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Chester County Press

Restaurant owners share realities of survival during COVID-19

02/17/2021 11:19AM ● By Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

From take-out orders to outdoor dining kiosks, and from gift certificates to business loans, restaurant owners throughout southern Chester County have spent nearly the last year swept up in the innovation of necessity, all in an effort to see that their cafes, bistros and pubs see the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the Historic Kennett Square Economic Council’s Feb. 12 online meeting, representatives from five of the 40 restaurants in the borough and the township shared their stories during an hour-long commiseration of overlapping hardship, enduring the yo-yo movement of state government restrictions, as well as innovation and resilience.

When it first moved one block away from its former location on State Street in Kennett Square two years ago, the 160-seat Portabello’s became an instant hit with diners, who would enjoy summer evening cocktails and dinner in near al fresco surroundings, while the sound of live jazz music floated from the bar to the dining room.

Since the arrival of COVID-19, however, Brett Hulbert -- who owns the restaurant with his wife Sandra Morris – said that the experience has been “borderline devastating.”

“When [the pandemic] began a year ago, we didn’t know how long it was going to last,” Hulbert said. “We broke our restaurant down for a few weeks, because that’s how long we thought that this was going to last.

“It is now February of 2021, and we’re not done yet.”

For Manuel Oliverez, the owner of Café Americana in the New Garden Shopping Center, he has seen his homestyle restaurant survive through PPP loans, and although he has not been forced to reduce staff during the pandemic, he has had to reduce their weekly hours.

“Our restaurant is a place for people to come and enjoy a meal together, and now, we’re forced to redesign because of rules form the Governor and the Pennsylvania Health Department,” he said. “It’s an added cost that has forced us to increase our prices. We have tried to find the best service that we can, but there have been times when we have had difficulty getting our supplies.

“We built our restaurant to become profitable,” he added. “We built our restaurant to be 100 percent occupied. We built our restaurant so that someday we could have 25 employees, in order to be able to help them support their families and their day to day lives.”

Joe Mulry, the general manager of The Creamery, has been one of the architects for one of the most successful business enterprises in recent Kennett Square memory. The Creamery has brought the beer garden concept to the area and in the process, has become woven into the social fabric of the town.

The arrival of COVID-19 changed all of that, he said.

“It’s been a year now that the restaurant industry has been trying to figure out its next moves, and everyone has learned to pivot and become adaptable and flexible,” Mulry said. “Because The Creamery was this idea where people come to gather, we couldn’t do what we were supposed to do, which has been made more difficult because when you have a group of young people [in the Square Roots Collective] who want to go in one direction and suddenly have to pivot, it’s challenging.”

In the mean time, “the uncertainty [of the pandemic] has made everyone a little weary,” Mulry added. “We have a lot more to give, and we are just waiting for the situation to change.”

The arrival of an avalanche

For restaurant owners in Kennett Square and throughout southern Chester County, the arrival of COVID-19 last March began as an unexpected storm that has, in just less than a year, become a thundering avalanche that continues to devastate the industry they belong to.

The pandemic’s impact was immediate. Within a week after the first closures, industry groups representing independent restaurateurs were asking for immediate relief measures from local, state, and federal governments, saying that as many as 75 percent of independent restaurants could not survive closures of more than a few weeks. They were right; in statistics complied by the National Restaurant Association, the industry, originally projected to generate $900 billion in sales in 2020, lost $50 billion in April of 2020 alone, on the way to a projected year-end loss of $240 billion.

By the end of April, more than 8 million staff were either laid off or furloughed, two out of three employees had lost their jobs, and by late July of 2020, nearly 16,000 restaurants had permanently closed.

Subsequently, these closures and severe cutbacks have created a ripple effect that continues to tear through the ancillary businesses that restaurants rely on, such as food producers; liquor, wine, and beer distributors; linen suppliers; entertainers and musicians; florists and delivery services.

Just as local restaurant owners began to consider shutting their doors, help arrived in the form of financial assistance from Historic Kennett Square, a major stakeholder and the local community. 

Beginning on May 27, businesses in the Kennett Borough and in Kennett Township became eligible to receive a business grant through the Community Relief Fund (CRP), a program of the Borough of Kennett Square that was administered by True Access Capital. Developed by the borough’s Revolving Loan Fund Committee and approved by Borough Council, dozens of borough businesses – including restaurants – applied for an d received low-interest loans fro up to $10,000, with no principal and interest payments due for the first 12 months.

During that same period, Mike Bontrager, the founder of Chatham Financial and the principal founder of Square Roots Collective --- along with his wife, Dot -- introduced the Historic Kennett Square Small Business Response Fund, a collaborative effort that provided businesses in the Kennett borough and Kennett Township with grants up to $10,000.

The financial wellspring of the grant came from donations from the local community, as well as a commitment from Square Roots Collective to match up to $250,000 in the total amount of donations that came from the community. The effort raised $276,000, through contributions from over 300 individuals and businesses that helped 61 local businesses, including 26 restaurants, many of whom used the gift to retain staff, and purchase safety equipment to use during COVID-19.

The ‘confusing process’ of reopening Pennsylvania

If navigating the economic impact of the pandemic wasn’t taxing enough throughout 2020, the future of the local restaurant industry was subject to an ever-changing array of regulations set into motion by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Dr. Rachel Levine, then the state’s Secretary of Health.

It was part of Wolf’s Process to Reopen Pennsylvania, and it sent restaurant owners on a dizzying dance of one step up and two steps back.

On March 16, the state ordered the closing of inside dining at restaurants in Chester and four other neighboring counties to help stop the spread of COVID-19. As of June 5, restaurants in the state could begin outdoor dining, with appropriate precautions. Later in the year, as all of the counties moved from into the “Green Phase” of reopening, restaurants were given clearance to reopen at no more than 50 percent capacity, as well as adhere to severe restrictions that required the complete redesign and layout of several restaurants, as well as the installation of safety barriers.

Then in December, just as restaurant owners were beginning to take reservations for office holiday parties, Christmas family gatherings and New Year’s Eve parties, the state delivered the worst news yet: That limited-time mitigation orders for restaurants would take effect on December 12, and extend through January 4, 2021.

“When the Governor shut us down in December, we had no warning and no notice, and we were also sitting on thousands and thousands of dollars of food,” Morris said.

The state’s December closure order was a particularly devastating blow to Portabello’s, Morris said, because it came at a time of the year when the restaurant is typically filled to capacity.

“Two thousand dollars made through take-out orders doesn’t begin to compensate for 200 people sitting in our dining room and our bar area, enjoying cocktails and a full meal,” she added.

Hulbert said that the impact of COVID-19 has hit another local industry, which in turn, he said, has caused a domino effect on local restaurants: Out of town visitors.

“Our biggest change is that while we have been fortunate to enjoy the presence of a solid, regular clientele, the truth is that the Kennett area has a relatively small population, and a restaurant can’t survive just on that,” he said. “We are built on tourism, and in the last year, tourism to our local attractions has also been affected. I track the hotel occupancy in the area and right now, it’s not looking that good.

“Moving forward, we’re going to see those tourism numbers grow.”

‘Fortune Favors the Bold’

Although the bleakness of the past year has affected their businesses, those who spoke at the Historic Kennett Economic Council’s meeting said that they have no choice but to search for the silver linings of their respective businesses. One such glimmer of hope is coming from a very unlikely source: a soon-to-be competitor along the restaurant-heavy strip of State Street.

Jacob Short, the director of operations and co-owner of Letty’s Tavern, which will occupy the former sight of the Kennett Inn and open to the public on March 15, said that he and his partners Matthew Killion and Daniel Daley of 4 AM Hospitality were immediately drawn to Kennett Square as a site for their new gastropub.

“It’s been reaffirmed by everyone on this call that Kennett is a very resilient town,” said Short, who also co-owns a restaurant in West Chester with Killion and Daley. “Even though there are several restaurants on State Street and in the borough, everyone is dedicated to growing together, in a teamwork environment. If one person is thriving, everyone is thriving, and Kennett Square seems to embody that.

“I don’t think there is ever a good time to open a restaurant,” he said when asked about the timing of the pub’s opening in conjunction with a major pandemic. “If you’re always waiting for the perfect time to open a restaurant, you’re never going to get anywhere. We believe in the moniker, ‘Fortune Favors the Bold.”

Other restaurateurs shared their optimism for the future. Lee Mikles, the co-owner of Grain on State Street, said that while he has reduced the hours of operation for his popular restaurant to Thursday through Sundays, he and his staff have been spending the other days laying down ideas for how to manage through the remainder of the pandemic, and beyond.

“A lot of times when you open a restaurant, when you need to change something it’s often difficult to do,” he said. “However, our staff has remained committed, and they’re truly invested not only in the business, but in Kennett Square. It’s tough to smile these days, but we’re smiling out of pride.”

“We need to improvise and adapt,” Oliverez added. “Right now, it is difficult to see a conclusion, because we still don’t know what we don’t know. Every week gives new news, and it’s difficult to plan either in the short- or long term, so we just work day by day.

“But we are here, and we are working hard to make it happen, to maintain our dream and to fulfill what we were planning to do before COVID-19 arrived. It’s been a tough year, but we hope that it ends soon.”

Hulbert showed his optimism by equating the current pandemic to its most-compared to counterpart: the 1918-19 flu epidemic. When it ended, he said, it yielded what became the Roaring Twenties, a nearly decade-long period of great optimism. While the end of the pandemic remains uncertain, “I think it’s coming,” he said. “I don’t know when, but it’s absolutely coming. When they shut us down for the recent holiday season, Sandra and I fantasized about this coming holiday season.

“It may be a long ways away, but we are looking forward to next Christmas. It’s going to be fantastic.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].