Port City Flavor: Trials and triumphs of takeout

Port City Flavor: Trials and triumphs of takeout
Augie’s Mussel House, located on King St., prides itself on its unique dine-in experience and indoor/outdoor space. (Photo/Augie's Mussel House)

By Liana Hardy | lhardy@alextimes.com

During the onset of COVID-19, safety concerns and shrinking clientele forced restaurants to switch to takeout, with some resorting to carryout-only for more than a year. While some restaurant owners praised takeout as COVID-19’s saving grace, others feel lukewarm about the fast-delivery model.

Now that restrictions have relaxed and more people are out-and-about, restaurants are highlighting their dine-in specials during Alexandria’s Restaurant Week, a 10-day event beginning Friday and running through Aug. 28, where Alexandrians can eat meals for $25, $35 or $45 per person at a variety of dining destinations. Many restaurants still plan to offer all or some menu items in takeout-form – with many of the same deals.

This year’s restaurant week is especially exciting for businesses that have bounced back from hard times during the pandemic – surviving what many other Alexandria restaurants unfortunately did not. However, as many local owners noted, struggles remain in the ever-changing restaurant scene, and takeout can make or break a business’ success.

Dishes of India

The 25-year-old restaurant Dishes of India, located at 1510 A Belleview Blvd. in the Fairfax County portion of Alexandria, has remained steadfast despite several challenges, including a flood, a building fire and COVID-19. Remarkably, the business did not close a single day during the pandemic, according to Gopal Bhatt, who runs the restaurant with his brother, Naresh – which Bhatt attributes to their takeout-heavy system.

“Takeout, it’s a blessing for us,” Bhatt said. “We had a slight advantage because we always had from the very beginning a very good takeout business, because of the kind of location we are in and also the fact that we are in the basement.”

Dishes of India, located on Belleview Blvd., stayed open throughout the pandemic due to their strong carryout system. (Photo/Dishes of India)

Naresh and his father Ramanand founded the restaurant, located at the basement level of Belle View Shopping Center, in June 1997 to provide Alexandrians the authentic Indian cuisine that Ramanand had mastered over his years as a chef. Gopal joined a year later, and despite his concerns about the location, saw the business flourish with support from regular customers.

“I was thinking, you know, how would we even make profit out of this basement location. But it just worked the opposite,” Bhatt said. “Old Town is very close to us and we have seen during the pandemic how these very high-end, upscale restaurants didn’t survive because they were solely depending on their dining business. For us, it was the other way around; we were doing more takeout because of our basement location, but I guess that worked our way.”

Dishes of India already had a takeout-heavy model before the pandemic, with 60% of revenue coming from carryout – which is unusual for most restaurants, according to Bhatt. The restaurant’s takeout business increased by 15% to 20% during the pandemic, while on-site dining decreased. They now receive 70% to 75% of their revenue from takeout.

Naresh Bhatt, brother of Gopal Bhatt, opened Dishes of India with his father in June 1997. (Photo/Connection Newspapers)

Ramanand, Bhatt’s father and the original creator of the restaurant, passed away last year. Gopal and his brother Naresh hope to carry on the legacy of their father, fondly referred to as “the master magician” by his customers, and serve the many patrons who continue to make the downstairs trek to the basement eatery.

“He didn’t really retire, he always was here,” Bhatt said of his father. “He put up a lot of his sweat – everything that he got he put up into this restaurant.”

Yunnan By Potomac Noodle House

Yunnan By Potomac Noodle House, located at 814 N. Fairfax St. in the Montgomery Center, opened in late 2019 just before the start of the pandemic. Shao Bruce, the owner and operator of the restaurant, says that he serves his own take on the food his mom cooked at home – traditional food from Yunnan, a province in China.

Shao Bruce, pictured with his family, opened Yunnan By Potomac Noodle House on Fairfax St. to offer cuisine that his mother grew up with and cooked for him. (Photo/Yunnan By Potomac Noodle House)

Despite tremendous support from the community, with Bruce’s parents and family friends living just blocks away, the restaurant was forced to close dine-in service for a year during the pandemic and serve carryout-only. While they survived the ordeal, Bruce describes the takeout system as making the work itself “less meaningful” and the experience less satisfying for customers.

“Doing takeout is not why I got into this industry. It’s not why I quit my job on Wall Street,” Bruce said. “And so having to do a takeout-only format, it was strictly because we were not comfortable putting our staff or our guests in a dining-in situation throughout most of COVID.”

Beginning with just a few noodle dishes and bao buns, Yunnan By Potomac Noodle House has transformed into a popular dining desti- nation for Alexandrians. (Photo/Yunnan By Potomac Noodle House)

During the last six months, Bruce has been glad to see a gradual shift to people being more comfortable going out. Yunnan’s revenue has shifted from being 33% takeout and 66% dine-in back to 10% takeout and 90% dine-in, which matches pre-pandemic percentages. Bruce says that since the food is more pricey – $35-40 per person – this model is better suited for the restaurant and their emphasis on the dine-in experience.

“Although our food is really delicious and it’s cooked with technique and we take a lot of pride in our sourcing of products, I’m still a person where I’m going out and spending this money for the experience. The food is very seldomly worth what the price point is,” Bruce said.

Guests at Yunnan By Potomac Noodle House can enjoy a welcoming dining atmosphere along with the Yunnanese food. (Photo/Yunnan By Potomac Noodle House)

However, the relatively new restaurant faces another hurdle; the building they are in, the Montgomery Center, has been purchased by developer Carr Companies. With their lease being terminated, Bruce will have to vacate the restaurant by next year and move to a new space, hopefully Crystal City in Arlington.

“The challenges of keeping a business alive and running, I think COVID is one example. But COVID was just the challenge of 2020 and 2021. The challenges have not stopped just because COVID is waning,” Bruce said.

Augie’s Mussel House

Located at 1106 King St., Augie’s Mussel House serves Belgian-style mussels and beer in a 110-year-old building, which Common Plate Hospitality managing partner Chad Sparrow says gives the restaurant an “old-looking and original feel.” The restaurant strives for a lively dine-in atmosphere, with takeout being less of a priority.

“It’s really more of an experience to eat mussels – mussels, they don’t travel as well as other types of foods. So I think we really have more people that want to come into the restaurant and experience the whole vibe and indoor/outdoor space,” Sparrow said.

During the pandemic, Augie’s closed for four months and subsequently relied more on takeout orders. However, the business has seen takeout revenue return to only 10 to 12% of profits as more diners seek the in-person dining experience they missed the last two years.

Augie’s Mussel House provides guests with Belgian-style mussels and beer inside a 110-year-old building. (Photo/Augie’s Mussel House)

“We definitely did more takeout, but it was never sustainable. We closed for the longest there at Augie’s because the takeout business just wasn’t hitting very hard there,” Sparrow said.

Dine-in-focused restaurants like Augie’s will still flourish in the future, according to Sparrow. While casual dining may shift to majority carryout, he believes upscale restaurants will still have customers that value the dining experience.

“UberEats can’t create a vibe or a going-out experience. People are always going to want to go out,” Sparrow said. “And yeah, there’s a convenience factor – does it take away some business? Sure. But I could see it being more of a challenge for fast, casual, you know, smaller-style restaurants that aren’t really a go-out destination.”

Kismet Modern Indian

Kismet Modern Indian, located at 111 N. Pitt St., opened less than a year ago, following the opening of their sister restaurant, Karma Modern Indian, in Washington, D.C. in 2017. The restaurant, which managing partner Sachin Mahajan describes as a “fun upscale” and “neighborhood-focused” dining location, did the majority of their takeout when they first opened in the winter of 2021.

“We were very busy with takeout when we initially opened. It was also winter, and this winter was a little bit brutal – the cold weather especially in the first part of January. So takeout was very prevalent at that point,” Mahajan said.

Kismet Modern Indian, which opened just last year, provides a unique combination of upscale dining and Indian food. (Photo/Kismet Modern Indian)

Kismet received about 10% to 15% of their revenue from takeout when they first opened, though the numbers have gone down to 5% to 10% during the summer.

According to Mahajan, Karma has weathered the brunt of the COVID-19 storm, with the restaurant scene in Washington, D.C. still suffering from long-lasting COVID-19 impacts. Kismet, on the other hand, has had relatively steady business in Alexandria, which is more residential.

Kismet Modern Indian, located on Pitt St., has fared better than its Washington, D.C.-based sister restaurant, Karma Modern Indian, during COVID-19. (Photo/Connection Newspapers)

“I feel pretty certain we will continue to have stable business for Old Town. However, Karma in D.C. is more formal and upscale dining – there, I am doubtful business is going to come to pre-COVID levels or post-COVID levels as we thought it would so quickly,” Mahajan said.

Whether you’re high-end or located in a suburban shopping center, it’s hard to maintain a local community. And as local restaurants continue to encounter pandemic-related and non-pandemic-related challenges, their community will be crucial to their success.

“I think creating a community is probably the hardest part about this business. It’s the most fundamental, the most important part,” Bruce said.