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Surviving in the Wake of a Pandemic Part I: Berks County Restaurants share their stories

By Phyllis J. McLaughlin and Jason Hugg

May 06, 2020

As the country was thrust into a growing world-wide pandemic during the early days of March, there was little warning or time to prepare for the shutdown of our economy that was to come. Berks County, with its lively scene of dining, arts, and entertainment, was not spared from the mandatory closure of businesses and stay at home orders not considered essential during the Covid 19 outbreak. As things came to a screeching halt in Pennsylvania on Monday, March 18th per Governor Tom Wolf’s orders, everyone was thrust into survival mode, and left to think fast on their feet about plan B for operating during the ongoing crisis. The following is a collage, so to speak, of a few of our county’s dining establishments, arts organizations, and entertainers, and their stories of survival during this historic and unprecedented event.

Giovanni Giannotti and Chris Borelli, Owners, Salute and Dante’s 900.

Highly popular Italian restaurants, Salute and Dante’s 900, located in Sinking Spring, had been enjoying great support from the community. “Business was very, very good, and growing for a little over five years,” said Giovanni. “We were experiencing a 20% increase this year, and then this happened.”

As directives from the government closed down most businesses on that fateful Monday, he recalls the aftermath. “Business stopped totally! We adjusted quickly to take-out only, but in the first few days we made very little. When we decided to introduce family style meals, and meals from our regular menu, business began to pick up.”

Giovanni adds that their decision to open Dante’s 900 two years ago has been very helpful in bringing in added take out business. “Dante’s 900 serves wood fire baked pizza, sandwiches, and dinners to go. Our decision to expand the kitchen and our take out menu came in handy during this time. We would have been in worse shape without it.”

As restrictions continue and the business is limited, Giovanni remains optimistic. “We are busy, but our volume is down. Unfortunately, we have not been able to keep our servers busy, and we hope that they will come back when restrictions are lifted.

What is in store for the future and what will they do differently? “I believe that we will have to space out the restaurant, and the seating capacity will be cut in half to make guests and staff safe. There will be one person assigned to continuous sanitizing. We hope to encourage patrons to dine with us outside of the weekends due to the lower seating capacity. Everyone has been very supportive, we have not had to completely close except for the one day during this crisis.”

Randy McKinley, General Manager, Sly Fox Brewery

“We were doing great!” says Randy McKinley of Sly Fox Brewery, located at the Knitting Mills in Wyomissing and at Goggleworks in Reading. “We did a lot of planning and research before moving here. We wanted to expand our footprint and plant the seeds of growth in the community and quickly rose to the top of our three locations, the other locations being Phoenixville and Pottstown.

As restrictions were put into place the impact was felt instantaneously. “We immediately lost nine catering events at Goggleworks, but for us the biggest impact was the drop in overall sales. He recalls that Monday as something that will go down in history. “Eight o’clock at night we were having to say goodbye to some of our best friends, not knowing when we would see them again. The biggest part was that we totally lost our lunch business; our lunch orders went to zero.”

Moving forward, Sly Fox has come up with creative ways to encourage people to order take-out. They have recognized the necessity to increase screen time, becoming more active on social media, and getting creative with their menus. “We started coming up with weekend dinner specials from 4:00 to 7:30 on weekends, which we are selling out of! 90% of our customers are utilizing curbside pick-up, and we have moved our beer coolers and retail sales to the front vestibule for easy access.”

Moving forward, Sly Fox will rely on safety guidelines in deciding when to begin to open up service, which most likely will include social distancing, employees wearing face masks, and separate entrances and exits from the establishments. “We will be as proactive as possible for the safety of our great clientele.”

Chris Flanagan, Owner, Flanagan’s Irish Pub

For Chris Flanagan, owner of Flanagan’s Irish Pub, St. Patrick’s Day marks the biggest day for business all year. Reservations are made as early as January for Irish music performed throughout the day and specials created exclusively for the occasion. Anyone who has made their way to Flanagan’s on St. Patty’s Day feels that they have indeed become a bit Irish before they leave!

“Actually, there was an uptick in business in general since it is an Irish Pub. The day before St. Patty’s Day the shut-down occurred. We quickly moved to take-out mode, and within a few days’ notice the clientele came through, and we are adjusting our hours as necessary. It was not feasible then to do lunch, but now we are doing lunches on the weekend. The kitchen has been able to keep most of their hours with our take out business.”

Thinking ahead, Chris hopes to open when there is a green light to do so, but with different protocols. “Thanks to funding by SBA which happened last week, the payroll will be fully funded, and the overhead will be covered. My plan is to be open every day from 11:30 to 9. There will be guidelines in place, paper menus, seating people spread apart, staff being conscious of cleaning. I believe that as things gradually improve we will continue to do a higher volume in take-out. The business has been in the family since 1982; we have been around for a long time. I think that we will be fine.

 

BCTV and Berks Weekly are working together to bring you the stories of our community during the COVID-19 pandemic. This media partnership is made possible in part by the support of Berks County Community Foundation.

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