Bond between struggling restaurants, patrons endures

THE OWNERS of Stoneacre Hospitality restaurants are being sued by the U.S. Department of Labor for alleged wage theft and related offenses. / PBN PHOTO ANNE EWING

Blackie’s restaurant in Smithfield posted a farewell message last July that it was closing its doors for good due to COVID-19. On March 1, the owners showed photos of a remodeled kitchen on its website and social media with hints of a reopening. Nearly 1,000 followers posted emotional “welcome back” messages.

No definite opening date has been disclosed and the restaurant did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Such outpourings of support, however, have not been unusual for local restaurants that have signaled intent to reopen, slowly expand service or have managed to continue at reduced capacity through the pandemic. This reinforces the emotional connection many patrons have with their favorite eating and drinking establishments, says Johnson & Wales University professor Michael Sabitoni, department chair for food and beverage management in the College of Hospitality Management.

“Restaurant people get into the business for the love of serving guests,” he said. “When [COVID-19] hit, some of them may have found they could not live up to their own standards for service and had no choice but to close. Then as time went by, they found their customers really missed them.”

- Advertisement -

Sabitoni says the heartbreak of devoted customers has often manifested itself in the form of support – of multiple gift card purchases and oversized gratuities given as a gesture by those who had the means to do so.

“We [the patrons] did not realize how important hospitality was until it was taken away from us,” he said.

David Crowell, owner of Stoneacre Brasserie in Newport, recalled that when restaurants were shut down, he and his business partner immediately thought of giving back – literally. “We did a family meal program with product we had on hand, plus vendor supplies, and we were able to keep a lot of people happy and ourselves busy.” He described what he received in return as “endless.

“It brought tears literally to see how many of our guests who had dined with us going back to our Thames Street location two years ago, to see them come forward with their gifts of financial support and time,” he said.

Crowell also noted the generosity of his restaurant’s vendors, who contributed goods toward the effort. “It was incredible to feel that energy coming back to us!”

And while news of restaurant closings has dominated headlines, many more establishments are quietly finding ways to stay afloat.

Wright’s Farm Restaurant in Burrillville recently announced it will reopen its giant dining rooms for indoor dining on April 8th. Owner Frank Galleshaw III didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. In a statement, he said, “As Wright’s is known for large dining groups and events, it has been challenging to navigate our state’s current guidelines effectively. However, we are confident that we have everything in place to ensure the same safe, comfortable and family-friendly dining experience that we are known for and have been for nearly 50 years.”

There are no official state statistics, but local industry observers estimate that 5% of the state’s roughly 3,000 eating and drinking establishments went on a “pause” of two weeks or more at some point during the pandemic. Most of those were in Providence. Relatively few closed their doors permanently.

Gracie’s, one of several downtown Providence restaurants that returned to operations after having announced a “pause” during the winter, took the opportunity of a fresh start to institute a more inclusive compensation program. Proprietor Ellen Slattery said, “All restaurants are constantly moving at the speed of lightning. This past year has given us space and opportunity to look at every little piece of what we do and figure out how to make it better for the future.”

The program, known as a Team Shared Model, in lieu of gratuity, adds a 20% service charge to each bill. This charge is retained by “the house” and 100% is distributed to staff in the form of wages and benefits.

Beginning Friday, Rhode Island restaurants can take one more small step toward normalcy, by increasing seating capacity to 66% from 50%. This shift returns them to where they were with seating before Rhode Island entered a two-week pause to control infections.

“Overall, I think that restaurants have been incredibly resilient and adaptable to what are really unpredictable and ever-changing circumstances,” said Kristen Adamo, executive director of the Providence-Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau. “I think that every time a restaurant opens or reopens, it’s a victory. My hope is that any new COVID relief packages will provide these small businesses with the funding and tools they need to get through the summer and fall.”

(Bruce Newbury is a PBN contributing writer and columnist of the biweekly Dining Out.)

No posts to display