by Will Fowler
Opening a restaurant is never routine. Opening a restaurant in a pandemic presents an entirely new set of obstacles.
“Right around when we were supposed to announce our opening, everything shut down,” Executive Chef Christian Irabién said. “We had to let our entire team that we had hired go.”
To keep the business afloat and support the workers that had been laid off, Irabién revamped the concept in just 72 hours. At first, it was a sort of pantry and market that sold small prepared meals on the side. Its mission was to feed the immigrant community and hospitality workers. To this day, a portion of its proceeds go to two nonprofits that support restaurant workers.
“We were making hot meals, just three of us, for the families of the individuals working with us [that we had let go], “said Irabién. “We wanted to make sure they had food on the table.”
The community response, Irabién said, was “huge.”
“We knew there was an immediate need for us to help. We knew how to cook, so we started cooking,” he said. “People kept coming, and it slowly started transforming into a takeout place. We’re now a team of ten. We’re able to support the people who work for us financially.”
Fred Darricarrere, the owner of Rosemary Bistro Café at 5010 Connecticut Avenue, has four decades of restaurant experience. Yet he, too, had to scramble to adapt.
“I was at first very excited, but with the pandemic it was extremely difficult” to get customers in the door, said Darricarrere. “Especially in DC, especially in the area where we are. It’s always very slow. People are not going on vacation, tourists are not coming in, and people in the area are hesitant to go out. There are many different things playing against us.”
Darricarrere had planned to open the restaurant for a full year before the pandemic, and had already signed his lease by the time closures began. He thought his reputation as the founder of Petits Plats in Woodley Park would be enough of a draw when Rosemary Bistro opened its doors in July.
After his underwhelming opening, Darricarrere improved the restaurant’s website and social media presence.
The Rosemary Bistro website now includes online reservations and a to-go menu which includes a $100 dinner-for-four special. Darricarrere encourages customers to leave reviews. The initial trickle of customers has become a steady stream.
“We are seeing so many people coming back to us,” he said. “We are getting good reviews. People online love it.”
Irabién and Darricarrere are among the lucky ones. The National Restaurant Association estimates the entire industry will lose $240 billion, or nearly a third of their annual sales this year. More than half of U.S. adults surveyed by the restaurant trade group in August said a restaurant had closed permanently.
According to Cherie Lester, a small business consultant at Van Ness Main Street, the restaurants that are left are surviving primarily with digital customer outreach.
“Customers aren’t necessarily coming in store anymore, even if you have a restaurant designed to dine in,” she said. “Being able to sell online is crucial – you need to be consistently reaching back out to people, building a customer base, now more than ever.”
Rosemary Bistro’s Darricarrere said experience and willpower count for something, too.
“I’ve been working in restaurants for 38 years now,” he said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. The good thing about getting old is that you keep your experience with you, there are so many mistakes for a new opening that you know instinctively to avoid. You need to be able to learn and change. You must have passion to succeed. If you don’t have that, you can just forget it.”
Passion for the community pays dividends, too. Irabién of Muchas Gracias said that the community is returning the favor in everything from the way people tip to the number of return customers.
“It’s really a two-way street,” he said. “Without that, we wouldn’t have survived this.”
Ultimately though, Irabién credits the pop-up’s success to his team.
“If it hadn’t been for the collective experience of the team, we wouldn’t have known what to do,” he said. “We didn’t know if this was going to be sustainable, and our experience really carried us through.”
For Darricarrere, there has also been a special emphasis on the role that restaurants play during times of crisis.
“We always say we all need to be together,” said Darricarrere. We’re going to fight the pandemic, we’re going to rebound, and we’re going to succeed.”