Restaurants adjust to new health safety regulations

One Ring Donuts launched a weekly donut club last week. Chairs were placed six feet apart to indicate where customers should stand while waiting to pick up their order.
One Ring Donuts launched a weekly donut club last week. Chairs were placed six feet apart to indicate where customers should stand while waiting to pick up their order.
Photo by Sarah Barden
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During the past week, bars and restaurants throughout Tompkins County have been struggling as coronavirus-related restrictions rapidly increase.

On Monday, March 16, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a mandate limiting all cafes, bars and restaurants to takeout and delivery services. This move was intended to promote social distancing while still providing access to prepared foods and assisting businesses impacted by the current state of emergency.

During subsequent mandates issued later in the week, restaurants and bars were identified as an essential business and therefore exempt from the in-person workforce reductions placed on non-essential businesses. Local establishments have responded to this mandate in a variety of ways; some ceased operations completely, some adapted their menus for takeout, and others made significant changes to their product offerings.

Several restaurants that previously only offered sit-down dining have adapted their menus for takeout and/or delivery. The Rook on West MLK Jr. Street in Ithaca has pivoted to a pick-up menu focused on its popular duck fat fried chicken, with a la carte sides, a rotating entrée option and dessert.

“We’re doing a riff on the Colonel’s Classic, our own version,” said chef and owner Gentry Morris. “It’s real small and limited - just trying to keep costs down and sell the things we have already.”

In limiting bars and restaurants to take-out business only, Cuomo has ordered new off-premises privileges to establishments with existing liquor licenses.

Any alcoholic beverage that could previously be sold to diners can now be sold to-go so long as the sale is accompanied by food. As a result, The Rook’s to-go menus also include a generous selection of wine, beer and cocktails.

“We just went with some classics that you can ice at home,” explained Morris in regards to the cocktail menu. “We have a Bodega Man that’s really popular with grilled pineapple puree and bourbon.”

Morris said that the menus will be changing often, so customers should check the website, Facebook or Instagram for that day’s menu.

“We’re trying to provide some familiar comfort food to everybody at this time,” Morris said. “We have a huge fan base, and I really appreciate their continuing support. I can’t wait to have a giant block party when this is over with.”

Despite the classification as an essential business and the unprecedented extension of to-go liquor sales for sit-down establishments, many places such as The Watershed on West MLK Jr. Street have decided to cease operations for the near future. Co-owner Ashley Cake explained that since the guidance on Monday regarding take-out for bars was not clear, she and co-owner Dave Thomas prioritized making a decision for the sake of their staff.

“Even if we did takeout immediately, there wasn’t going to be enough work for our staff,” Cake said. “So, we had to make sure that everyone knew that we were going to be able to pay them for a little while.”

Across the industry, countless waitstaff and bartenders have found themselves fully unemployed – either because their employer shut down or because take-out business alone wouldn’t be able to sustain a full staff. While The Watershed was committed to paying its employees as long as possible, Cake did caution that it still wasn’t ideal.

“The Watershed can support the schedule of the regular Watershed bartenders for nine weeks, but you also have to keep in mind that that’s a 50% pay cut for most of my bartenders – most of them make $30 an hour with tips,” Cake said.

Cake gratefully acknowledged that giftcard sales were high last week, noting that those sales gave her and Thomas breathing room to consider their options.

“I hope that everybody stays in contact with their favorite places because there’s a lot of organizing happening,” she said. “We’re closed, but we’re still working.”

For Melissa Kenney, co-owner of Sweet Melissa’s Ice Cream, the decision to close her Press Bay Alley shop (which serves hard ice cream and baked goods) and delay the opening of their Shortstop Deli location (which serves soft serve and hard ice cream and is only open seasonally) was made to limit gatherings with the safety of customers in mind.

Though the shops do not employ a large workforce at this time of year, this doesn’t come without challenges.

“Delaying the opening for us means delaying our entire annual income. We don’t make money past September, so whatever we lose on our delay, we lose for the rest of the year,” Kenney said.

Like most other businesses, Sweet Melissa’s does have gift cards available for purchase online, but Kenney also launched a GoFundMe with a unique reward: All You Can Eat Soft Serve Parties.

On three dates over the summer, Sweet Melissa’s will open a few hours early and offer all-you-can-eat soft serve to anyone who donated $10.00.

“I thought this would be more fun [than gift cards] and serve as a system we could use in the future to have an annual fundraiser,” Kenney said. “It also gives something fun for customers to look forward to since everything is so chaotic right now.”

Around the corner in Press Bay Court on Green Street, One Ring Donuts co-owner Amy Cohen was similarly candid about her financial reality: in order to stay afloat, she must sell 900 donuts per week.

“Often when customers see a business thriving on social media, or with a line out the door, they assume the business is making a large profit,” Cohen said. “The only way to help bridge this communication gap is to be very honest, which is why we chose to be frank about this number.”

Since daily donut sales are unpredictable even on a regular day, One Ring Donuts devised a lower-risk model for the foreseeable future: a monthly donut club. Customers can choose between a two-pack or six-pack of either the original potato donuts (with vegan and gluten-free options) or the filled brioche donuts.

Flavors are a mystery and change weekly; enrollment is closed for March but will re-open the first week of April.

“The donut club gives us the opportunity to experiment with new flavors, perfect our loved flavors and be very precise with our ordering, production and distribution,” Cohen said.

While many businesses have adjusted their business models to adapt to changing regulations, Luna Inspired Street Food took it a few steps further and sought to meet new needs within the community.

Last week, it launched a new website (tompkinshomedelivery.com) to host its existing take-out menu as well as three new services: meal prep, bulk food drive-through and bulk food delivery.

Luna has an extensive infrastructure to support its significant catering business. With that business gone, it chose to repurpose its team of delivery drivers and catering staff.

The take-out menu features Luna’s regular menu, but the meal prep meals are all new.

“We did a lot of nontraditional Luna food – just more classic, American fare,” said chef Matt Cleveland. “All of the traditional restaurants ended up closing down, so not everyone can get a chicken alfredo or flank steak.”

Meals must be ordered by 10 p.m. for next-day delivery; weekly and monthly subscriptions are available at a discount. To increase food access, Luna is offering free meals for children under 18.

Perhaps the most unorthodox offerings are the bulk food programs, which allow customers to browse a selection of goods available from Luna’s suppliers – companies that normally supply only to restaurants are now sitting on warehouses full of products they can’t move.

This includes dry goods, canned goods, household items (yes, including toilet paper) and local foods. Selling these staples directly to Luna’s customers allows the company to assist in limiting the number of people making trips to the grocery store.

Contactless delivery of meal prep and bulk food orders is available throughout Tompkins County, and all orders (including regular take-out) are eligible for free delivery with the coupon code STAYHOME.

All the business owners interviewed were appreciative of the responsiveness of both local and state government.

“Our governor’s been extremely helpful in allowing us to operate in this to-go aspect and to pull out the stops in allowing us to sell whatever you’ve got in the building,” Morris said.

However, everyone also emphasized that more needs to be done. Kenney called for small business grants – pointing out that though loans are abundant, she hasn’t seen any grants offered yet.

Cake noted that rent and mortgage freezes, deferment for business loans and a universal basic income would help to both sustain businesses and support the individuals impacted by reduced hours, reduced pay or loss of employment.

Food For Thought is a monthly column highlighting the hidden gems of the culinary world across Tompkins County. Sarah Barden is a dedicated foodie who, along with her husband, shares her passion with neighbors and visitors through their business Ithaca is Foodies Culinary Tours. Find more information at IthacaIsFoodies.com.

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