Dining Revival

Rookie restaurants and stalwart veterans bring vitality to battered sector

Posted

Staffing shortages, supply chain issues, inflation, an unprecedented global pandemic: These trademarks of 2021 stirred up a perfect storm for restaurant owners. According to the Rhode Island Hospitality Association’s Economic Impact study, the pandemic hit Washington and Newport county restaurants hardest. South County saw a 17 percent drop in revenue while Newport saw a whopping 26 percent.

But even through the tempest, intrepid restaurant owners soldiered on. Some even opened new eateries. “Now is not a bad time to do it,” says Johnson & Wales University professor Michael J. Sabitoni. This logic seems counter-intuitive, but with restaurants operating on paper-thin margins during the best of times, he notes, “The landscape has changed. We learned a lot. Restaurants needed to adapt and be more flexible. Now we have the information out there to be successful.”

Forging Ahead 

Mark Bryson, chef and owner of Duck Press in Wakefield, already owned the successful Binge BBQ in Newport. But a liquor license on the island proved elusive, and the classically trained chef, whose experience includes the Michelin-starred Cyrus in Sonoma County, wanted to stretch himself creatively. He started conversations with the owner of Mary Murphy’s, an Irish Pub on Main Street in Wakefield, about taking over the space while the pandemic raged during the summer of 2020.

“We were in a pandemic, so I was in no hurry,” Bryson says. They came to an agreement in January of this year. By July, Duck Press was up and running.

“We had been looking for places for almost two years,” Ritu Thapa, manager of the newly opened Taj Indian Restaurant and Bar in South Kingstown, shares over an order of Mo:Mo, a Nepalese dumpling smothered in a spicy chili sauce.

Her father, a veteran of Rasa in East Greenwich, and uncle, who owned Masala in North Providence, hunted for a location all over the state. The spot they found in South County Commons housed an Indian restaurant before they arrived, so it was practically a turnkey operation.

After they signed the lease, they spent three months preparing and waiting for the right time to open their doors. “Finally, we looked at each other and said, ‘let’s just open,’” Thapa says. “The pandemic set us back but we had to look at the bigger picture.”

Meanwhile, opening the Sly Fox Den Too in Charlestown was born partly out of necessity. Owner Sherry Pocknett had a wildly successful catering business, bringing her Indigenous gourmet cuisine to events on Ivy League campuses and museums (including the Smithsonian). The pandemic wiped out her business.

Pocknett stumbled upon the cozy location, once the site of the Gentleman Farmer, on her way home from a ceremony in Charlestown last year. She came to an agreement with the landlord and opened her doors a few months later. Pandemic or not, “it was the right time,” she says.

Christian D’Agostino echoes this sentiment. He is in the unique position of guiding two existing restaurants (Tavern on Main in Wakefield and East Greenwich) through the pandemic and opening a third, The Coastal Cabin, in Narragansett this past July.

“I wanted comfort food with a cabin feel,” he says. The menu is inspired by his time in the Midwest, an area of the country that’s turned comfort food into an art form, apparent in the Braised Short Rib entree and sides like the Smoked Gouda Hashbrowns. Housed in the former Catarina’s Italian Village on Boston Neck Road, the availability of the space was the impetus for D’Agostino to open his new concept. “It was not an ideal time to open a restaurant,” he admits, “but sometimes there are just good deals out there.”

“I would have never done this without (Catarina owner) Anthony Mello,” D’Agostino continues. “He wanted me to take over Catarina’s. With his help, I could minimize the risk.”

Supply and Demand 

Right now, viability means restaurants need to be nimble. Because of the now ubiquitous supply chain issues and higher costs for goods, “restaurants need the flexibility to eighty-six items from the menu quickly,” says Sabitoni.

With shortages of everything from chicken to takeout containers around the world, getting products proved tough throughout the summer. “There was even a ketchup shortage,” says an incredulous Jim Petrella, owner of Galilee’s iconic Jimmy’s Portside.

The skyrocketing cost of seafood forced him to increase his prices. “A red tide in Massachusetts made us more dependent on Maine for steamers. The cost went from $150 to $325 to $400 a bushel,” says Petrella. “We’ve been here for 65 years. We can’t shut our doors and just quit. You adjust to the times and serve the best product possible.”

The Cove in Charlestown coped with similar shortages. “In 21 years, I’ve never run out of calamari,” says owner Robin Justice. “A month ago, I couldn’t get it.”

“We made accommodations,” says the Mariner Grille’s manager Cynthia Niles, noting the high price of lobster. “No one is going to pay $40 for a lobster roll, so we eliminated it from the menu for a while.”

“We all have the same purveyors,” The Cove’s Justice notes, saying that she, too, had to raise her prices to compensate.

For new restaurants, too, shortages have kept owners on their toes. With a lineup of craft beers and boutique wines, Duck Press’ menu reflects Bryson’s Michelin star experience (think confit duck leg and smoked bluefish beignets), a vision he didn’t want to sacrifice. The menu changes weekly and features items from local farms and butchers, which helps curb some of the supply chain issues.

Meanwhile, Taj resorted to Amazon and Party City for to-go containers when shortages delayed their order. “They were expensive and flimsy,” Thapa notes, “but we did what we had to do to keep the
customers happy.”

Sly Fox Den Too’s menu, with its focus on in-season foods, features many locally sourced items. Pocknett, a member of the Wampanoag tribe from Mashpee, says, “I grew up living off the land,” sharing that her love for cooking blossomed with a childhood gift of an Easy Bake Oven.

Even though Pocknett works with local farms and often forages for the items that make it onto her plates, her new restaurant didn’t escape supply issues. But she’d rather talk about searching for beach plums last weekend or her upcoming plans to forage for sassafras than dwell on things out of her control. “I’m really happy in my career,” she says. “I am 61 years old. It took me a long time to realize my dream.”

All Hands on Deck

This summer, Jimmy’s Portside became a family affair. Petrella enlisted his 64-year-old mom to take orders at the takeout window. His wife Vanessa, who normally runs front-of-house, joined him in the kitchen for the first time. “She’s good, thank God. I couldn’t do this without her.”

They didn’t open their dining room to full service, opting to continue a takeout-only model implemented since the pandemic began. “The kitchen can’t handle it,” he says, noting the summer crowds. “Everyone’s been cooped up for a year. The rentals are packed every week.”

For the first time in 21 years, The Cove is closed on Mondays so staff can recharge. “It was a lot to expect of our staff, too much,” Justice says, noting every single member of her staff returned to work. “My head cook has been with me since the day we opened. The rest of my kitchen help has been here 19 or 20 years.”

“I tell my staff, you’re mine until I say you can go! I won’t let them leave,” she jokes of their longevity. All kidding aside, she adds, “We went from 10 mph to 100 mph. I don’t want to burn out my kitchen or my waitstaff. They are giving 110 percent all the time.”

Remaining open for takeaway during COVID allowed the Mariner Grille to keep core staff, particularly in the kitchen, employed. “We were one of the few restaurants in the area doing takeout, so we gained new customers.” Keeping that staff was key, Niles says, noting that many of their cooks have been with Mariner Grille for over a decade.

With the return of indoor dining combined with the summer crowds, dinner service exploded. “Parties of 14 and 15,” Niles says, citing the desire for family and friends getting together after a long year-plus of isolation. Because of the bustling dining room, they shut off delivery
between 5pm and 8pm, so a rush of orders didn’t crush the kitchen staff.

Staffing issues forced Duck Press’ Bryson to close Binge BBQ’s Newport storefront, opting to focus solely on its successful catering operation. The decision was difficult, but after losing two cooks, “I knew it was fragile,” he says. He didn’t want to sacrifice the quality at either restaurant because he was spread too thin.

D’Agostino has been careful with the hours of operation at both Tavern on Main locations and at The Coastal Cabin, opening Wednesday through Sunday. They limit the number of patrons in the establishment at one time, not because of COVID protocols, but to keep his staff from getting overwhelmed.

Thapa relays that staffing has been relatively easy at Taj. Like Jimmy’s Portside, the entire family is pitching in. Thapa’s father and uncle are manning the kitchen while she and her brother handle the front-of-house. They are working 80-hour weeks and have not had a day off since opening in mid-July. The pace is not sustainable, she admits, so they plan on adjusting their hours in the fall to allow for a day off.

While Sly Fox Den Too’s staff is mostly family as well, Pocknett is struggling to find a cook to take over the breakfast shift so she can focus on dinner. “I love cooking at night because I like to show off,” she jokes. They have dinner service on Friday and Saturday only, but she’d like to expand those hours.

Price increases, labor shortages, and various mandates have made operating more difficult, but, The Coastal Cabin’s D’Agostino notes, “You can’t cut the quality of the food. You can’t cut the quality of your labor. So you see where you can cut. You act quickly and see where you can make adjustments.”

Looking Forward 

As the Delta variant threatens to upend progress, the industry may need to adjust once again. “Restaurateurs always had to be creative and have an adaptability mindset,”
notes Sabitoni.

Petrella and his family adapted by working harder. “We get in at 5:30 in the morning instead of 7:30. We work until one in the morning. We gotta survive. It’s been our livelihood since 1956.”

“You just deal,” says The Cove’s Justice. “I’m grateful to the people supporting me and coming back daily and weekly.”

Pandemic or not, Duck Press’ Bryson and his family are all-in on South County, even selling their house in Newport to move to Narragansett. “Hospitality is not easy,” he notes with a shrug.

At Sly Fox Den Too, Pocknett is excited for her favorite season. “Fall is for comfort food – duck, steamers, rabbit, cranberries. It’s fun to show people that rabbit is really good!” She’s hoping to release a cookbook in December and is considering the logistics of putting together a Native American Thanksgiving featuring traditional food and entertainment.

Niles is looking forward to the fall lull to give the Mariner Grille’s staff a well-earned breather. Plus, she notes, “A lot of our regulars won’t come in during the summer. We’re looking forward to seeing their
faces again.” 

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here