The Evolving Sandhills Food Scene

07 Jun 2020

Owners and Chefs Reflect on the Way Forward

By RAY LINVILLE  »  Photos by Mollie Tobias

As difficult as living during the coronavirus pandemic has been, it has helped everyone understand how valuable the dining scene is in the Sandhills — for owners, chefs, staff, suppliers, and customers.

First and perhaps most important is a sense of appreciation: customers for their favorite places to eat, and owners and chefs for loyal customers and staff. We all miss sitting down in our beloved restaurants, but do you realize how much the owners, chefs, and staff miss you?

“We’ve really been blessed with community support and valuable employees. This town is just awesome,” says Kitty Hopkins, co-owner of CHAPMAN’S FOOD & SPIRITS with chef Peter Hamm.

Karen Margolis, co-owner of SCOTT’S TABLE with the chef and her husband Scott, expresses similar sentiments. “We feel so blessed by the community. The folks supporting us have been so amazing. The amount of love — it’s overwhelming and humbling to be on the receiving end of that kind of care. It’s our business [as restauranteurs] to create such care for others, and we love doing it,” she says.

“This area was a wonderful food scene. We’re hoping to return to some sense of normalcy,” she adds.

The pandemic has also shown restaurant owners that they are one community and has brought them closer together to share lessons and experiences as they deal with the challenges of operating under mandated restrictions and plan to expand services as the coronavirus risks hopefully subside. Several restauranteurs have collaborated to feed local healthcare workers in appreciation of their dedication to our area.

The sense of community also bought others together to serve meals to restaurant workers at ASHTEN’S RESTAURANT & PUB when their businesses were being closed. “We wanted to make sure everyone was being fed,” says Ashley Van Camp, owner of Ashten’s.

“It was really important to do this for workers who were not receiving any check or unemployment benefits. We had a lot of volunteers. We are all one community, even though we are competing for the same customers,” she adds.

Margolis is very appreciative of how the local restaurant owners have met regularly, shared how their businesses have been affected, assessed what the future may hold, and discussed what they can do together to voice concerns to state and local leaders. She hopes that they can maintain the group and continue their advocacy in the future.

The Moore County Food Service Group was formed and communicates regularly on Facebook. Another initiative has been Moore County Take-Out and Delivery Options, a Facebook group, that lets everyone know specials of the day. In addition, #SaveOurServiceIndustry is a unifying phrase that connects posts on social media.

Another important lesson learned during the pandemic is the value of
takeout — both to customers as well as to owners. Takeout has obviously been important in serving customers when sit-down dining was stopped. Most owners expect it will continue to be important, even more than in the past, if customers are concerned with dining in enclosed spaces.

The state guidelines still encourage “vulnerable populations to continue staying home.” Even after Phase 2, the guidelines call for lessening restrictions for vulnerable populations but with “encouragement to continue practicing physical distancing.”

“Much of our clientele is elderly. Even my own dad is about to turn 96, and he hasn’t left his house in weeks. This situation puts restaurants in a precarious position. Lots of people won’t go out to eat but will want the to-go option,” says Steve Grasso, who with his wife Jackie own and operate BROAD STREET BAKERY & CAFÉ.

“Takeout will be primary in the foreseeable future regardless of sanitation precautions or safeguards to make people feel confident,” he adds.

At THE MARKET PLACE, owner Luke Black says, “Takeout and delivery have been good,” and he expects them to continue as main ways of serving customers.

At Scott’s Table, Margolis says, “We didn’t do delivery before, but we do it now. Whether we continue will depend a lot on what we can do internally, but takeout won’t go away.”

As restaurants start to open but are restricted in capacity, outdoor spaces that have been popular in the summer become even more desirable.

“With 35 seats on our outdoor patio, we expect many customers will appreciate our outside space, particularly parties that we cater in the evenings. Lots of graduation parties that have been postponed will be rebooked,” says Black.

Expanding outside seating was already in the plans for Chapman’s before the coronavirus arrived. “During the spring we added an outdoor patio in the back but haven’t been able to open it yet. When we do, we’ll make sure that everyone respects social distances,” Hopkins says.

Broad Street Bakery has a delightful street scene from its front porch, and Grasso anticipates it will be even more important. He expects that capacity restrictions may cause him initially to lose 50 to 60 percent of his indoor floor space.

“Plus we’re not going to turn tables two or three times during lunchtime like before,” Grasso adds. He also would like local jurisdictions to permit restaurants to put tables in a street like some cities are doing, so more customers can be served outside.

When some capacity restrictions are removed, how will local restaurants
be affected?

For The Market Place, Black says, “We plan to open as soon as possible — but only at 100 percent. We won’t operate at half capacity.”

The time that his inside space has been closed to customers has given him the opportunity to plan a new format. “We’ll become ‘fast casual.’ The menu won’t change, but we will change how we operate day-to-day. We’ll no longer use servers; customers will order at the counter and get a number for their orders,” Black adds.

Similarly, Ashten’s doesn’t plan to open initially if the capacity is very restricted. “We may not open right away. Working at a very reduced capacity is not feasible. We won’t reopen until it’s a lot safer — when we feel it’s safe for our guests and staff. We’ll reopen when the [permitted] capacity is at least 50 percent,” says Van Camp.

At Scott’s Table, Margolis says, “Reopening depends on restrictions. No one has given enough information for us to start planning. It won’t be the same. We may be reservation only to stay within the restrictions.”

However, inside service is important. “We’re holding our own now, but we need to have the dining room open. We’ve already taken the time to plan for that: high sanitation practices, hand sanitizers for entrances, disinfectants for tables, everything. We will take a lot of measures and maintain the required social distances,” says Hopkins of Chapman’s.

Having a “flexible menu” seems to be necessary in the times of food shortages and interruptions in supply chain deliveries.

With Hopkins’ prior experience as a territory manager for a food service company, she is well prepared to address the near-term challenges. “We have to buy produce a week out. We really don’t know what we’re getting until it lands on the dock, but we are very communicative with the supplier, and we’re taking more inventory to stay ahead.

“We’ve also taken some items off the menu,” she adds.

The current environment reminds Grasso of the 1993 move “Groundhog Day” when every day that actor Bill Murray wakes up is a repeat of the previous day. Grasso says, “It’s a tricky situation. I wake up every day, and it’s the same thing all over again — but different. All I can see is his face.”

Let’s hope that soon the Groundhog Day scenario ends, a sense of normalcy returns to the Sandhills food scene, and everyone can appreciate each other over a wonderful meal.

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