As part of our Stories from the Front Lines series, Restaurant Hospitality reached out to restaurateurs to share their experiences during the coronavirus crisis. Delores Tronco-DePierro is the founder and owner of The Banty Rooster, which opened in December of 2019. When COVID-19 struck she decided not to shift to delivery and takeout, and instead is working on the restaurant’s business plan 2.0. Here is her story.
Anyone who has worked in the restaurant industry will tell you that flexibility and hustle are prerequisites for success. That two-top who just became a four-top? Why of course we can make space! The guest has soy, gluten, dairy, sesame, and black pepper allergies? Let us check with the chef to see what we might be able to prepare. The health inspector just walked through the door at 8 p.m. on a Friday night? Perfect! Wouldn’t have it any other way.
Part of the charm and allure of working in the industry is that no two days, or services, are the same. The industry requires grit, hustle and the ability to pivot, sometimes on a dime, to create seamless experiences that guests remember.
But a global pandemic of unseen proportions that has shut down restaurants coast to coast, from quick service to fine dining? This requires more than flexibility and hustle, which accounts for much of my decision to close my three-month-old restaurant, The Banty Rooster, just as we were hitting our stride.
Obviously, that wasn’t part of the plan. We were supposed to be getting reviewed, building regulars, and becoming the neighborhood institution I’d envisioned. We had big dreams for accolades, awards and stars. That was supposed to be the payoff for the 23 months of business plans, buildouts and permitting nightmares I’d endured. But on March 15, I knew that it was time to lay down my sword. I had to surrender, reflect, and prepare for our return.
It wasn’t an easy decision. I’m a doer, and nothing gives me more joy than crossing items off of my to-do list. I am at my best when I am working steadily toward a goal — it’s part of what makes me a successful entrepreneur and leader. This was new territory. In the absence of doing, I’ve been forced to consider what our post-COVID world will look like, and what is actually essential.
Food, of course, is essential. In one form or another, we all have to eat. But I would argue that hospitality is also essential. Food might feed our bodies, but it is hospitality that feeds our souls. Takeout can address our physical hunger, but it would be hard pressed to make someone feel loved, accepted, and cared for — graciously, kindly, just as they are. The second part, the love and acceptance part, was always central to my vision for The Banty Rooster, and it’s hard for me to imagine operating without a means to connect and care for our guests the way we did before.
Clearly, we won’t return to the world as we once knew it overnight. The transition will be gradual, and it will undoubtedly require leadership, flexibility, hustle, creativity, and grit — the same skills that made restaurant professionals great pre-COVID. For the time being, I am focused on keeping our staff healthy, and have begun to think about ways to extend the sense of love and hospitality that was once so present in our dining room beyond our four walls. We might have to redesign our menu and pack up to-go orders for a while, but I keep asking myself, how can we pack some hospitality and love into those boxes and bags alongside the warm, delicious food?
When we can finally open our doors again, we’ll do so with a Neighborhood Hour — not just a time for discounted drink specials, but a time when we intentionally seek to build a sense of camaraderie between our staff and our guests, when we encourage tables to smile and say hello to one another (even if from six feet away), and to enjoy being back out in the world together once more. We’ll be less concerned about reviews and accolades, and more focused than ever on providing the hospitality people so desperately want and need.
If there’s one thing I’m more certain of than ever, it’s that genuine, gracious hospitality is every bit as essential as the food and drinks we serve. It’s the X-factor that make restaurants so vital to their communities, and nothing — not even COVID-19 — can change that.