With reports of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rising significantly, the state of Maryland tightened social distancing restrictions on Nov. 17, requiring bars and restaurants to end dine-in services after 10 p.m. and restricting restaurants to 50% capacity. (Baltimore City restricts capacity to 25%.)
While some local kosher restaurants remain determined to stay in business, restrictions like these remain a significant encumbrance.
“I would say it continues to be challenging,” said Lara Franks, the owner of kosher establishments Accents Grill, Cocoaccino’s cafe and Serengeti Steakhouse.
“Even though there are certain sectors of the economy that seem to be rebounding, restaurants and bars are not really in that category right now,” said Franks, a resident of Pikesville and a member of Pikesville Jewish Congregation.
According to Franks, the situation is somewhat easier for a sector like retail, as that sector can have customers line up outside of the store. Their stores tend to be larger and more airy, which potentially helps with safe ventilation. By contrast, restaurants and bars, normally designed as more intimate spaces where people can congregate, don’t always have that luxury. As such, many have been forced to adapt to the type of carryout business model that has become ubiquitous, though the going hasn’t always been easy.
Adaptations Franks has had to make include having her former staff of waiters, busboys and dishwashers take on new roles answering phones, bagging orders and delivering them to customers’ homes. Franks also added an online ordering platform to facilitate her customers’ ordering experience and noted that a smartphone app for each of her restaurants should be launching within a matter of weeks.
Tables are spaced six feet apart, Franks said, and occupancy does not exceed the county and state guidelines of 50% normal occupancy.
Customers are required to wear masks when going to and from their tables, and contactless pickup and delivery is also being emphasized, Franks said, while at least one person on staff each shift focuses on disinfecting tables and chairs with high-grade sanitizer in between guest visits.
Outdoor seating is also available when the weather is appropriate, Franks said. She explained her plans to set up outdoor tents with heaters to make this viable on cold winter days.
Some similar circumstances exist at the Croustille Cafe, a Pikesville-based kosher pâtisserie. A number of their tables have been placed outside, and delivery orders have become significantly more common, said the store’s manager Moshe Mimoun. He added that tables are sanitized after each use, and employees have their temperatures taken.
While acknowledging that the reduction in the allowed capacity makes things harder, Mimoun emphasized that “before everything, we have to think about the health of everyone.”
One challenge that may be unique to the restaurant sector involves how the dine-in experience is often difficult to replicate with takeout.
“People are less inclined to pay $70 for a meal that’s going to come all together in a foil pan,” Franks said. This is particularly true for steakhouses, she added. When a customer wants their pricey, high-end steak dinner cooked precisely medium rare, she explained, there’s no guarantee it will arrive at their house exactly the same as it came off the grill. In response, Franks has been experimenting with different methods to deliver meals to customers in ways that “maintains the integrity and quality of the food.”
Despite all the challenges, Franks was heartened by the resolve of her employees.
“They’ve really been tremendous … the morale has been up, they have been excellent about following the rules with regards to masks and hand-washing,” Franks said.
“Sometimes, they even enjoy some of the new ways we’re working in,” she continued. “The younger employees for sure have really loved us embracing new technology. Millennials are very into all the different pieces of technology we’ve been using, and they’ve really responded very well to that.”
In short, Franks reported a great deal of positive energy in her businesses, while the kitchen staff enjoys the challenge of putting together new types of meals for the altered dining landscape.