Restaurants face uncertain future in wake of mandatory closures
Some fear they’ll have to close permanently
A sign outside Tastee Diner in Bethesda explains why local restaurants and bars are shutting down.
Photos by Kari Mason
Downtown Bethesda late Monday afternoon was as deserted as it if it were Christmas Day, only no one was celebrating — certainly not the restaurant owners.
At 5 p.m., restaurants were required to close their doors. Earlier in the day, Gov. Larry Hogan ordered that all restaurants and bars in the state shut down due to concerns about the spread of coronavirus. There were exceptions for drive-through and carry-out orders.
Restaurateurs were already reeling from steep declines in business over the last week as people opted not to visit crowded places. With the closures, restaurant owners told Bethesda Beat they are worried about the future of their businesses and employees.
“You feel like this big giant metal door has closed and you hear it rattle behind you,” said Stephanie Salvatore, who co-owns Persimmon in Bethesda and Wild Tomato and Sal’s Italian Kitchen in Cabin John with her husband, Damian.
“It’s devastating,” said Ashish Alfred, who owns Duck Duck Goose in Bethesda and Baltimore and George’s Chophouse in Bethesda.
Alfred said he was most concerned about his employees.
“There’s no way you can afford to pay your tipped employees when you’re closed,” he said. “Most of our employees live paycheck to paycheck. I’m not going to take a salary if my people are out of work.”
Chairs were flipped on top of tables at Gusto Farm to Street
in Bethesda, which had only delivery and pick-up service.
Restaurant owners said their ability to survive the mandatory closure depends on how long it lasts and how flexible landlords are about rent.
Riccardo Pietrobono, who co-owns five restaurants in Montgomery County, said two of his restaurants, Alatri Brothers in Bethesda and Olazzo in Silver Spring, “won’t last very long” being closed.
“Unless we get relief from landlords, I don’t see how Silver Spring and Alatri Brothers are going to be able to survive longer than a month, he said. His other restaurants, Olazzo in Bethesda and Gringos and Mariachis in Bethesda and Potomac, should be OK “as long as the staff is willing to come back.”
Gringos & Mariachis was among countless restaurants in Bethesda
offering takeout service after having to shut down their table service.
Jennifer Meltzer, who owns All Set Restaurant & Bar in Silver Spring, said she told her landlord: “If you want me here when we get through this, you have to work with me now.”
Many local restaurants will offer takeout and delivery service, as allowed by the governor’s order. But owners said takeout and delivery are far from a panacea. “You can’t survive on takeout,” Pietrobono said.
Alfred said it’s expensive to provide takeout because you have to have a cook and manager on duty. “The juice has got to be worth the squeeze,” he said. “I want to keep my people working, but it has to be sustainable.”
Customers line up outside closed doors at &Pizza on Old Georgetown Road
in Bethesda. An employee opens the doors only to slide through their order.
Restaurants are dealing with an immediate problem: what to do with excess perishable food.
Olazzo in Bethesda and both Gringos and Mariachis locations are offering steep discounts on takeout and delivery orders to reduce their food stocks and, Pietrobono said, to “get the kitchen guys some hours.” He estimated that the value of the inventory of perishable food in his five restaurants is $15,000.
Two food rescue operations in Montgomery County — Community Food Rescue and Nourish Now — said they are hearing from many restaurants, as well as caterers and venues where food is served, such as casinos and bowling alleys.
“We’re getting a lot of phone calls — about six a day starting Saturday,” said Brett Meyers, executive director of Nourish Now. “We are just constantly picking up and expanding on our vehicles to pick up food. It’s getting pretty intense.”
Dunkin’ on Cordell Avenue posted that it removed its indoor/outdoor
seating to comply with current regulations. Customers can still
place an order at the counter for pickup or on their mobile app.
For restaurant owners, not knowing when they will be able to re-open is the hardest part. “I think the scariest thing is the uncertainty,” Alfred said.
“I think this is going to hurt a lot of people,” Pietrobono said. “It’s a stressful business under the best of circumstances. Some people might rethink their career paths.”
Added Meltzer: “When this is over, I think there will be less restaurants. My heart is breaking for everyone right now.”