One year later: Delaware restaurants still struggling from COVID-19 pandemic

Patricia Talorico
Delaware News Journal

When the hammer came down, it came down hard.

In the late afternoon of March 16, 2020, Delaware food and drink establishment owners were sent cease-and-desist orders from the Office of the Delaware Alcoholic Beverage Control.

In this March 2020 photo, Mike Stone, owner of Stoney's British Pub for over 20 years, wipes away tears while talking about making the decision to temporarily close his pub. He feared he would lose his business. 
Stone said 'he'd rather be cautious than sorry.'
"I know some don't believe how serious what's going on is, but, to be honest, I'm scared. People can literally die," he said.

All establishments were ordered to stop serving alcohol at 8 p.m. The notices came just as Gov. John Carney announced dine-in services would be suspended across the state indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Xavier Teixido, owner of the Wilmington restaurants Harry's Savoy Grill and Kid Shelleen's, said the cease-and-desist orders were about as real and heartbreaking as it got and that the pandemic would change everything about the state's hospitality industry.

Indoor dining came to a halt in 2020 on St. Patrick's Day, usually a busy day. Takeout and delivery only were allowed. It wasn't long before a common and sad sight at restaurants across the state soon became chairs stacked on tables in empty dining rooms.

Chairs sit on top of unused tables at V&M Bistro in Brandywine Hundred in August.

The indoor dining ban was expected to last only about two months.

Yet, one year later, dining out in Delaware, like much of the rest of the nation, is still in a state of flux. 

Capacity limitations and social distancing restrictions remain in place despite a ramp-up in COVID-19 vaccines. 

"It's been a long eight weeks," joked Teixido, who, to cope, has maintained a gallows sense of humor as the state's restaurant industry continues to struggle.

Recovery continues at a crawl

Restaurants today in Delaware are allowed only 50% occupancy; no more than four adults can be seated at a table, and bar seating is still severely restricted.

In a recent move restaurant owners see as another blow to their livelihoods, Delaware authorities have removed restaurant employees from a list of essential workers,

Now, healthy restaurant employees younger than 50 with no high-risk health conditions will become eligible to sign up for COVID-19 vaccines only after May 1, the same date as the remaining general population.

"Really disappointing," Teixido wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, Jonathan Starkey, Deputy Chief of Staff-Communications for Gov. John Carney, said "no one is getting pushed back or de-prioritized with [Tuesday's] announcement."

"We’re moving through 1B and 1C groups who have already reached out to DPH [Division of Public Health] and worked with us on plans for getting their workers vaccinated. Restaurant workers are among those groups, " he said.

"If anything, it’s a signal that more vaccine is coming and we’ll get through more groups, more quickly than we had originally planned," Starkey said.

Jen Brestel, a spokeswoman for the state's Division of Public Health, said Thursday . "While we are moving away from specifically referring to qualifying worker groups as 1B or 1C, frontline essential workers (such as health care workers, first responders, teachers, etc) remain eligible as well as now other essential workers, which includes restaurant employees.

Brestel said "we are working through the restaurant groups to invite many of them to register for the Dover International Speedway events this coming weekend."

Even though the recovery of the hospitality industry continues at a crawl, there have been a few bright spots. Some new restaurants have opened during the pandemic including Dorcea, Le Cavalier at the Green Room, Goober's Diner and Park Cafe, all in Wilmington.

Goober's Diner is a two-story, stainless steel restaurant opening Nov. 30 off Pennsylvania Avenue in Wilmington.

Still, others, who found the economic downfall too hard to overcome, have had to shut their doors.

Those food and drink establishments include Scrumptious in Trolley Square in Wilmington, Nal Restaurant in Hockessin, two De La Coeur Cafes, JB Dawson's at the Christiana Mall, Touch of Italy on Concord Pike in Talleyville, and most recently Chefs' Haven Cafe in the Independence Mall on Concord Pike in Brandywine Hundred.

Owner Mark Eastman had taken over the spot of the short-lived second location of De La Coeur Café for his Chefs' Haven, but, on Tuesday morning, he announced on Facebook that he was closing the cafe after only six months because of lack of business.

His flagship Chefs' Haven Hockessin site, however, remains open.

No easy fixes for struggling industry

Delaware is home to more than 1,900 food and drink establishments.

While some businesses are regaining their footing, it's not going to be a fast and easy fix anytime soon, according to Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association.

Delaware's hospitality employment remains down 22%, Leishman said, and it is estimated the state's restaurants have lost more than $1.2 billion in annual sales revenues since March 2020.

“It’s dangerous to see open restaurants and think, ‘Oh they're fine; they’re open and profitable again’ – when the reality is, that couldn’t be farther from the truth," Leishman said.

"Restaurants are existing on subsidies right now, and those programs will eventually end, the money spent. We need to continue to support our vital small businesses at every level, including the push for vaccination of our essential workers," she said.

"Relief efforts cannot end when we are still only at 50% operating capacity with thousands of workers in Delaware still waiting to come back to work.”  

J.B. Dawson's Restaurant at the Christiana Mall.

Tyler Akin, a partner and chef of the Hotel du Pont's Le Cavalier at the Green Room, planned to reopen the legendary dining room on Mother's Day 2020 after an overhaul of the site.

But the coronavirus delayed his plans until September 2020. 

He, like other Delaware restaurateurs, is eager to return to pre-COVID-19 business conditions.

"Overall, it's been a very difficult year to say the least," said Akin, who also ran two Philadelphia restaurants, but closed one in November,

Le Cav, as it's now known, initially "was doing strong business for a few months," he said. "It was not ideal, but it felt like a golden moment."

But when the coronavirus pandemic surged again this past fall and the state again limited indoor dining capacity from 60% to 30%, the restaurant lost some of its initial momentum, he said. 

"It's felt better recently," Akin said, but added "it was a long and hard winter for everyone. I don't know any restaurants that have thrived."

Fighting for his industry

Akin, looking to help his industry, didn't sit on the sidelines this past year. Instead, he chose to align with an organization known as the Independent Restaurant Coalition.

The group counts as its members such celebrity chefs as "Top Chef" star Tom Colicchio and Sam Kass, a former White House chef and adviser under the Obama administration.

Akin, who was part of the group's Advisory, Leadership, Policy and Governance committee, recently helped get legislation passed that will offer restaurants nationwide $28.6 billion in dedicated restaurant relief funds.

The program helps protect the 11 million workers these businesses employ and the 5 million more they support through the supply chain.

The grant money that's coming will help restaurants cover payroll, employee benefits, paid sick leave, mortgage, rent and utilities, maintenance, outdoor seating construction, supplies, protective equipment, cleaning materials, food, operational expenses and debt obligations to suppliers.

The grants are open to any restaurant that is not owned by a publicly traded company, he said. To apply for grants, visit saverestaurants.com/ for more information.

Akin said it will take some time to sort things out, but "the overall picture is just feeling positive."

Funds for restaurant owners are sorely needed.

A recent National Restaurant Association Research Group survey said the restaurant industry ended 2020 with total sales that were $240 billion below the National Restaurant’s Association’s pre-pandemic forecast for the year.

A lone customer sits waiting for a drink at BrewHaHa café, where chairs are stacked on tables after restaurants in Delaware converted to take-out only businesses due to the spread of coronavirus.

As of Feb. 1, at least 17% of all eating and drinking places – or more than 110,000 establishments – are completely closed and not open for business in any capacity.

Looking ahead, most restaurant operators do not expect a return to normal business conditions any time soon.

According to figures provided by Leishman, she said 61% of operators think it will be more than seven months before business conditions return to normal. And an additional 10% of operators say business conditions will never return to normal for their restaurant.

But some Delaware business owners are hoping spring brings a sense of renewal.

On March 16, 2020, Mike Stone, owner of Stoney's British Pub for more than 20 years, wiped away tears while talking about making the decision to temporarily close his Concord Pike establishment in Talleyville even before Carney ordered restaurants to halt dining indoors.

Stone, who feared he would lose his business permanently, said he preferred to be cautious than sorry.

"I know some don't believe how serious what's going on [with the coronavirus] is, but, to be honest, I'm scared. People can literally die," Stone said in 2020.

The death toll in the United States from COVID-19 is now more than 536,000.

In March 2020, Mike Stone, owner of Stoney's British Pub for over 20 years, temporarily closed his pub even before Gov. Carney announced dining in services in Delaware had to stop by 8 p.m. March 16. This month, Stone is welcoming back musicians on the outdoor patio of his Concord Pike restaurant.

Stoney's British Pub eventually did reopen, and it added outdoor seating. Stone recently posted on the restaurant's Facebook page that he is looking to "hopefully get back to a more normal business environment."

Stone said the outdoor patio at his Concord Pike restaurant will be open for live music on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings.

"It’s a safe environment," said Stone, who lets musicians put out a tip jar. "Hopefully, by summer, we can get back to our pre-COVID music program."

Contact Patricia Talorico at (302) 324-2861 or ptalorico@delawareonline.com and on Twitter @pattytalorico