Local eateries struggle, brave the unknown
ADDISON COUNTY — Sanderson Wheeler, co-owner of the Bobcat Cafe in Bristol, is just happy to be in his restaurant’s kitchen.
“Being in here and cooking feels great,” he said. “It helps me keep my mind off of things.”
These days Wheeler and his partner (and spouse), Erin, like restaurateurs everywhere, have a lot on their minds.
After Gov. Phil Scott ordered the March 17 closure of Vermont’s eateries and bars — except for takeout and delivery — the Wheelers had to lay off the Bobcat’s entire staff.
Then Sunday night, after the Wheelers had regrouped and restructured the Bobcat’s menu so they could offer takeout, someone broke into the restaurant and stole — of all things — the servers’ tips.
And then there are the nagging questions.
“There’s a way through this if people stay healthy,” Wheeler said. “But I do wonder sometimes. Is takeout necessary? Are we hurting efforts (to slow the spread)?”
If business is any indication, the answers to the first question would be Yes.
“We made enough from last week’s (takeout and delivery) sales that we’ll be able to cover payroll, and everyone will at least get their paychecks,” he said.
As for the second question, state officials confirmed Wednesday morning that restaurants will still be allowed to offer curbside service and make deliveries, at least for now.
This week the Independent spoke with four local restaurant owners who are going to try to stick it out.
THE BLACK SHEEP
“The biggest challenge has been the uncertainty, the overarching anxiety,” said Andrea Cousino, who owns the Black Sheep Bistro in Vergennes, as well as the Park Squeeze down the street and the Bearded Frog in Shelburne — all three of which are staying open — for now.
“We’ve had to lay off about 90% of our staff and are working with the bare minimum required to offer takeout.”
Cousino said she’s hoping to hire people back as soon as possible, even if it’s just part-time, but “it’s hard not knowing what’s coming.”
Because it already had the food prepped, the Black Sheep transitioned to takeout/delivery with a full menu, then has discontinued items as they’ve run out.
“The menu is being continuously pared down, but we’re also adding new items as we go,” she said.
Cousino and her colleagues have been overwhelmed by the community support, she added.
“We have regulars coming in ever day or placing large orders. We have an amazing community.”
For now the Black Sheep is taking orders by phone only, she said.
Customers looking for up-to-the-minute information about hours and menus should check out the Black Sheep’s Facebook or Instagram pages.
“We’re taking it day by day,” said Christine Snell, co-owner of Tourterelle in New Haven. “We had to lay off all of our employees last week. So it’s just me and my hubby (chef and co-owner Bill Snell).”
Tourterelle is serving a limited takeout/delivery menu, for now.
“A lot of our customers are elderly, living alone,” Snell said. “They don’t go out and they’re scared. It feels good to be helping people.
But, she said, “we’re scared, too. This is a scary time.”
The hardest thing has been letting their employees go, she said.
“These are people living paycheck to paycheck. We’re hoping that things will be put in place for them.”
Like other restaurant owners, Snell spoke of strong customer support.
“The community has been amazing,” she said. “All of my regulars have been calling with support.”
Still, she said, “we’re worried about the future.”
When Middlebury College sent most of its students home, Tourterelle ended up having to cancel five large events it had planned to host.
Tourterelle also hosts about 15 weddings per season. No one has canceled yet but one May wedding has been rescheduled for August.
Chef Bill emphasized that Tourterelle is taking the coronavirus very seriously.
“We’re under very strict quarantine at our house, and we wear masks while cooking,” he said.
And if they must close, they’ll close.
“We don’t feel that strongly about being open right now,” he said.
Across the street from the Bobcat in Bristol, Drew Smith is also weighing the pros and cons of staying open.
“My personal nature is to just keep going to the end, but I feel stuck in limbo,” Smith said. “Sometimes I almost think it would be easier if (Gov. Scott) would just shut everything down. At least that would take the uncertainty out of it.”
For now Cubbers is offering lunch and dinner takeout, along with deliveries within a roughly 3-mile radius.
“We’re fully stocked, so we’re offering a full menu, at least for now,” Smith said.
Like other restaurants, Cubbers has had to lay off its employees, and the owners and their families are hoping to keep the business going by themselves.
But the challenges are daunting, and Cubbers has had to press pause on a number of vendor services, including alcohol and soda, and they’ve narrowed down all their food deliveries to one wholesaler.
Still, the restaurant has had a tremendous outpouring of community support, Smith said.
“(Tuesday) night ended up being a really good night,” he said of the restaurant’s first night of takeout and delivery. “It wasn’t crazy busy, but it was enough to sustain us. And people were generous with tips.”
Cubbers plans to stay open as long as possible, Smith said.
“But it’s a day-by-day thing. People need to understand that.”
Several local restaurants that also had hoped to stay open have announced on social media that they’ve decided to close their doors and wait it out, including (but not limited to):
• American Flatbread (Middlebury)
• The Bridge Restaurant (Addison)
• Cafe Provence (Brandon)
• Fire & Ice (Middlebury)
• Mister Up’s (Middlebury)
• Notte (Middlebury)
• Rice Restaurant (Middlebury)
• Snap’s (Bristol)
• 3 Squares (Vergennes)
• Two Brothers Tavern (Vergennes)
“What is so hard is that we won’t have your smiling faces to get us through the weeks to come,” wrote the owners of American Flatbread in a March 22 Facebook post. “But the good news is that the food will taste even more delicious when we see each other again — the cocktails even sweeter, the smiles even brighter, and without a doubt, our hearts even bigger.
State officials have announced several measures over the past week that they hope will ease the economic pain caused by the coronavirus.
Businesses that find themselves unable to meet the March 25 and April 25 filing deadlines for the 9% Meals and Rooms Tax will not be charged any penalty or interest for late submissions (though it’s important to note that the taxes are not being waived, and businesses who can afford to make their payments should do so).
Gov. Scott has also announced measures to expand unemployment support for Vermont workers and provide “economic injury disaster loans” to small businesses affected by COVID-19.
In Middlebury, private citizens have organized their own support for restaurants.
“The economic impact of COVID-19 has been colossal, and restaurants are some of the businesses being hit the hardest,” wrote Nicholas Milazzo on a GoFundMe page he started Monday. “Although life will eventually return to normal, some of our favorite small businesses may not survive.”
The fundraiser, called “Pandemic Relief for Middlebury Restaurants,” had by Wednesday afternoon raised $5,790 of its $50,000 goal.
“Receiving donations ASAP is critical, as restaurants operate on razor-thin margins,” Milazzo said.
Visit tinyurl.com/Midd-restaurants for more details.
The Bobcat will be happy to oblige with whatever Gov. Scott decides is necessary to protect Vermonters from the coronavirus, Wheeler said Tuesday.
“We’re not afraid to shut down for safety’s sake,” he said.
“But we’re also happy to be able to doing what we’re doing today.”
The Bobcat has been blown away by people coming out to support their local restaurants, he added.
“Hopefully we’ll still be here when it’s all over.”
Reach Christopher Ross at email@example.com