WINCHESTER — Tyler Newcome and Shawn Steffey had recently celebrated the opening of their new business in Old Town Winchester right before the pandemic hit.
The business partners, who own Valerie Hill Winery in Frederick County, had opened The Wine Room at the Taylor Pavilion in December 2019. They had only been open for three months before the pandemic forced them to shut down indoor dining until June.
“During the time we were only permitted to provide carry out, our Date Night at Home dinner and wine packages we offered on Friday and Saturday nights literally saved the business,” Steffey said.
“When we re-opened for outdoor seating we were fortunate that the City (of Winchester) gave us permission for our outdoor patio. Sales were down approximately 70% in May and June compared to February.”
Long-established restaurants also faced challenges due to the coronavirus.
“When the news came they were shutting down restaurants in Virginia, I immediately was looking at ways to keep the business afloat. No revenue at all in the restaurant industry spells disaster. I was determined after 39 years in business not to lose the business,” said Celeste Borel, who owns L’Auberge Provencale in Boyce.
Borel acted quickly, pivoting to curbside pickup and delivery, something fine dining establishments like hers have little experience with.
“I had to find out about packaging. I know that sounds silly, but I never had a to-go business. Where to get bags?,” she said. Roma’s restaurant gave her some bags until she was able to get more.
Borel reached out to other local restaurant owners so they could encourage the Top of Virginia Regional Chamber to create a “To Go” feature on the chamber’s website, listing local restaurants that offered take out and delivery. They requested all local restaurants be included, even if the restaurant was not a chamber member.
Since L’Auberge Provencale is also a bed and breakfast, Borel had their lodging business to take care of as well. COVID safety protocols were instituted, and spelled out on their website to assure travelers. Special in-room dining menus were created for their guests.
In June, business started to pick up.
“D.C. and Northern Virginia travelers were longing to get out of the basement and into the fresh air of the Shenandoah Valley,” she said. “Lots of hikers, horseback riders, etc. And outdoor diners. July, August, September and October were the busiest months we had…ever! It was crazy.”
Borel had lots of space to create additional outdoor seating, allowing for maximum social distancing. In addition to the outdoor patio of the restaurant, Borel was able to put tables on the porch and terrace.
“It was a godsend, that we have the areas we do for outdoor dining,” she said. “We have heaters and people are still requesting outdoors. During the warmer months guests felt more comfortable dining outdoors. They did not care how hot it was.”
Not all restaurants have outdoor dining, though. Dave Kelly, owner and general manager of Cafe del Sol in Winchester, put his energies into the delivery and takeout business.
“In the spring, when the governor’s mandate to shut down indoor dining occurred, we initially lost a tremendous amount of business, and the first three weeks after that were the worst,” he said.
“I was thinking about layoffs and doing the math on how long we could survive with only takeout and delivery.”
Though his business lacked outdoor dining, it did have a unique feature: a drive-through window. Cafe del Sol’s building had been a barbecue restaurant in its former life, which had a drive-through. Kelly said the reopened window has been a hit with customers.
The first week in June, most restaurants in Virginia were allowed to partially open for indoor dining. At that point, Kelly decided to close the restaurant for a week to give his staff a much-needed break before reopening.
“I reopened the dining room almost two weeks after we were allowed, to make sure we were able to operate safely and according to the new guidelines,” he said. “Indoor dining was slow at first but as time has gone more people became comfortable with dining in, and I think they recognized we were doing our part to provide a safe environment.”
Restaurant owners have had to take considerable safety precautions to ensure a safe environment for patrons. Kelly said they disinfect the restaurant multiple times a day, employees wear masks at all times and they do regular temperature checks. Paper menus are used, and thrown away after each use. Diners are seated with proper distancing between tables, and the size of parties are limited. At times they did have trouble acquiring gloves and cleaning supplies, and the price for many of those items have gone up exponentially.
The coronavirus pandemic will have a lasting impact on the restaurant industry, owners say.
“As one of the largest small business industries, that employ more people than any other, we really don’t understand why the restaurant business has been so targeted as some kind of ground zero,” Borel said. “You can go to big box stores, Lowes, Home Depot, Target, Walmart etc. Their cleaning protocols are less than the restaurants. It has been a terrible blow to our industry. I think in the end over 40-50% of the restaurants will be closed permanently.”
Something that has helped local business owners get through the difficulties of 2020 is the support of their customers and staff.
“I feel I must stress that the people of Winchester have been so supportive of our local restaurants and it’s that support and encouragement that has been an inspiration for me,” Kelly said. “We could not have survived if it wasn’t for this community stepping up on a daily basis to keep us going. I am also amazed at the resilience of our staff. My employees put there selves at risk every day to come to work and they have done more to keep this business going than I have any right to expect.”