“When I was in the Army, I got a crash course on live management processes and just-in-time forecasting,” says Anthony Coggiola, who with his wife, Sherrye Coggiola, owns The Cantina at Historic Biltmore Village. Little did he know how relevant that training would be as the couple faced the challenge of running a restaurant in the time of COVID-19.
The task is daunting and multifaceted: paying rent and bills; navigating loans and grants; remaining relevant; figuring out when and how to offer service; instilling confidence in diners that you are operating with their well-being in mind; and, just as imperative, keeping staff safe and healthy as they work.
Anthony says there are many resources available to the local food service industry. “In Asheville, AIR [Asheville Independent Restaurant Association] has been invaluable. NCRLA [North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association] has been incredible. No one in this business should feel like they are alone in this; they are not.”
The Coggiolas decided to close entirely in mid-March rather than pivoting to takeout. “We have a big restaurant [260 seats], and we never really did takeout very well, so we opted to cease operations and use the opportunity to better our systems and evaluate our processes,” Anthony says.
Getting it right
Jeff Miller, owner of Luella’s Bar-B-Que, shifted immediately to takeout for both his original location on Merrimon Avenue and his second in Biltmore Park Town Square, though within a week he temporarily halted takeout from the South Asheville store. “There was so much change so rapidly, we felt the best thing to do was put all our attention on one store and get that right,” he says. “We wanted to serve the community as long as we felt it was safe to do that, for customers and our team. We feel confident we are doing that.”
Like the Coggiolas, Miller also turned to AIR for guidance, and all staff members are taking part in the Count on Me NC state program, created through the NCRLA and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. The site provides guides and free online training courses tailored specifically for owners and operators, front-of-house and back-of-house staff. Other aids include detailed guidelines for restaurants covering topics from face masks and distancing to water and ventilation systems, with links to additional resources, signage templates and, critically, an employee symptom screening checklist.
That list provides several health- and exposure-related questions and is now as key to in-house operations as menus are to guests. “When staff report to work, they mask before they enter the building,” says Rich Cundiff, who with wife Lauren Cundiff owns Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack. “They read the checklist, circle the answers to the questions and sign it. We take their temperature, make sure they have their PPE on properly and send them to work.”
Even before the executive order was issued, the Cundiffs closed both Rocky’s locations to all but takeout, which accounted for about 20% of their business pre-COVID and is now 100%. “Our systems have evolved as we have gotten more data, and we feel confident we have a very tight system at this point,” says Rich.
But it’s not foolproof, as he discovered when an employee did not truthfully answer the required questionnaire. “They said they had not been exposed when, in fact, they had been exposed at their other job,” Rich explains. “When we found out, we immediately worked with the Health Department to do contact tracing, got everyone with any potential contact tested and kept them home from work until the tests came back. We were relieved they all came back negative, and we intend to keep it that way.”
All three restaurateurs note that social distancing is more problematic in kitchens than in front of the house, but they have adapted. “It’s close to impossible to maintain 6 feet of distance on a production line in a kitchen,” Miller acknowledges. “In our Merrimon location, the line is more of a square, with a walk-in cooler on one side and bathrooms on another. We can’t change it, and it is what it is. Face masks are required at all times, and we ask people to spread out as much as they can.”
Cundiff adds, “We have done a lot of experimenting with what works in the kitchen because communicating is so critical. Each employee has found what they prefer — a mask or face shield — but either way, they have to have something completely covering their mouth and nose. We are able to distance some kitchen positions at about 6 feet, but not always. We work with what we have, and it’s working.”
In the 12 weeks Cantina was completely closed to customers, Coggiola says, they took the kitchen down to the walls, did a deep clean, replaced the floor, took all the equipment outside, where it was cleaned and sterilized, then reinstalled it. “We weren’t making any money, but we didn’t waste any time either,” he says with a laugh.
While all three restaurateurs are adhering to and grateful for uniform health and safety guidelines and mandates — particularly as it involves mask-wearing by guests — every restaurant is following its own instincts and tapping creative solutions for customer-facing operations.
Miller resumed business hours at the Luella’s Biltmore Park location July 7 with a new system in place. “We are still not opening either dining room, but that neighborhood wants to sit down to eat, so we moved our dining room to a covered breezeway. Customers go to a station outside the restaurant, order, pay and then take a seat at an assigned table, where we bring them their food. We call it Order-Pay-Dine,” he explains. “At Merrimon, some customers pick up their takeout and sit at the spaced tables on our patio. We’re expanding that into our parking lot and will add Order-Pay-Dine there, too.”
With the money Rocky’s was awarded from the Buncombe County Tourism Jobs Development Fund, Cundiff is adding free-standing shacks to both of his locations. “The idea came to us as a group when we were looking at the buildings and thinking, ‘As long as we are sticking to takeout, what can we do to make it better?’ We’re using the money to build little shacks where we can bring the order out, and then take to your car. We’ll keep a small fridge in each shack for extra dip and other things that need to be cold.”
The Coggiolas decided to reopen Cantina for distanced outdoor and dine-in service at 50% capacity on June 4, but first, they held a dress rehearsal using staff and their families to test out the new systems and policies they created for customers, which include required reservations and limited seating times. “We had some of them make reservations so we could test that; some were walk-up,” says Anthony. “We tested signage, distancing, tape on the floor and the new flow for everyone — customers, service staff and kitchen. We brought everyone back the next day to talk it through, what went right, what went wrong and how to improve. Another thing I have never forgotten from my military days is, ‘If you fail to plan, plan to fail.’ Restaurant people are resilient, determined and creative. I believe we can do this.”