Local restaurants see steep decline in business due to coronavirus
José Andrés temporarily closes Jaleo in Bethesda and his other Washington-area restaurants
Mussel Bar & Grille
Photo from Mussel Bar & Grille
Editor’s note: This story was written before Governor Hogan’s announcement that all restaurants and bars had to close by 5 p.m. Monday.
Last year on St. Patrick’s Day, nearly 1,300 customers packed Lahinch Tavern and Grill in Potomac, drinking about 4,000 beers.
This year is going to be a very different story.
Due to the concerns about coronavirus, the lunch and dinner reservations for St. Patrick’s Day on Tuesday are down 90% and 25%, respectively, from last year, according to Lahinch co-owner Ted Hughes.
“We’ve already lost 30% of the reservations by cancellations,” Hughes said. “We’re hoping for the best and planning for the worst. I think it’s going to be the worst.”
Hughes said he expects 350 customers on St. Patrick’s Day, “if we’re lucky.”
Lahinch and other restaurants in the Bethesda area have seen steep declines in business, especially in the last few days, as customers heed official warnings to avoid crowded places. Restaurant owners are responding by cutting hours, staff and menu items, and by eliminating some tables so parties are farther apart than they normally would be.
On Sunday, José Andrés announced on Twitter that he is temporarily closing all of his Washington-area restaurants, including Jaleo in downtown Bethesda and Beefsteak, a fast-casual eatery in Westfield Montgomery Mall.
Andrés said some of his restaurants, including Jaleo, will be turned into “community kitchens” staffed by volunteers and will provide to-go lunches to people in need between noon and 5 p.m.
Andrés, who lives in Bethesda, said his employees will receive paid leave and health benefits for at least two weeks.
Robert Wiedmaier, who owns three restaurants in Montgomery County and co-owns another, said business is down at least 40% in the last two weeks. “When they came out and said it’s a pandemic, that was it,” he said.
Wiedmaier owns Mussel Bar & Grille and Wildwood Kitchen in Bethesda and Lock 72 in Potomac, and co-owns Tommy Joe’s in Bethesda. His other restaurants include Brasserie Beck and Marcel’s in the District.
“Right now, in Maryland, we’re still chugging along being able to keep up with our payroll,” he said. “But being 40% down isn’t unsustainable.”
Adam Murphy, general manager at Mon Ami Gabi in Bethesda, said business at the popular eatery has “changed dramatically in the last couple of days.”
Murphy said the restaurant has been fielding a large number of calls from customers. “People want to know what steps we’re taking to keep people healthy,” he said. “We have certainly heightened our sense of sanitation. We’re sanitizing menus between guests 100% and we’ve been having handwashing classes.”
The restaurant has removed about 20% of the tables so that customers are farther apart. “Some people are asking for tables with no one next to them,” Murphy said. “So far we’ve been able to accommodate them.”
Murphy said one of his biggest concerns is the restaurant’s staff, who, as business has declined, are receiving fewer hours. “The service staff and cooks often live hand to mouth,” he said. “If they don’t have any people coming in the front door, there’s no money for them.”
At Tommy Joe’s, a sports bar on Norfolk Avenue in Bethesda, the cancellation of virtually all professional and collegiate sporting events is the biggest concern, according to co-owner Alan Pohoryles.
“We had two huge parties for March Madness that canceled,” he said. “That’s going to hurt next week a lot.”
Pohoryles said St. Patrick’s Day is usually “hit or miss” when it falls on a weekday, “but now it will be a big fat miss with all that’s going on.”
With all their current worries, local restaurants owners may soon have a larger concern: being forced to shut down. At a news conference Sunday afternoon, County Executive Marc Elrich said he plans to talk with his colleagues in the region about temporarily curtailing or closing restaurant operations. Washington, D.C., announced Sunday that bars and restaurants can stay open, but with restrictions.
Wiedmaier said he thinks a decision to close restaurants is inevitable. “I think they’re going to announce D.C. and probably Maryland, too, either tonight or tomorrow,” he said. “I’m prepared to shut down. It is what it is.”
Hughes at Lahinch said he hopes a shutdown order waits until after St. Patrick’s Day. “I have about $20,000 worth of stuff in my cooler,” he said.
One longtime Bethesda restaurant closed for good last week due to the recent falloff in business.
Geoff Tracy, the owner of Café Deluxe, which closed on Bethesda Row on Friday after more than 20 years, said sales declined 50% in the restaurant’s final week due to concern about coronavirus. He wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Friday that he didn’t plan on renewing the Café Deluxe lease, which was set to expire in April, but was forced to close earlier due to coronavirus.
Tracy wrote that the restaurant industry faces an “existential threat” because of the recent dramatic loss in sales.
Staff writer Dan Schere contributed to this story.