the grill making eggs during the breakfast rush; these days there’s just one. But the restaurant still sells plenty of biscuits, Craft said, and has a full-time bread roller every day.
Restaurants across the Roanoke Valley have been surviving on carryout and delivery since Gov. Ralph Northam ordered dining rooms to close in March in response to the coronavirus. The shift has been challenging, and many restaurateurs say no matter how strong their takeout business is, it won’t match in-person dining.
The National Restaurant Association reports that, adjusting for inflation, consumer spending at eating and drinking establishments in April fell to its lowest level in more than 35 years.
Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association, said the agency is just beginning to hear about restaurants that are closing permanently, crippled by the pandemic.
“The longer this goes, the more likely we’re going to have some permanent closures, which we really hate to see,” he said.
For the most part, Terry said, restaurants relying on takeout are just barely getting by. Terry called the pandemic’s impact on the restaurant industry “devastating.”
“We’ve lost almost a quarter of a million restaurant jobs in the state,” he said.
Terry said he hoped the second phase of reopening would help improve the situations for restaurants. The first phase of reopening, which began in much of the state May 15, allowed restaurants with outdoor seating to use their patios at 50% occupancy.
While many restaurants closed for a few weeks when the pandemic first took hold, The Roanoker never stopped serving its comfort food, which Craft believes helped the business. Restaurants that closed had to build back up and spread the word that they’d reopened.
The Roanoker has made its regular menu available for takeout, but limited daily specials. Craft said they still offer popular specials regulars expect, like meatloaf on Fridays. There were so many requests for macaroni and cheese that it’s now offered every day.
Despite the struggles, Craft said she’s been moved by the people working to support their favorite local restaurants. The Roanoker received checks from the Lions Club and also a couple who are giving their stimulus money to small businesses they frequent. A large business group that regularly meets at The Roanoker sent a check that amounts to what they’d normally pay for two months.
“It’s been amazing that there are still a lot of good people out there and there are still people that want you to survive,” she said.
Craft said she’s already started thinking about how the dining room could be configured to allow for social distancing once she is allowed to reopen.
She feels eventually being allowed to operate at a reduced capacity would be “another step in the right direction.” But Craft said it’s impossible to know how many people will be comfortable eating out.
Dimos Tripodianos, owner of Athens Corner Grill on South Jefferson Street, said there’s been a major learning curve in restructuring his business for takeout only.
“Even though you’re not sitting 60 people in a dining room, doing half as much with half the manpower and resources in a two-hour window, which is what a dinner or lunch rush would be, is probably just as challenging as it would be had the restaurant been completely open,” he said.
Though Tripodianos said he hadn’t sat down to crunch the numbers, it’s easy to see that business is down. It’s probably sustainable for the short-term, he said, but no one looks to open a business just to stay afloat.
“It’s a matter of working a lot harder to accomplish a lot less,” Tripodianos said.
When he’s able to reopen the Athens dining room, Tripodianos said he’s worried about getting back to full staff, saying there’s not much incentive to work when some can make more on unemployment.
The River and Rail is not just offering traditional carryout. The South Roanoke restaurant also created a family meal program that feeds four and began selling pantry items, such as grain from a local processor and meats butchered in house. Beer, wine and cocktails are also available.
“Very quickly we realized that we needed to do multiple things to generate revenue,” said Aaron Deal, operating partner.
Even so, he said The River and Rail is doing about 60% of its usual business. Deal said the restaurant is fortunate not to be hit harder.
The River and Rail has managed to keep on around 80% of its regular staff, he said, but they are working fewer hours. Bartenders are answering phones and servers are running food to cars.
The menu has been adjusted in several ways, Deal explained, from size to price point. Additionally, the restaurant has to consider which dishes will travel well, knowing meals will likely sit in a carryout box for at least 15-20 minutes before they’re eaten.
Deal said The River and Rail is prioritizing more affordable menu items, knowing that cost is likely “top of mind” for customers during these uncertain economic times.
“The fine dining model right now is dead,” he said. “We are now reinventing ourselves and will continue with the idea of being valuable to our customers and our guests.”
While the restaurant is known for fancier fare, often intricately plated, Deal said the staff is putting its spin on more casual items like sandwiches, hot dogs and lobster rolls.
“We’re taking sort of classic comfort food and adding a little bit of pizzazz to it and people seem to really enjoy that,” he said.
Being more affordable and approachable on a daily basis is the new reality for The River and Rail, Deal said. He believes that’s what will keep the restaurant in business. Fine dining is all about those small touches, which don’t translate well to takeout.
“Until something substantial changes, this is going to be sort of our new world for a while,” he said.
For established restaurants like Luigi’s, an Italian spot on Brambleton Avenue, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, loyal customers have been the key to finding success with a carryout-only model.
Owner Maristane Rocha said the restaurant serves generations of families; some who dined as children now bring little ones of their own. Such patrons can be counted on to order a few times a week. Even longtime elderly customers are venturing out to pick up to-go orders.
Luigi’s, which closed for three weeks but reopened for curbside pickup in mid-April, is doing pretty well, Rocha said, especially on Fridays and Saturdays.
“But it is hard to survive,” she said, estimating busy weekends during the pandemic bring in not even half the revenue they ordinarily would.
The restaurant is offering fewer dishes; Rocha said the full menu has 85 items. But if a customer wants something that’s not on the carryout menu, she said the chef would prepare it.
Though business is down, it’s not by any means slow. Rocha said she walks back and forth between the kitchen and parking lot maybe 50 times a night bringing orders to customers’ cars.
“It’s my exercise,” she said.
When dining rooms closed, Cafe Asia 2 on Electric Road in Roanoke County was better off than some restaurants since it did a decent amount of to-go business — around 30% — prior to the pandemic, said Feng Chen, the restaurant’s owner. But shifting entirely to carryout has still been challenging.
“We’re doing OK,” he said. “Not good, but we’re hanging in there.”
The shift has not been convenient or comfortable, Chen said, plus it’s required the restaurant to spend more on supplies like to-go containers.
He estimated Cafe Asia 2’s business has fallen by 30% to 40% during the pandemic.
“It doesn’t matter how much I try,” he said. “It’s not the same as before.”
Chen said he’s tried to give his employees work, for their sake and the restaurant’s, since it will need a full staff when it eventually reopens. But he said some employees have stopped working because they are concerned for their health, or in the case of some teen employees, their parents don’t want them working. Chen said he’s retained about two -thirds of the staff.
The restaurant takes orders online and through an app, but not by phone, which Chen said helps with safety, as employees are not handling cash or credit cards. Customers are not allowed to enter the building.
The biggest challenge with takeout is managing a flood of orders that come in all at once, he said. In a dining room, only so many people can be seated and served at one time. If the tables are full, patrons must wait. But with takeout, a restaurant has far less control over how many orders come into its kitchen. And Chen said everyone seems to want their dinner at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m.
Switching to a carryout-only model has been harder than Chen expected. Like most restaurants, Cafe Asia 2 wasn’t prepared for this. He said it took several weeks to get the hang of the online ordering system.
The restaurant is handling it better now, Chen said, but the first few weeks were a “nightmare.”
“I’ve worked in restaurants for over 30 years and never had this kind of complicated situation before,” he said. “But I guess you learn through it.”