What it’s like to be a Madison restaurant in the time of COVID-19

As the coronavirus spread throughout the country, local restaurants had to find new ways to operate.
Virginie Ok staring out of a window at La Kitchenette
Photo by Nikki Hansen
Virginie Ok

After a fairly typical brunch service at La Kitchenette on Sunday, March 15, owner and chef Virginie Ok made the difficult decision to shut down the restaurant. While people in Madison were just beginning to comprehend what the global coronavirus pandemic would mean for the community, Ok had been watching the story unfold in her hometown of Paris, France. “In Europe everything is going so fast, they are ahead of us,” Ok says. “I could see how bad it was getting.”

After telling her staff, Ok made the announcement on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “To our beloved customers,” she wrote. “Considering what is happening to our friends and family abroad, and more specifically in France, we realize how important it is to anticipate the spread of the COVID-19 and help [minimize] its impact on our community. It is with a heavy heart that we are taking the decision to close the restaurant.”

Ok went home and says she cried all afternoon.

The following Sunday morning, Ok was home when ordinarily she would have been in her restaurant’s kitchen, preparing orders of green French toast and savory buckwheat crepes for 80 to 90 people. “I’m still processing,” she says. Ok made the decision to close because she was worried about the safety of the Madison community. “If we keep open, it’s dangerous for everyone,” Ok says. Before it got too late, she says she wanted to be ahead of the curve instead of waiting for government regulations.

La Kitchenette’s dining area seats 26. Usually described as “cozy,” the restaurant’s intimate atmosphere becomes claustrophobic and potentially dangerous during a pandemic.

One of Ok’s main concerns was her staff. “I told them, ‘I don’t want there to be a risk for you,’ ” she says. Two days after Ok decided to close La Kitchenette, Gov. Tony Evers ordered all restaurants and bars in Wisconsin to shut down their dining areas by 5 p.m.

Virginie Ok sitting in front of her empty restaurant

Photo by Nikki Hansen

Virginie Ok at La Kitchenette

Tami Lax, owner of Harvest and The Old Fashioned, was also paying attention to the news. “It’s inevitable, right?” Lax remembers thinking. “It was hitting Seattle and San Francisco and I’m like, ‘We will not get missed by this.’ ” Lax and Greta Seckman — who helped with the original concept of Harvest — came up with a plan to launch a project, Harvest Go, which would feature a new website with a bistro-style menu for carryout. As she anticipated drastic changes when the pandemic came to Madison, Lax’s motivation was her staff. “Restaurants and the people who work in them literally live hand-to-mouth and none of us have these big reserves to float [during] a crisis of this type,” she says. “I wanted to figure out how I can at least employ people part time and give them a cash flow. That’s really what this was born out of.”

Lax started working on the website the weekend of March 6 but didn’t tell her employees until the night before she launched it on Monday, March 16. (Harvest’s dining area gradually closed the week of March 9, but officially closed on March 13.) Lax was worried about the ever-changing restrictions. “What if we announce [Harvest Go] and then they say restaurants can’t prepare food?” she says. But this fear didn’t come to fruition; restaurants were still allowed to make food for carryout even after Gov. Evers’ Safer at Home went into effect on March 25.

Featuring upscale comfort food including beet salads and coq au vin, Harvest Go’s menu offers items available for curbside pickup or delivery. Forgoing a delivery service, Lax enlisted her waitstaff to deliver meals. A $10 handling fee and any additional tips go “directly into staff’s hands at the end of the night,” she says.

Lax’s goal with Harvest Go was to create something sustainable long term. “I wasn’t feeling very optimistic that it was only going to be two weeks,” she says. “To take restaurant people and tell them that they have to stay in their house and be alone and be stressed out … I wanted to give people a reason to keep moving.”

While the restaurant is not benefiting financially from the carryout service, Lax is happy she could keep people employed. As for her restaurants, “I’m still trying to figure out what to do about that. I’ve applied for several loans and hopefully all of this talk of help is going to materialize,” Lax says. “There are a lot of restaurants that will not survive this.”

Just a few blocks from Harvest, Parthenon Gyros has operated on State Street for 48 years. It’s a jovial spot known for its gyros, fries and occasional shots of ouzo. In mid-March, owners Erin and Dimitri Vranas worked around the clock to keep up with the new restrictions.

“Things have been really complicated and pretty confusing the last few days because it seems like everything is changing really by the hour,” Erin Vranas says about the first few weeks of the pandemic. After making the decision to continue operating, the Vranases worked quickly to enact new sanitation procedures, change employees’ schedules and modify the restaurant’s hours.

“It’s been an interesting ride,” says Erin Vranas. “The 6-foot rule came out first. … We closed off tables and put a sign on our counter where people order saying ‘please maintain 6-foot distance.’” Once Erin Vranas got the announcement that all dining areas were required to close, she made sure that no more than 10 people were in the restaurant, including staff.

Erin and Dimitri Vranas standing in front of Parthenon Gyros

Erin and Dimitri Vranas

In addition to keeping up with restrictions, the Vranases launched an online ordering platform and added curbside pickup. They also created meal kits with all profits going to their employee relief fund. “We could close our doors and shut it all down and wait for this all to pass,” says Erin Vranas. “But we told our staff we are going to do everything we can to keep them employed, to keep their paychecks coming, so we’re just trying to do everything we can to maintain the business, maintain some sort of normalcy.”

Erin Vranas can only guess what the future holds. “It’s literally a day-by-day game at this point,” she says. “Our goal is to stay open. Who knows what losses we are going to sustain, but our goal is [to] keep paying our employees.”

Elizabeth Garcia Hall, director of hospitality for Food Fight, doesn’t mince words when describing the situation. “We’re all in the same hell,” she says. A locally owned and operated restaurant group, Food Fight oversees 20 restaurants in the Madison area, including Hubbard Avenue Diner and Bar Corallini, and employs more than 1,000 people.

Looking ahead, Garcia Hall says no one has a timeline. “It’s such uncharted waters,” she says.

Looking back, Garcia Hall recalls the rapid changes. On March 13, Food Fight pulled everything off the tables in all of its restaurants. “No napkin holders, no creamers, no jellies,” Garcia Hall says. Over the weekend the restaurants started following social-distancing protocols and seating people at every other table. “You go into the dark restaurant as they are opening and there were table tents or big folded papers with a big black ‘X’ on them,” says Garcia Hall. “It was kind of haunting.” As some of the group’s restaurants shut down entirely and others went down to skeleton crews, by Tuesday, March 17, Food Fight announced it would furlough 750 employees, and that number has since grown. Garcia Hall tears up when she talks about it. “We are big but we are still a family,” she says. “They are the people we love.”

For the restaurants doing carryout, Garcia Hall hopes that as business picks up they can bring more employees back to work. She is also overwhelmed by people’s generosity including the person at Monty’s Blue Plate Diner who tipped $1,000 — to be shared among the staff — on a $2.73 check. Something similar happened at Hubbard Avenue Diner. “I got a message from someone who said, ‘I go to Hubbard every Wednesday morning with my group of friends and we would like to give $1,800 to the staff to help them through this,’ ” Garcia Hall recalls. “It kind of makes me fall apart … People are being so human right now. That gives me hope.”

On Friday, March 27 — nearly two weeks after shutting down — Ok reopened La Kitchenette’s doors for carryout service. While Ok used her time at home to finish the restaurant’s website and develop new recipes, she was ready to return to work and offer her employees the opportunity to do the same. Ok says she is taking it day by day. “We don’t know what the future will be, but we have to do something,” she says. “We have to try.”

Erica Krug is a local food writer.