By Olivia Tucker | [email protected]
Despite the economic and public health challenges presented by the coronavirus, several local business owners have decided to take the leap and open Alexandria-area eateries during the pandemic.
While it might seem counterintuitive to start a new restaurant in the COVID-19 era — which has dealt crippling blows to many in the restaurant industry — these Alexandrians see it as a rare, if risky, opportunity. Most are operating with business models well-suited to the constraints created by the virus, such as take-out or food trucks, and others offer outdoor seating.
“I think you have to be in it for the long haul,” Larry Ponzi, co-owner of Piece Out, a new casual Italian restaurant in Del Ray, said. “We’re here to endure.”
Ponzi and his wife, Christine, opened Piece Out in July. The couple, who initially considered the idea in January when the site at 2419 Mt. Vernon Ave. became vacant, also owns St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub and Cafe Pizzaiolo.
Though business seems to be humming along now, with a socially-distant line of patrons waiting to pick up their pizzas outside the shop on any given weekend night, the start wasn’t as smooth. On their second-ever night open the air conditioning died and the power went out, leaving the small staff scrambling to fill a surge of orders, Ponzi said.
Understaffing was a major challenge at the beginning, Ponzi said, thanks in large part to the pandemic. The Ponzis even recruited their college-age daughters to assist with kitchen duty and delivery. Fortunately, they’ve managed to fully staff all three of their restaurants since then.
Piece Out currently offers a mix of take-out, outdoor dining and limited-capacity indoor dining. The restaurant itself meets the moment well, with a street-side patio and sliding garage-style windows for orders and pick-ups. Ponzi said that though they’re faring well for the time being, they’re looking forward to transitioning to a post-pandemic style of service.
Thomas Voskuil, the owner of Taqueria Picoso, said that early on in the coronavirus crisis, his team struggled to publicize the fact that they were still open for business. The Mexican restaurant at 1472 N. Beauregard St. opened in late January, less than six weeks before the pandemic hit.
“The biggest challenge has been getting the word out,” Voskuil said. “We’re here, we’re delivering and we haven’t gone anywhere.”
To attract customers, Voskuil transitioned swiftly to a delivery-based model, signing up for food-delivery services, including UberEats, Postmates, DoorDash and GrubHub. He even offered self-delivery in the beginning of the pandemic, hopping in his car to bring food to patrons within a three-mile radius. Voskuil also distributed flyers on doorsteps in surrounding neighborhoods, which he said succeeded in attracting more than a few curious customers.
By contrast, Silver Diner, located at 4630 King St., has benefitted from longstanding ties to the Northern Virginia community. The restaurant opened about a month ago, becoming the 15th Silver Diner in the D.C. metro area, as part of West Alex, a new multi-million-dollar, mixed-use community featuring a Harris Teeter and an apartment building.
Co-founder and executive chef Ype Von Hengst said that prior to opening, the biggest focus for the restaurant — which serves a full menu of breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night offerings from 7 a.m. until midnight on weekdays and until 2 a.m. on weekends – was on making the space as virus-proof as possible.
Silver Diner’s safety measures are substantial. In addition to offering both outdoor and limited-capacity indoor seating, plexiglass protectors have been installed around booths and tables. High-touch surfaces are regularly wiped down and staff are subject to temperature checks and constant mask- and glove-wearing. There is also an HVAC/ UV system that increases air flow and forces air over UV coils to kill bacteria.
“We are doing everything we can to make our managers, associates and guests feel safe to come in,” Von Hengst said.
For Gregg Linzey, the owner of Chewish Deli, COVID-19 is precluding him from being in business at all. The popular bagel truck was in an accident in June, and has been in the shop for weeks due to pandemic-induced supply chain slowdowns.
Prior to the accident, the food truck was perfectly suited to customers’ needs, particularly early on in the crisis when sit-down dining was shuttered completely, Linzey said.
The business, which also offers coffee and breakfast and lunch sandwiches, is slated to transition into a brick-and-mortar location at 807 Pendleton St., the former location of Pendleton Carryout Co., within the next few weeks, which will be carry-out only.
Linzey also touched on an issue that has impacted the food service industry nationwide — obtaining a loan. He said that despite the fact that Chewish Deli, as a carry-out business, has fared quite well for the majority of the pandemic, financing was “non-existent,” as banks are wary of lending to an industry that has been especially hard-hit by COVID-19.
“While a full-service, high-end restaurant might be down 75%, places that are to-go are actually doing well during the pandemic, and [the banks] don’t differentiate,” Linzey said. “So it’s been impossible for us to get the funding we need.”
Unlike other new restaurants, which were conceived of prior to the crisis, Del Ray Boccato is a truly pandemic-era business. Owner Cristian Velasco, who has long dreamed of opening a restaurant in the Del Ray neighborhood, said that when the storefront at 2400 Mt. Vernon Ave. recently became vacant, he jumped at the opportunity.
He has spent weeks readying the space and making it COVID-19-safe, installing plexiglass shields and printing out posters reminding patrons of masking and social-distancing mandates. Velasco said he plans to serve homemade gelato, pastries, empanadas and coffee.