Alexandria’s pandemic-era food culture

Alexandria’s pandemic-era food culture
Ada's on the River features both indoor and outdoor dining. Photo/ Visit Alexandria

By Will Schick |

COVID-19 has changed just about everything, including Alexandria food culture. In just under a year, it has transformed the way the city thinks about restaurant dining, changing not only the ways locals dine at restaurants but also how their restaurants serve them food.

According to the city’s revenue division, 17 out of 422 local restaurants, about 4%, have closed during the pandemic. When compared to the national average, this figure appears low. According to the National Restaurant Association, one in six restaurants have closed nationwide because of COVID-19.

While the last year has presented many challenges for local eateries, restaurateurs in Alexandria are surviving and adapting despite all the obstacles.

Unexpected circumstances and success

Gregg Linzey, the owner of Chewish Deli, opened his food business at the worst possible time. It was March 14, 2020, mere days after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. Businesses closed, restaurants shuttered their doors and people were starting to panic.

Small business owners and residents alike thought about how they would survive a virus that had killed more than 1,000 Americans in a matter of weeks.

There was one wrinkle to what could have been an otherwise disastrous opening for Linzey: His new business was a food truck.

“The fact that we were in a food truck … [meant] that delivery and pickup were all to-go by design,” Linzey said.

During a time when other restaurants were scrambling to change the way they operated, the Chewish Deli did what it was designed to do. It schlepped out bagels, coffee and sandwiches at a rapid rate to hungry customers all over town.

“The full-service restaurants hadn’t quite adapted yet. We were really one of the few places for people to get food from, which actually helped us accelerate our growth, which is, you know, a kind of weird [thing] to say,” Linzey said.

But the Chewish Deli’s growth did not come without challenges, according to Linzey. An accident in June put Linzey’s truck out of commission for 10 weeks. The backlog in parts forced Linzey to fast forward to year two of his business plan, which involved opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

By luck, Linzey said he stumbled upon a spot in Old Town, 807 Pendleton St., that worked for the business. He signed a lease in July and got back to making bagels in August. But that did not spell the end to the challenges.

“It was basically impossible for us to try and get any sort of funding from a bank,” Linzey said. “… So, we kind of didn’t buy the ideal equipment at first or get the ideal systems in place at first because we were a new business and every bank I talked to was like ‘nope, we’re not lending to restaurants.’”

According to Linzey, the relative success Chewish Deli has experienced since opening its brick-and-mortar location has to do with the support the restaurant has received from the local community.

“You would be hard-pressed to find a community more supportive of their local businesses, especially their restaurants, than the city of Alexandria,” Linzey said.

Pandemic-era struggles

No one is perhaps more familiar with how the pandemic has affected the food service industry than Louie Matsikas. Matsikas, who currently serves as the general manager for the Royal Restaurant, said he used to own a catering company that failed because of the pandemic.

“It just totally died. We went from $1 million to zero. I mean, it was really horrible,” Matsikas said.

The Royal Restaurant, which opened in 1904 and is one of Alexandria’s oldest operating restaurants, is also struggling to stay alive.

A picture of food service workers at the Royal Restaurant.
The Royal Restaurant provides its same weekend brunch buffet service, except customers no longer serve themselves. Photo/ Visit Alexandria

According to Matsikas, the owner, Charles Euripedes, has taken out approximately $100,000 of his personal savings to keep the restaurant open and pay his staff.

The pandemic saw the Royal Restaurant’s revenues plunge 75%, which Matsikas said have drifted up in the past six weeks and are now up to about “50% of where we need it to be.”

The reasons for their plunging revenue, Matsikas said, had to do with a decrease in pedestrian foot traffic and the loss of catering revenue.

“The street traffic is definitely … cut in half, and the Royal Restaurant did do a lot of catering,” Matsikas said. “We were basically the exclusive caterers over at the American Legion and the Gadsby’s Tavern ballroom.”

For now, he said, the restaurant is working to provide a friendly, safe space that serves quality, locally sourced fresh food to its customers.

A picture of National Guard soldiers sipping coffee outside the Royal Restaurant's Royal Cafe
National Guard soldiers sip coffee and chat outside of Royal Restaurant’s Royal Café. Courtesy photo.

Opening season

The pandemic has forced Dave Nicholas and his partners at local restaurant group Alexandria Restaurant Partners to constantly adapt.“We pivoted every week, and you know, we learned what worked, and we grew that,” Nicholas said.

Despite all the challenges, the pandemic has not stopped ARP from expanding. The restaurant group opened a new waterfront restaurant, Ada’s on the River, on Jan. 14.

According to Nicholas, the restaurant had been in the planning stages for four years. Nicholas also said that the pandemic allowed ARP to be more deliberate in its preparation for opening this restaurant.

“It’s disciplined us to open slowly and methodically and [allowed us to] know that we’re not going to knock it out of the park because we don’t have a bar, and we’re very socially distanced in here,” Nicholas said.

Ada’s on the River features 80 dine-in seats in a space that would typically feature 180 seats. And so far, “the reception has been overwhelming. The demand has been five times what we can take, and that’s ok,” Nicholas said.

Diners, dine-ins and drives

Residents and Alexandria diners have also been impacted by the shifting circumstances in the restaurant industry.

Before the pandemic, Del Ray resident Jennifer Sissom said she and her husband “used to eat out all the time.” But once the pandemic hit in March of last year, that had to change.

“[Since the pandemic,] we have not eaten out once or ordered carry out. … We may be a bit paranoid and the only people who are still in a slight panic mode,” Sissom said.

For other Alexandria residents, however, the global pandemic has had little to no effect on their dining habits.

Crystal Mitchell, a Landmark-area resident, said that despite the pandemic, she has continued to go to restaurants for in-person dining at least once a month.

“They’ve been pretty good at keeping everyone distanced from each other, and the service has been amazing, so I don’t have any-thing bad to say about the restaurants I’ve been to in Alexandria,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell also added that she believed it was critical to continue to support local restaurants during the pandemic.

“I mean, I definitely think people should support the restaurant industry because they still have to make their money,” Mitchell said.

But for most Alexandrians, the pandemic has altered the ways in which they dine, prompting them to order more carry-out and delivery from restaurants they would have previously visited in-person.

A picture of a chocolate soufflé.
This chocolate soufflé is one of several dessert items available on the menu at Ada’s on the River. Photo/ Visit Alexandria

According to Thais Felicio, a local business consultant who lives in the West End, the pandemic altered the way she and her husband looked for food, prompting them to explore new restaurants and order more from places that were local.

“Places I had never noticed before caught my eye when shopping for food online. Not necessarily somewhere I had heard from before. But online, I can read reviews,” Felicio said.

“Before I would dine out mainly in Arlington and D.C. due to work meeting clients,” Felicio added, but now she is more likely to order take-out or Uber eats from an Alexandria restaurant, she said.

Helyett Alvarez, another Alexandria resident, said that she is also more inclined now to order take out than dining in.

“We’re more likely to immediately go to a restaurant’s website or third-party services like GrubHub or UberEats, and restaurants that have incorporated that service are more likely to get our dining dollars,” Alvarez said.

A growing appetite

Tom Kaiden, the chief operating officer of Visit Alexandria, said he thinks local restaurants have done amazing things to stay in business.

Among these options, Kaiden said, are the innovations to outdoor dining. The city has allowed restaurants to expand outdoor dining past the side-walk and into parking spaces in front of their storefronts.

Despite all these innovations, Alexandria restaurants have continued to struggle.

According to a monthly business impact survey administered by Visit Alexandria, restaurants across the city reported losses of 38% to 60% in revenue in summer 2020 and 26% to 38% percent losses from September to December 2020, compared to the same periods the prior year.

Kaiden added that despite significant financial challenges, restaurants and the city have worked together to help restaurant owners stay afloat through creative solutions.

“[The inclusion of new] outdoor dining measures, the inclusion of the ability to have alcohol sales, all of those things, and Restaurant Week To-Go helped to mitigate the effects of [the pandemic] last year,” Kaiden said.

According to Visit Alexandria, the Alexandria Restaurant Week website received more than 100,000 views during the summer of 2020, a record for their summer Alexandria restaurant promotion.

Kaiden takes this as evidence that Alexandrians are eager to support their local businesses.

“One of the positive surprises is the support of the local community for their restaurants,” Kaiden said. “Alexandrians really care about the dining out experience and about independent restaurants, and they have stepped up to support their neighborhood restaurants, which has been great.”