The coronavirus can't stop these new St. Louis restaurants from opening
Opening day is one of the best subjects to talk about with a restaurateur. Everyone has a story. Chefs call menu-saving audibles in high-stress kitchens; hot pans are instinctively caught bare-handed, necessitating trips to the emergency room. A restaurant’s first service is equal parts audition and debut. It’s a day dreamed of and trained for. So what happens when it is supposed to occur during a global pandemic?
Less than a month before the planned opening of Lazy Tiger in the Central West End, Tim Wiggins was at home thinking about the very expensive commercial glasswasher sitting in the middle of his would-be bar. Why did they uncrate it? How would he send it back, and what would the restock fee be if he could even return it?
St. Louis had just shut down restaurant dining rooms due to the coronavirus. Obsessing over peripheral concerns can help people avoid harder questions, but Wiggins asked those too: Was this the end? His brother-in-law called to say he could hook him up with a job. Was he about to go from successful co-owner of Retreat Gastropub and Yellowbelly to an unhappy man with a nine-to-five he didn’t want?
For now, the answer is no. Wiggins and co-owner Travis Howard kept the glasswasher. Lazy Tiger didn’t open the first week of April, but it will.
Announcing the new concept wasn’t so much an act of optimism as it was an act of respect for all the work that had gone into planning and building the place, which is 90% finished. “It got to the point where we have so much of this developed, we might as well make the announcement,” said Wiggins. “There needs to be some news about what’s new instead of what’s closing.”
Lazy Tiger is Wiggins’ dream bar. It is the chance for him to experiment more on his own terms, creating a cocktail menu with fewer constraints than his other concepts. If it weren’t for Lazy Tiger, Wiggins said he would be a lot more down about everything that’s happening. But its being a bright spot of good news in the deluge of bad is bittersweet. He and Howard are proceeding with plans while being forced to make so many decisions that feel futile.
Yellowbelly, for example, is a large space in a high-rent area of the Central West End. It is expensive to run and relies heavily on alcohol sales to survive since it’s hard to make money off quality seafood. Wiggins said it was a joke to pretend like the island-inspired restaurant was open when it offered limited carryout for a short time after the dining room closed. Retreat lasted a little longer, allowing a few staff members to collect a few more paychecks. For a while, Wiggins made batched cocktails and sold them in Yellowbelly-branded drink pouches that looked like stylish, adult Capri Suns. As with so many recent efforts, the project felt more like a gesture – at most a way to reduce a little waste – than a way to stay in business.
“You're doing like 7% of the sales you normally do, so who cares really. But it was cute,” he laughed. “They were cute! People liked them and we went through another 25 quarts of product which was going to go to waste, so that's cool.”
The trickle of income that local restaurants are receiving from loyal customers buying carryout, gift cards and merch will not see them through this. Apparently neither will the woefully mishandled CARES Act bailouts. It isn’t easy to run a restaurant when customers aren’t government-mandated to forsake dining rooms. And when stay-at-home measures are relaxed, after weeks or months of social isolation, who’s going to want to sit in a crowded, enclosed space?
If a restaurant is actually making money, 90% of its revenue gets paid out directly to employees, suppliers and rent, according to the Independent Restaurant Coalition. Combine reduced business with the outstanding supplier bills, deferred mortgage or rent payments, preexisting loans and any CARES Act or other coronavirus-related small business loans waiting for temporarily closed restaurants, and it gets hard to finish that sentence.
But in thinking of the future, Wiggins sees Lazy Tiger as an asset rather than a liability to his existing businesses. For one thing, it will allow them to rehire far more staff than would have been possible. “When we do reopen, I can't imagine we'll be running anything other than like 50% capacity,” Wiggins said. Staffing Lazy Tiger with furloughed employees from Retreat and Yellowbelly will also mean less training. “It's kind of a silver lining.”
It’s entirely possible that Lazy Tiger will open before Yellowbelly comes back. It is much smaller and more casual, and it doesn’t have a previous identity to maintain – it can become anything they need it to be.
“The finer the dining, the more fucked you are,” Wiggins said. “You need to be true to who you were before, but is this the end of $250 dinners for two for a long time? Maybe. I don't know – that's what we're trying to weigh. Do concepts get more casual and more approachable? Because you just don't have the ability to say, ‘This is what we do, like it or not.’ For a while, we need everyone to come.”
That probably means no more snarky social media posts mocking Yelp reviews that complain about the music being too loud. Most likely it will include reduced seating in Yellowbelly’s massive dining room, smaller menus, a smaller staff and different kind of service. In the meantime, when restrictions are lifted Lazy Tiger can hit the ground running.
“We don't know what the timeline is and what it's going to look like, or if all the staff will be wearing masks for the next six months. I mean, who knows?” Wiggins said. “But with all the work and effort that's gone into it, the trust I have in the concept, I don't feel worried. I think it'll be awesome, and I think that sort of low-key, fun drinking place is going to be very much needed.”
Unlike Lazy Tiger, work had barely started on Logan Ely’s new concept, The Lucky Accomplice, when the coronavirus reached St. Louis. But it never crossed his mind to halt construction, most of which he is handling himself, or to try to get out of the lease. He announced just after after Lazy Tiger and plans to open as soon as possible. Ely’s silver lining is having ample free time to work on the new restaurant.
The Lucky Accomplice will be more casual than Ely’s first concept, Savage, also in Fox Park. Where Savage offers an experimental tasting menu, The Lucky Accomplice will have a more approachable a la carte setup, including lunch.
“I’m trying to proceed as we had planned,” Ely said. “We closed Savage, that’s said and done. We've been trying to pay our staff as much as possible. But as far as this goes, I'm still gonna come here, I'm still gonna do construction, I'm still going to announce it and plan on opening in the summer. If that doesn't happen, there's nothing I can do about it. But with whatever I can control, I'm just going to keep on the same kind of thing that we planned.”
Ely isn’t one to brood. Like most small, independent restaurant owners, he’s used to taking risks and not knowing. He opened Savage when the industry was trending toward fast-casual concepts. And before that he operated an off-the-books pop-up called Square One Project. He rented a space, jury-rigged a kitchen without much more than hot plates and threw together a dining room all on credit cards – and it worked out.
“When it does [end], some people will be weird about it, I'm sure, and for a good cause. But I think a lot of people are really, really going to recognize the importance,” he said. “We're human beings, we need to be out and be sociable, go to restaurants and bars, theaters and whatever.”
Ely’s business partner is handling loan applications and thinking about their financial plan, freeing up Ely to triage plumbing issues and install drywall in the new space. Right now, he’s more focused on a pipe that won’t stop leaking than the fact that so much CARES Act money meant for small businesses has been siphoned off by massive chains like Ruth’s Chris Steak House (which has since returned the funds) and Potbelly’s. He’s not making any plans for Savage to pivot its business model, or worrying about the fate of fine dining in this new landscape.
“I mean, I guess I'm concerned about a lot of different things, but I’m not going to let that change my mind on what we want to do,” he said. “We’re dedicated and moving forward with both restaurants and we’re ready to accept any challenges that head our way. … But honestly, if in summer this thing blows over and nobody is wanting to spend money or sit that close together or whatever, and we need to close Savage, that's fine. I wasn't naive enough to think that Savage would be open for 50 years. So, if that needs to happen, cool. Whatever. We’ll move on and we'll keep our team together and we'll do something else.
If there’s one positive effect of the coronavirus, it’s been to highlight how vulnerable the restaurant industry is, and how that has to change. But in many ways, Ely’s attitude is one that restaurateurs would need to have even in the best economy. You never know what’s going to happen when you open a restaurant.
Union Loafers baker and co-owner Ted Wilson appreciates the way that the coronavirus has put that fact into focus. “It’s like, ‘Hey everything’s going to change, and I really have no power over that.’ Which is the way it’s always been, but now it’s a little more clear for everyone. And for me, that is liberating. That is not terrifying.”
The popular cafe also had plans to open a new concept this summer – a bagel shop in Webster Groves called Bagel Union. Unlike Wiggins and Ely, Wilson and his team decided to hold off on announcing. Like everyone, their plans are up in the air.
“There’s just no point in putting a timeline on it,” Wilson said. “There’s no understanding of what our income will be, no understanding of how we’ll be able to safely use the triple-P [CARES Act Payroll Protection Program loan]. We’re just proceeding with caution.”
In many ways, Union Loafers is extremely lucky. Its bank was able to process an application for a PPP loan before the CARES funds dried up. Wilson and co-owner Sean Netzer had enough money saved for the bagel shop that they were able to partially pay their staff for a month, which is unheard of. After shutting down completely, they overhauled their ordering system and have relaunched with an extremely successful curbside service. Bread and pizza, Loafers’ specialties, just happen to be perfect foods to sell during a pandemic, and it wasn’t a stretch to add some grocery items from local producers to their offerings.
“People are responding to it,” Wilson said. “We sell out of milk and eggs every day and we've doubled our numbers from our first week – just what we were ordering. So far we haven't seen where the threshold is.”
Though the coronavirus has caused Wilson and Netzer to scrap their schedule, they’re not bailing on any plans. “Jokingly, we've said, ‘Well, fuck the seats! Nobody's sitting down anywhere ever again.’ So it's certainly affected a little bit of our thinking, but the bagel shop was never going to be a full-service restaurant,” Wilson said. “It's a more traditional bakery model. You go in, buy your stuff, you can order a few deli items – sandwiches or smoked fish – but for the most part, I anticipate a majority of the business being like you take bagels back to your family or your office or whatever.”
If the government actually ends up offering debt forgiveness for the PPP loan, Wilson said that would accelerate their ability to open. Either way, there will be Union Loafers bagels eventually. “We've certainly geared our business now to focus on how to be able to be open and try to even be profitable in this kind of situation, and you know the idea is that that profit goes back to refilling that financial well so that we can do the bagel shop,” Wilson said. The company will continue to grow.
For Wilson, the coronavirus is just another obstacle forcing small business owners to improvise. They’re used to putting out fires, pivoting and making do. They’ll get through it – or they won’t, and that will be OK too. “Yes this is all hard and sad, but we're all in the same boat,” he said. “It's just so widespread, so complete for everyone, that I have a fundamental faith in the way everything will work – how people will help each other.”
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