2020 | Coronavirus

UPDATED: Two months after county reopens, some restaurants holding on in survival mode

Owners have seen sales drop 30% to 75% from last year

Knowles Station Wine & Co in Kensington, a liquor store and restaurant in Kensington, has seen its sales cut in half during the pandemic. But Assistant General Manager Jon Watkins says business has been steady enough that he think it will survive.

File photo

This story was updated at 11:55 p.m. Aug. 19, 2020, to add information about Denizens Brewing Co.

Two months after Montgomery County started reopening, restaurant owners say business is starting to come back, but is still down significantly from before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Restaurants and bars across Maryland closed for sit-down service on March 16, at the beginning of the health crisis. Montgomery County entered its first phase of reopening on June 1, which allowed restaurants and bars to operate with socially distanced outdoor seating.

Later that month, the county entered phase 2, in which restaurants may serve customers at 50% capacity indoors.

Roberto Pietrobono, who owns the Bethesda restaurants Olazzo, Alatri Bros and Gringos & Mariachis told Bethesda Beat on Monday that his restaurants are down an average of 30 to 40 percent from before the pandemic.

He also owns another Olazzo in Silver Spring and another Gringos & Mariachis in Potomac.

Pietrobono said his Bethesda restaurants have benefited from the setup of tables and chairs in the street. Bethesda Urban Partnership created the arrangement, known as The Streetery, in which diners can eat and socialize and restaurants get more outdoor dining space.

But he worries that when the weather turns cold, that added benefit won’t be there.

“Obviously you can’t have the Streetery [in cold weather]. You can’t have outdoor seating unless you have a heated patio. So you have a lot of restaurants that are gonna be hurting,” he said.

Pietrobono said he isn’t sure if one of his restaurants will survive the pandemic, but he declined to say which one.

Pietrobono said the county made a mistake recently by not allowing sales of alcohol after 10 p.m. He said the curfew could have been made “an hour or two later.”

“People want to meet. Since there’s been pretty intense heat, people want to eat later,” he said. “If they’re reducing hours until 10 o’clock to meet some friends, that means everyone’s rushing all at one time. It does the opposite of what they planned because you’re getting people crowded.”

At Knowles Station Wine & Co, a restaurant and liquor store in Kensington, Assistant General Manager Jon Watkins said on Tuesday that business has been “slower than normal” during the pandemic, with sales down about 50%.

Watkins said that Knowles Station, which opened in the spring of 2019, has had steady takeout business and the outdoor patio has also been popular.

Watkins said he thinks Knowles Station will survive the pandemic. The restaurant’s patio is heated, he added, so he expects people will still eat outside in the fall.

“We can go fairly deep into the cold season, but I think we’re looking forward to a bit of a slowdown when that happens,” he said.

At Denizens Brewing Co. in Silver Spring, spokesman Brian Coulombe wrote in an email Wednesday that the restaurant and brewery is “fighting hard to survive.” Part of Denizens’ revenue, he wrote, is from packaged beer sales, which have been hurt due to a shortage of aluminum beer cans. 

Coulombe added that this summer, revenue has only been a fraction of what it was during prior summers, which are typically busy seasons. He urged people to support local businesses. 

We shouldn’t feel that places are OK and doing well. Nobody is out of this and the fall/winter is likely to be even more difficult. If you want your favorite places to survive, support them as often as you can,” he wrote.

At Woodside Deli in Rockville, business has rebounded since the beginning of the pandemic, said the general manager, who asked to only be identified by her first name, Brandei.

She said that initially, the deli relied on carryout orders, but in phase 2, it has been busier for both indoor and outdoor service. But busier, she said, is relative.

“A year ago, it was line-out-the-door-busy. It’s definitely not the same as it was,” she said.

At Chevy Chase’s La Ferme Restaurant, sales have been just 25% of what they were last year, owner Alain Roussel said on Tuesday.

Roussel said that even though the restaurant is allowed to seat customers at 50% capacity, it is only using 25% of the space because the banquet space is not in use.

“At the end of the day, we are working with a lot less income and customers,” he said.

Roussel said that in 35 years of running his restaurant, he has never seen business drop off so dramatically. He said the next worst situation was for one week during the D.C. sniper attacks of 2002, when the restaurant had no business.

“But that was nothing compared to the six months we’ve been living lately. There is nothing comparable,” he said.

Roussel said he received money under the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but it isn’t enough to cover the restaurant’s expenses. Without additional money, he said he may close the restaurant again until the crisis is over.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com