Dish-makers dish on a COVID-crusted year

How the virus forced local restaurateurs to change everything

Jose Garces in a mask
Many restaurateurs are revamping the way they do business.

Last week, restaurateur Nicole Marquis, founder of the Save Philly Restaurants coalition representing 250-plus area like-minded individuals, told me of her meeting with Philadelphia City Council.

The topic of their Zoom meeting was Mayor Kenney’s newest, harshest restrictions on her industry, ones thwarting restaurant trade and earning power, such as no indoor dining until January (after much money was spent by restaurateurs for safely distanced dining), fewer diners at outdoor tables, and sudden moves – on what could’ve been the busiest, money-making night of the season – such as shutting off the spigot of alcohol sales at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Eve.

Talking is good, and talking is nice, and Marquis expressed hope that having a seat at the table when it came time to making hard or arbitrary decisions on the ecology and the economy of her business would be forthcoming as an essential means of going forward into an uncertain future, one that will surely stay pandemic-ly doomed until after January.

“No. Neither Mayor Kenney nor Health Commissioner Farley were part of the Zoom meeting,” said Marquis quietly when asked, restraining either disdain, sadness, resignation and-or some unholy combination of those emotions. 

Before you cry foul with, “Aw, neither one of those men would’ve been part of said Council session,” I say, “Hang on. And go fuck yourself.” 

If Mayor Kenney can stick his nose in people’s lives and shift their business’ fortunes at a moment’s notice, he can duck his head into a Zoom meeting. Kenney and Farley were also both invited to take part in the Zoom meeting and refrained. 

Neither the mayor nor the health commissioner can help you now.

With these most recent city and state decisions wounding and killing off its share of small and big restaurateurs (Stephen Starr closed The Continental for the sake of refurbishing, but wouldn’t have, I’m guessing, if COVID didn’t kill off business), chefs and restaurant owners have had to rethink their business models or close shop. 

In my previous PW cover on C-19’s culinary season, “Hunger Games,” I wrote early on about how this city’s fine dining entrepreneurs – like their brothers and sisters in taquerias, pizzerias, cheesesteak salons and Chinese dining spots – had shifted their models to include curbside pickup, take-out and delivery on their own or through third party apps. However, times have changed. The pandemic has now raged into its ninth month as of this story’s publication, and restaurateurs with big nuts to pay off will either have to find additional pivot points – or die.

This story, then, is about four local food-makers, chefs and restaurant owners who have pivoted, by force or by design, and – at times – made the pandemic work for them, quite literally squeezing bittersweet lemonade out of rotting lemons. In several cases, this pandemic timeframe has changed their business models, even the ways they cook, forever. 

Building a brand: Jose Garces’ new websites and multimedia options

On the day after Thanksgiving, Jose Garces is doing his best to rest after having sold out hundreds of eight-course, turkey-based meals through his renewed Garces Trading Company dot com. But, there is a soccer match he must take his kids to, “actually a day worth of matches,” he said, laughing, about heading into the championships with his children.

There is another episode of his upcoming “Cooking Space,” a soon-to-drop series of video shorts on his soon-to-launch ChefGarces.com to wrap. 

“They’re going to be six- to- eight-minute food and music videos that are as much about cooking and eating good food as they are being mindful, active and present in everything we do,” he said. 

Garces has directed and produced this video line and is even curating their musical selections that he’ll immediately put up with their own original Spotify soundtracks. 

“I’m highlighting mostly one-pot meals. Great for home cooks, but with a professional twinge to it. And the whole thing is focused on what it is to be present and enjoying your surroundings. Being focused on the food, the family and the friends you have sharing these meals.”

The ChefGarces dot com – his decidedly personal and hands-on brand portal featuring live cooking demonstrations, consulting services, menu planning and such – is radically different from the Garces Trading Company site. The site will become a full inventory of e-commerce for an upcoming line of Garces rubs and sauces, as well as a central hub for ordering take-out and culinary goods specific to all of his restaurants. Some might expect something from Tinto’s Basque menu and its newly-created Tinto Spanish wine shop, or overstuffed burgers from that of its next door neighbor, Village Whiskey. Or his socially-distanced brand new re-do of Old City’s The Olde Bar and its refreshed, reinvigorated all new seafood menu. Or his West Philly Mexican eatery, Distrito, which not only recently became a pandemic-timed eaterie with outdoor patio dining and a window for take-out (only), but the hub of its own website, La Bodega where diners can shop for prepared and packaged foods, including fresh masa and huaraches, mole spice and truffle mushrooms, as well as Garces Meal Boxes, which feature full,  pre-measured ingredients and step-by-step Mexican recipes. 

Though Garces is sprucing up his storefronts – be it for eventual indoor dining or outdoor eating for four, or take out – it is the virtual, online world where Garces is making his mark in 2020, 2021 and going forward.

“I didn’t want to just jump into take-out and curbside and outdoor dining as soon as the city said I could in the first place. I took my time with all of this,”  he said of physical dining, indoors and outdoors, in a post-March 2020, post-C-19 setting. 

“I wanted to evolve our menus and our concepts as we’d do every few months. That’s how we have always run things, always persevered, no matter what else has happened. I mean, Amada has a 15th anniversary coming up. In restaurant terms, that’s unbelievable. That doesn’t happen unless you know when to roll with the changes, or how to keep on keeping on.”

While the city’s newest regulations make it so that all of his indoor renovations must wait (“I assumed we would go down this path for winter; it’s not shocking,” he says) and public safety is of utmost concern, the virtual world of positive messages and music video-filled websites, online sales and recipe tips is a fresh form of futurist branding, one that makes Garces the Elon Musk of the Philly culinary planet. Hey, the guy is a Food Network Iron Chef. He’s already halfway there. 

Looking at COVID and this environment, while this is extremely challenging and truly tough for our industry, there is light. There will be another day.”

– Jose Garces

“‘Cooking Spaces’ is a real bucket list thing for me, and to have it connected to mindfulness and being present – where I’m at now – just means the world to me. But, starting with the online La Bodega store in October, I saw the web as a way to hedge my bets – as who knew what would happen with restaurants and dining through this pandemic? People have to eat. 

“How do we get them to eat good food in a safe way? We have a company in New Jersey [which] mills fresh corn masa for tortillas and huaraches. You can buy a 32-ounce bag of masa for tortillas. We’ll sell you the enchiladas filling and you can roll your own. Or Adobo chicken in bulk to make tortillas for a few days. The garlic, the lard, the pork shoulder – our gorditas and our recipe. What could be better than having it be fresh and explained to you?”

Pandemics are lousy, fucked up things. No doubt. But Garces has been through some shit in his life – a 2018 bankruptcy with a rainbow at the end, a deal for his Garces Group to get relief from Ballard Brands and local investor David Maser to the tune of $8 million – and is pragmatic about getting through yet another season in hell. 

“Yes, that’s a fair assumption. But that is true and fair with life. I have had my chips down throughout my career and life. But the journey has been about looking past adversity and figuring how to train myself how to overcome that through positivity. The last battle was certainly tough, and I was humbled by it and was appreciative of the fact that I could continue doing what I love to do. Looking at COVID and this environment, while this is extremely challenging and truly tough for our industry, there is light. There will be another day.”

Building partnerships: Charisse McGill’s French Toast Bites and beyond

Philly’s Charisse McGill had only just developed and marketed a product that people loved – fresh, hot, beautifully homemade spiced French Toast Bites – before the troubles of COVID-19. Launching successfully outdoors at City Hall’s Christmas Village in 2018, McGill’s entire business model was based on the open air market and its economy. 

“We made a name for ourselves at outdoor festivals such as The Roots Picnic at the Mann, Made in America at the Parkway and Christmas Village,” said McGill about staking her future on the great outdoors; 180-plus days’ worth of events and semi-permanent outdoor retail locations such as Northern Liberties’ Piazza Pod Park.

“You start applying for these things in January,” she said. 

“We take off from January to March outside. But inside, I plan, schedule, get permits. From April 1 to Dec. 31, we work nearly every day, somewhere outdoors in the city.”

In March, McGill’s Lokal Artisan Foods – French Toast Bites, Vegan French Toast Bites, Bacon on-a-stick! and her “Only French Toast Seasoning You’ll Ever Need” – was planning to take their show on the road for 2020, doubling their days’ output and expanding into food halls and events across the eastern seaboard. Until COVID. 

“Once they made the announcement of no events with no people, it hit me: I have no business,” she said. 

“My whole business model is based on events and people. Not holding back here. I panicked.”

“My whole business model is based on events and people. Not holding back here. I panicked.”

– Charisse McGill

After talking to her friends at Better Box Twisted Egg Rolls with its locations in Fairmount, Northeast Philly and Southwest, they invited McGill to use their kitchens to make French Toast Bites and make them available for pickup at their newly-installed take-out windows, and for delivery on a third party app. 

“I had never used DoorDash or Uber Eats, but I learned the ways of the third-party delivery system quickly,” said McGill. 

“I’m used to made-to-order, right in front of you food and heavy customer engagement. That was a learning curve.”

During this three-month partnership with Better Box, McGill was able to operate at 50 percent of her usual sales, while retaining her staff – two phenomenal feats that led to her next partnership, one with DoorDash selecting her to be on its national restaurant advisory council. 

“What makes my situation unique is that I am the only mobile business and the only Black woman-owned business on the council, so my perspective is different from some of the storefront owners,” said McGill. 

“Storefronts have issues with commission fees. I don’t have issues with commission fees because my product is only one price. Want French toast? $7. Add bacon, it’s $10. Giving someone 30 percent for doing little more than just putting it up on your platform? I’m OK with that.”

McGill’s impact on DoorDash’s inaugural mainsheet conference and its initial discussion of putting (“and maintaining a presence”) Black-owned restaurants at the top of the site, led her to her next partnership – with the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation asking her if she wanted an available shipping container for outdoor sales in late spring and summer. 

“I couldn’t say ‘yes’ fast enough. That got me outside and back with the people where I belong.” 

That also made McGill the first Black female food business owner-operator at Spruce Street Harbor Park in its six-year existence, and the receiver of enough publicity to put her in front of her next two partners.

First came Doylestown Brewing Company, which reached out to McGill to sample her French Toast Bites’ flavor profile for a new craft beer of their devising. 

“I told him ‘yes,’ but that I also wanted to be a part of the process, from the mash to the canning.”

McGill’s 5.5% ABV brew, French Toast Bites Ale and its sweet, smooth and toasted dessert taste came out in four-packs of 16-ounce cans on Oct. 30. Before the beer’s release, Philly’s billion-dollar owners of goPuff and its goBooze division were already looking for ways to work with McGill. Not only did goPuff partner with her and the Doylestown brewery to become French Toast Bites Ale’s first customer (goPuff bought out half of the first batch) to sell out the beer in its first 10 days, together – they are working on ways to make McGill’s French Toast wares into pantry essentials. 

Along with making a flash fried and dry version of “Bacon on a Stick!” available by Christmas (“We’re finishing up the nutritional aspects of the labeling now,” she says), McGill and her new suitors are working on frozen French Toast Bites for delivery and store sales. 

“Plus, my spice sales are up 100 percent more in 2020 than they were in 2019. People are home and in the kitchen now,” she said. 

A local bourbon distiller, a Philly ice cream maker and an area coffee brand are all in the offing to become McGill’s next partners, at a time when McGill is just getting back to her roots this week: At the open-air Christmas Village at Dilworth and Love parks.

Partnerships, then, are the key for McGill’s success and what she advises others in the food business to try. 

“How I navigated 2020 was through strategic partnerships and responding to a changing marketplace while maintaining brand identity and relevance,” she said. 

“I had something somebody wanted. They have something I wanted. Together, we could do and build something unique. Partnerships – combining resources. I don’t have a million-dollar brewery or a billion-dollar delivery set up. But I have this really cool product and I’m going to hit the pavement and sell it. That is what I have to offer – energy. Energy is the new currency. Just be agile enough to switch directions quickly and get out of your own way. Do what you have to keep your lights on.”

Building upon your talents: Walter Staib is moving on from City Tavern and onto the page

As of the first week of November, Chef Walter Staib is no longer keeping the lights on at his historically accurate, decidedly tasty City Tavern, the Old City location he has operated (the building is owned by the Department of the Interior) since 1994. 

“It was a bittersweet decision to leave,” said Staib on a Thanksgiving week morning, with his stalwart crew pulling up the valuables. 

“And it’s not as if we didn’t try.”

Like so many other restaurateurs in a pandemic setting, Staib made a real, and pricey, go of getting around C-19.  

The chef was in the midst of filming the next season of his Emmy-winning PBS show, “A Taste of History,” in the Galapagos Islands in February, isolated from television and newspapers, when he ran into a group of German tourists who told him about a terrible pandemic raging across Europe. 

“We were talking to the minister of tourism there about staying longer, perhaps moving toward the Amazons, but decided to get back to the U.S. early,” said Staib.  

No sooner than he landed and hit his City Tavern office, the chef found that the restaurant was getting cancellations, left and right, from tour operators booking Staib’s usual retinue of corporate and private diners from Japan, Italy, Germany and beyond. 

“Weddings, graduations, American Revolutionary War History Museum visitors too; [parties and tourism] is our biggest trade. Analyzing such a loss, by March 15, I told the superintendent of parks to see if I could get permission to halt operations…We closed down, donated all of our perishables to God and country, and waited.”

When Mayor Kenney said that outdoor dining was permissible, Staib had the large garden. When Kenney said that indoor dining was permissible at a certain percentage, Staib had the room – a 300-person space for which he bought and built up the requisite socially distancing Plexiglas walls and spacing markers with as much historically accurate detail as possible for City Tavern’s Colonial theme. 

“I’m an optimist, so we made a beautiful garden and we spent the money making everything safe, and the reaction we got was spectacular,” said Staib. 

“We didn’t slouch, didn’t do burgers and wraps. We didn’t make you eat on a street. We did our full menu. We baked our own bread daily. We never deviated from our usual quality or quantity. And, the diners loved it. There just weren’t enough of them on the street. It wasn’t just our place. I sat on City Tavern’s front porch, nightly, and there was no one walking around Old City. Lamberti’s across the street had some action, which is good. But you could shoot a cannon through our garden and our restaurant.“

He’s got them too. 

“Again, it’s bittersweet for me to close, but I saw no relief and no other way. There’s no traffic out there. The tents that so many restaurateurs want to put up: Can they guarantee safety for the winter?

– Walter Staib

Once Staib made the decision – before the city did – to shutter for Thanksgiving, his biggest day, the chef knew that things would come to an end for City Tavern. 

“Again, it’s bittersweet for me to close, but I saw no relief and no other way. There’s no traffic out there. The tents that so many restaurateurs want to put up: Can they guarantee safety for the winter? They may be even more dangerous than indoor dining. Ceilings are low. Air circulation isn’t happening. That’s impossible to sustain a return.”

What Staib is pivoting toward is his other enterprises. While he can’t hold his usual food-filled “Taste of History” events, he can maintain an active gift shop and website that not only sells his DVDs of his PBS program and new videos such as “Superfoods with Chef Walter Staib” – his new obsession geared toward heart health and good tastes. There’s more. Staib designed 18th century-like ceramic tableware, glassware geared for old(e) inns, and lead-free pewter items. There’s also his four best-selling cookbooks. And he’s working on another, sales of which keep him busier than the restaurant did. 

“Where the business comes is from the website. Mail order is flourishing. People buy books from all over the world,” said Staib.

“The shows are running and people are home. They want to learn to cook how we do. I’m packing them and taking everything to the post office every day. At least 65 items a day – books, mementos, videos. I’m glad we stayed and tried, but my biggest mistake was re-opening in the first place. People were afraid to come out. I could see it the minute the pandemic happened.”

Building out a boutique: Bibou’s Charlotte and Pierre Calmels

At the beginning of the pandemic, I used to tease in Icepack how chef Pierre Calmels and GM Charlotte Calmels – the marrieds behind the Italian Market’s Bibou BYOB – were offering opulently rich and decadent French meals for amazing prices. As in author Evelyn Waugh’s “Vile Bodies,” if the world was going to end, one might as well gorge elegantly from Bibou’s curbside pickup meals, which sold out 200-plus three-course dinners a week. 

The same is true of their newly-minted Bibou Boutique of French food items, to go with Pierre’s charcuterie, pate and cheese plates – all of which can be ordered starting 12:30 p.m. every Monday and picked up by the weekend (only). Pierre is still doing three-course dinners – just not 200 of them per week. 

“It is true,” said Charlotte when asked.

“Some during this pandemic have found themselves more successful than they could have ever imagined.”

And that is uplifting. Even if it wasn’t an easy climb or an easy decision. 

In March, not long after Charlotte had left her post at D’Artagnan French food sales, the pandemic hit. A small BYOB with a longtime family-like staff, Bibou and its crew huddled together when the restaurant closed, with Pierre feeding staff, family and roommates for the first six months. 

“You can’t take the artist out of the chef, or the chef out of the artist, and both were at work overtime here.”

– Charlotte Calmels

“The difficulty wasn’t in cancelling reservations. They cancelled themselves,” said Charlotte. 

“It was us feeding each other and making a living. Bibou is all that we do.” 

Their opulent take-out menus were the couple and their three children in “survival mode,” she said. “To put cash on hand.”

At first, they started doing 50 meals a week at $40 a head – a bargain at three times the price. 

“It was not a lot of money to sustain a restaurant space and a family, but we made it work,” she said. 

“You can’t take the artist out of the chef, or the chef out of the artist, and both were at work overtime here.”

Word of mouth and social media hit, and at late spring and summer’s peak, Bibou did 200 meals a week. 

“We had our three girls working, really working, during summer vacation,” said Charlotte with a laugh.

It was, however, upon taking a break in September, that Pierre realized something marvelous. Not only were they making money, the family’s quality of life had blossomed. 

“I was suddenly able to have dinner with my family every night and Sunday off,” said Pierre. 

“I realized how much quality of life meant to me beyond running around and just running a restaurant 24/7. This is better – the experience of the last six months – than anything that has happened to me in the past 25 years. Some days, now, I’m home at 5 p.m. Some at 8 p.m. I cook at home and eat with my family. Before this, I was lucky if we ate together one night a week and I was exhausted. This was a different, better approach and organization to life and business.” 

Over a snack of wine and marshmallows in September, the Calmels decided to strip Bibou BYOB of its tables and chairs and turn it into Bibou Boutique. They made it a place where Charlotte could sell French food goods and Pierre could still cook 12 to 15 items for the store, to say nothing of meals they put up on social media at will. At present, Bibou Boutique is not a walk-in store, but one with curbside pickup and mail-outs. 

“We can’t keep the mustard in stock,” said Charlotte. 

“I don’t know why we even take it out of the box…Charcuterie and dry goods. We wouldn’t be able to do both if we were in-person more often than just Friday and Saturday due to prep time and such.”

Which brings up an interesting point – successful and comfortable with life and money, why would they ever go back to Bibou BYOB once the pandemic is over?

They won’t.

“For me, Bibou, as a restaurant, is done,” said Charlotte.  

While she expected the chef to have a different reaction, Pierre was mostly in agreement. 

“Based on this experience, there is no reason to go back to being a restaurant. It is a shame and sad that the pandemic happened to make this discovery. I’m not getting younger. What we did at Bibou over the last 10 years worked for us, but I still had to work hard. Maybe we can do a Bibou restaurant some other time or place. But to go back to 15 to 20 hour days? I don’t think we’ll ever go back there.”

@ADAmorosi

  • A.D. Amarosi's Headshot

    A.D. Amorosi is a Philadelphia-based journalist who, along with Philadelphia Weekly, writes for numerous local, national and international publications including Variety and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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