Disclaimer: I’m a big fan of ordering food from local restaurants. I’m a superfan of ordering food from local restaurants when that means I can sit on my couch and wait for them to bring it to my front door. In fact, my friends and family will tell you: Ordering food is my superpower. (Well, that and smashing Oxford commas like a kung-fu master and splitting shades of meaning like a ninja.)
It doesn’t take a pandemic, social isolation or a governor’s order to get me looking, mouth watering, at the online menus from our amazing local restaurants. If you make me leave the house to get that food, I sometimes talk myself out of it. But offer to drive it over to me so I can keep working or watching a good movie without interruption, and I’m a happy camper, even if you charge me for the privilege. (It’s so worth it!)
One of my greatest frustrations about living a little farther inland than I used to is that the delivery options are pretty limited. Until this week, limited to two pizza places, in fact. (Shout-out to Flaming Pizza — that massive menu and good food keep us pretty happy, and ordering through the Slice app is easy as pie. See what I did there?)
But I’ve gotten used to hitting up the GrubHub and DoorDash apps when I’m visiting friends in Salisbury and none of us want to deal with traffic or a dinner rush. And my parents have had the chance to discover some new hometown restaurants when none of us could agree on one place to go and I decided the best way to prevent an argument or dinner disappointment was to order four meals from three different restaurants, all delivered right to our door.
But these days, as we all know, even if you can decide on one restaurant, you’re not going to go out to that restaurant, open the door, walk in and sit down at a table together, with a room full of other people who are doing the same thing. Social distancing has also distanced us from our favorite restaurants, favorite dishes and favorite servers.
That’s a real tragedy here, on what Southern Delaware Tourism likes to call “the Culinary Coast.” We have chefs who’ve prepared dinner at the James Beard House on multiple occasions, chefs who’ve broken ground in turning locally-sourced food into high-end gourmet fare, some of the most amazing bakers on the East Coast, some great options for homestyle food and affordable comestibles, and some pretty wonderful bartenders, too. And many of our waitstaff are at the top of their games, making us all feel at home while also catering to our every need.
And nearly all of our local restaurant staff, whether they’re front-of-house or doing their thing in the kitchen, are hurting right now — especially the ones who rely upon people coming in their front doors and spending some time at a table full of carefully crafted cuisine.
Restaurant owners are faced with the dilemma of whether to stay open at all, hoping that they’ll get sufficient carry-out orders to make that worthwhile, and still needing to lay off some staff because there’s nothing for them to do when there are no dine-in customers anywhere in sight. Restaurants that don’t usually do much, if any, carry-out business are having to shift gears to ensure their food can be transported home and maintain its quality until it gets there, and at least a few local restaurants are having to consider whether now is the time to start delivering, whether through a third-party service or by bringing in delivery drivers.
Amidst all of this, it occurred to me that maybe some of these waitstaff who are being laid off could instead be doing delivery for their employers at a time when offering delivery could not only be a business advantage but can be a very important customer service to those who can’t risk going out.
It makes sense to me. (In fact, if I had the money for a startup right now, I'd go into food delivery!) But I was soon told that it’s probably not a viable idea — not because waitstaff can’t be delivery drivers for a month or two, but because it’s likely that most of our local restaurants will soon conclude that they can’t justify staying open based on carry-out and delivery alone, if they’ll even give delivery a try.
And that makes me sad. I’m sad for the laid-off waitstaff. I’m sad for the kitchen staff who’ll be laid-off, too, if it comes to that. I’m sad for the restaurant owners, who’ll be losing experienced staff while also having to make hard decisions that could have long-term repercussions for their businesses and, in some cases, even determine their survival. Restaurants notoriously operate on very slim margins, and when you don’t have revenue coming in, at some point you can’t pay for the food you’d be serving if you did stay open.
But you see, in my ideal world, every restaurant is open seven days a week, fully staffed, with just enough customers to keep a table available for the next party to walk in the door, and they’ll not only prepare an order for carry-out, they’ll have somebody available to grab that order and drive it to anywhere in the immediate area.
Better yet, somebody will operate a delivery service that’ll pick me up scallops from Bluecoast, corn-and-crab bisque from Off the Hook, muffins from Cottage Café, a beet salad from DiFebo’s… See — now I’m just hungry, and I haven’t even gotten to dessert... And I’d still need to add a cheesesteak from Casapulla’s for a very hungry teenage boy.
Up until this week, my take on the local food scene was that we’ve got an area that’s growing like crazy, full of working folks needing a late-night pizza delivery and retirees wanting a gourmet meal they don’t have to cook themselves or get in the car to go eat. And it’s the Culinary Coast™©®! Why can’t I get Pomodoro Pizza to deliver that awesome white pizza to my door?
But these days, my foodie concerns are a lot more dire. As spring arrives in the area, many of our local restaurants are either re-opening after a long winter with no revenue or are just getting through a quiet period with comparatively little revenue, getting ready to start making the money that’ll let them mark 2020 as a profitable year.
Two weeks can be the difference between survival and closing your doors in an industry that operates with comparatively slim margins and perishable inventory, let alone one that is even partly seasonal. A loss of dine-in and bar business, followed by weeks of people told to stay home unless absolutely necessary — it could push some of our local eateries to the brink. even before Memorial Day, when they’d normally be approaching the height of their yearly business.
That’s a huge loss to local foodies, but in the scheme of things, it’s the ripple effect that could potentially change the local economy forever. Restaurant employees laid off, left suddenly without income; tenants unable to pay rent; landlords wondering how they’ll pay their own mortgages or for needed maintenance; electricians, plumbers, handymen and more with lost work; local businesses of all kinds seeing a downturn in business due to their customers struggling financially.
And, with a shelter-in-place in order as of Tuesday this week, even those businesses with stable inventory that can be sold weeks or months later, or that provide intangible services, will suffer losses, whether because of the cascading impact of restaurant closures, and those of spas, gyms, salons, movie theaters, or because they themselves are closed. As those employers struggle, they’ll face the same terrible choices restaurateurs are having to make now.
What will things look like by the time summer arrives? Assuming we’re clear of the pandemic by Memorial Day, will we already be looking at some empty storefronts and empty tables? And what becomes of the larger local economy then?
This isn’t a unique problem to our area, but it is one that disproportionately impacts our area, as heavily as it relies upon the hospitality and tourism industries. Without extra support, only businesses that have substantial savings or corporate backing will comfortably weather this challenging time.
I know this paints a bleak picture of a possible future, and we should definitely be asking what can be done.
I’ve got some ideas. (As our publisher and executive editor will tell you — I’ve always got ideas.) Now, I’m not a business expert or economist, but I do know that, where people can afford to, continuing to patronize our local restaurants, our local businesses, is absolutely vital right now. And even with a stay-at-home order in place, we're still allowed to order take-out and delivery — so let's do that! It takes some of the routine out of staying at home, and it supports a business that we value and that can stay open, if we just support it.
A social media post I spotted over the weekend offered ideas on how to handle this pandemic: Wash your hands, wait 24 hours to open packages, stop your salon visits and dance lessons, cancel your newspaper subscription…
Now, we aren’t a subscriber-supported newspaper. (We rely upon ad sales, online and in print, which is a whole other reason to be concerned about rippling impacts of this situation.) But if everybody stops subscribing to their local newspapers, we soon won’t have any local newspapers — especially the small, independent ones that report on local sports, local businesses, town council meetings, weddings, anniversaries… For some of these newspapers, a week or two of poor ad sales could be the end, and others will rely upon subscriptions to allow them to survive.
So. Yeah. Don’t do that. Switch to a digital subscription if you need to. Buy an ad thanking the people who are going above and beyond at this difficult time. If you like to dis the “mainstream media,” the last thing you want is to kill your local independent newsroom.
And those dance lessons? The salon visits? Well, you’re wise to avoid those for a while, and government is, wisely, not allowing you much choice about doing something that inherently puts people in close contact during a pandemic. But, if you can afford to, why not continue to pay for the dance lessons, or the personal training, and put the funds on account to use once that’s back on the table? Why not buy a gift card from the salon that you can use once it’s safe to be out and about again?
I know not everyone can do that, but if those who can do it (really, you’d be paying out the money anyway if things were operating as normal now — you’ll just have some delayed gratification) will commit to doing it, there’s a good chance many of our local small businesses can survive a few weeks of closure. And if a business is valuable enough to you to patronize regularly, are they not worth keeping around?
The same goes for all those great local restaurants — if you want to eat out there this summer, now’s the time to order carry-out or delivery, and to do it regularly. We’ve got a frequently updated list on our website at coastalpoint.com that lets you know about restaurants that are staying open with curbside pickup or even ready to drop your food off at your door. And, even if they decide to close up for a few weeks, you have the option to buy gift cards now that you’ll use once things are stable again. (Don’t use the gift cards you’ve already got right now — the restaurants need new revenue coming in!)
If we give them enough business, maybe waitstaff becomes delivery drivers or curbside carry-out facilitators for a month or so, and then they’ll have some income to pay their bills, and we stave off the snowball of business closures and the potential loss of many of the things that make this area such a great place to live, and to visit.
I want to take a moment here to make note of some of the generous ways, in the best spirit of this community, that local businesses have contributed to keeping our local economy going during this difficult time.
Several local restaurants have offered to take all tips given during this time and put them into funds to support their laid-off waitstaff — so if you’re ordering that carry-out meal, tip and tip generously! Hocker’s Super Center brought in not one, but two, truckloads of 10-pound bags of Mountaire chicken so that people who need to stock up and avoid frequent grocery runs can do so.
Numerous local individuals, businesses and groups are supporting efforts to feed kids and families that rely upon schools for meals, and many others have started volunteering their free time to help housebound neighbors and other vulnerable people in the community.
And in a move that is near and dear to my heart, the Highway One group, which operates several Dewey Beach restaurants and bars, made the decision to pay all of the musicians that had been scheduled to play during the mandatory closure, as well as the technical support staff for those gigs, even though those performances will not happen and they won’t be getting the revenue they would have gotten from them.
It’s hard for local and regional musicians to make a living at their music anymore. Gone are the days when restaurants and bars had live music five, six or seven nights a week. These days, two is the norm, and most musicians also need a “day-job” just to support themselves and their families, and in many cases, they still rely upon their gig pay to make ends meet.
This area has a bevy of extremely talented musicians who make our leisure time here all the more enjoyable, and keeping a musician paid as they would be if they were playing out every weekend, instead of having to take a second job delivering pizzas on Friday and Saturday nights, in direct conflict with those gig hours, means we’ll have live music to enjoy in the days to come.
That’s the kind of thing that we don’t want to lose to this pandemic, the same way we don’t want to lose any of our restaurants or our wonderful seaside community spirit. So, while you're ordering out, ask for your favorite bands to go back on the entertainment calendar as soon as that's possible, and see if they've set up a virtual tip-jar to go with any online performances, or even just offer them a tip for all the fun times they've already given you.
We’ve got some rough days ahead of us. There is no doubt of that. Right now, everyone needs to stay home if at all possible, and the State is prepared to enforce that, with good reason. But once we come out the other side of this challenging time, I am hopeful that we will have the same kind of strong, vibrant, caring, thriving community that has brought so many of us here and given us lives we enjoy.
All that is needed to ensure that is for all of us to pull together and support each other, to be strong together. Preferably, fortified with a slice of white pizza and a bowl of cream-of-crab soup.