What’s next for Madison’s food scene?

What will our local restaurants do to stay alive through the winter and beyond?
Jamie Hoang and Chuckie Brown Sitting next to takeout boxes
Jamie Hoang (pictured left) and Chuckie Brown found a home for their restaurant Ahan in The Bur Oak.
Photo by Nikki Hansen

Walking into a restaurant is a completely different experience from last winter. Facial expressions are guarded by masks, hand sanitizer bottles can be found everywhere you look and sectioned-off dining rooms are eerily quiet. They’re a far cry from the bustling havens of activity they once were. The pleasures of special customer-service treatment and socializing have lost some of their shine. In some extreme cases, restaurant dining can even be achieved with almost no human contact whatsoever.

This is not the dining scenario that most of us crave. More importantly, this is not why restaurant workers get into this business. The unusual events that have unfolded since the pandemic began in March have left many Madison restaurants in an unfortunate spot, and tough decisions have become part of the new normal.

Following an unparalleled summer and fall — seasons that typically boost eateries’ bottom lines through winter — the restaurants that have survived look ahead with anxiety, searching for ways to adapt.

In 2019, restaurant and food service jobs accounted for 9% of employment in Wisconsin and the industry was considered one of the fastest-growing and largest private employers in the state. Even before the pandemic hit, the industry was rife with hardships and challenges, including thin profit margins, rising food costs and high-stress workplace environments.

While many businesses shifted to work-from-home models in mid-March, that wasn’t feasible for restaurants. Dave Heide, owner of Liliana’s, called every staff member individually to determine their needs. Many opted to take unemployment, but Heide made sure to find odd jobs for those who didn’t. From the beginning, Heide has used his platform to spread goodwill. He’s provided meals for Reach Dane, created NOM NOM NOM baskets to support local farmers and continued to make progress on his pay-what-you-can Little John’s concept to feed Dane County’s homeless and food insecure populations.

Heide closed Charlie’s on Main permanently in October, but he continues to do business at Liliana’s. When announcing the closure, Heide says Charlie’s on Main went from doing almost $20,000 a week in sales to $2,000.

He’s still doing takeout-only at Liliana’s and says he’ll open his dining room only if local COVID-19 cases drop consistently for two weeks, but that hasn’t happened. Worried about acquiring more debt, Heide initially stuck his Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program money into savings. With loan forgiveness a certainty, he forecasts the funds could keep Liliana’s open until at least March 2021 if things continue on their current trajectory. “Maybe we’ll stick it out long enough to be one of the few small, independent restaurants left,” Heide says semi-optimistically.

Dave Heide in his empty restaurant, Liliana's

Dave Heide of Liliana’s has kept the dining room closed since March, with plans to open only if local cases drop for two consecutive weeks. Photo by Romulo Ueda

The National Restaurant Association surveyed 3,500 restaurant operators from Aug. 26-Sept. 1 and found that 68% of Wisconsin operators say they don’t expect sales to return to pre-COVID-19 levels within the next six months. Thirty-three percent of Wisconsin operators also reported that if business conditions continue as they’ve been, they won’t be in business six months from now. In October, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association said one in 10 restaurants have permanently closed in the state.

Many local establishments have announced temporary winter closures in hopes of reopening in the spring or when the number of COVID-19 cases decrease. Food Fight Restaurant Group, which owns 20 restaurants in the area, has temporarily closed Avenue Club and the Bubble Up Bar, Fresco and Johnny Delmonico’s Steakhouse for the winter.

The Deja Food Restaurant Group, consisting of Graze, L’Etoile and Estrellón, has completed several rounds of layoffs and used its PPP funds to pay remaining staff and some rent. For two months, half of their income went to rent expenses. Co-owner Tory Miller says they’re in a holding pattern and are hoping the government will come through with more aid. He refers to the Restaurants Act, a $120 billion restaurant revitalization fund.

Miller and The Deja Food Restaurant Group worked with the building owners at Graze and L’Etoile to install a state-of-the-art filtration system that is 99.9% effective at killing SARS and MRSA. L’Etoile is continuing to offer family meals for takeout. Graze and Estrellón closed in-house dining, but continue offering takeout and delivery.

Miller has trepidation heading into winter. The absence of the Dane County Farmers’ Market, the CrossFit Games and Concerts on the Square has devastated all of his restaurants.

“This was the first year in my 18 years in Madison with no graduation weekend. That always signified the start of the building back after winter … if we can just make it to graduation weekend, then we’ll have enough cushion to push through and make it all the way into summer and then we’ll be busy and save up for the winter again,” Miller says. “Obviously there’s nothing you can do about it at this point. The scariest part of the whole thing is not knowing.”

Declining tourism has affected both the restaurant and catering sides of Dan Fox’s business, Heritage Tavern. Large contracts like Concerts on the Square were postponed until 2021, and he’s had to evolve to accommodate new trends in micro-gatherings since weddings and other celebrations have scaled way down. He continues to promote Fox Heritage Farms meats, which did take a hit on the restaurant side but whose sales have grown in consumer retail.

Fox had kept the indoor dining room at Heritage Tavern closed until the end of September when he reopened to 25% capacity. Over the summer he built a large patio space up the hill from his restaurant, but he plans to keep it closed over the winter. He’s also earnestly considered closing down completely in the coldest months of winter.

“It’s very important for us to keep our staff and our customers as safe as possible,” Fox says. “That’s our No. 1.”

In addition, he’s revitalized previously held space in Fitchburg to launch Heritage BBQ & To-Go at McKee Road. Between the two eateries and the meat business, Fox has kept the majority of people employed, but he had to scale back. Regardless of his decision to open indoor dining in winter, he says he will keep his brand alive by continuing to sell meat and chef-driven takeout meals at both locations.

Restaurants that intentionally function on a small scale or adopted a takeout model appear to have adjusted the best. New ventures have even opened up over the past few months, specifically for takeout. Jamie Hoang, formerly of Sujeo and L’Etoile, and partner Chuckie Brown introduced Ahan pre-COVID-19 via pop-ups at the Robin Room. When Hoang was approached by The Bur Oak owners and a mutual friend in June about using the space in The Bur Oak, she seized the opportunity and opened in the Winnebago Street spot in August.

“We were almost sure that we weren’t going to be doing anything until 2021,” Hoang says. “We just didn’t know what was going to happen, but there was really not much choice. Either I have to start this now or just not do anything until who knows when? So I decided to take the opportunity and see what happens.”

Hoang credits the supportive neighborhood they’re in and their takeout model (plus a curbside option) for the steady business. They’re also hoping The Bur Oak, a music venue that has had almost no business since March, will qualify for financial support. “We’re just trying to help each other out as much as we can,” Hoang says. “Hopefully, one day, after COVID, we can be this really unique space.”

Fully aware they were launching a unique experience two years ago and cognizant of the low success rates in the industry, Julie and Noah Przybylski were very intentional in planning for Nook, a 12-seat prix fixe restaurant.

“Honestly, we’re pretty thankful for having our restaurant being as small as it is,” says Julie Przybylski. “I feel like we didn’t have to change too much … There’s more cleaning [and] we’re wearing masks. We thankfully didn’t have to turn our restaurant upside down to get up and running again.”

Current restrictions maintain a capacity of 12 people and outdoor dining is not an option at its location. The team consists of two servers who alternate nights (on really slow nights, the Przybylskis cover it all). While they aren’t booking two months out like they were prior to the pandemic, they’re staying afloat.

Julie Przybylski says weekend reservations are typically booked about a month out, and Wednesday and Thursday are usually open to book until about a week before. One huge boon is having their mortgage paid off — the couple rented out the space while working full-time jobs for several years before opening Nook.

They predict a lot fewer people will be itching to own a restaurant after this, and they hope to see a consumer trend in wanting a small-restaurant experience and atmosphere. “We just want to keep doing what we’re doing,” says Julie Przybylski. “You kind of lose your purpose. That was one big thing that happened after [the shutdown].”

What is happening with restaurants is devastating, especially for owners. “Every single day on my Facebook feed I’m seeing another restaurant closing,” Heide says. “There are a lot of iconic restaurants that I thought would be around for a long time that are just not making it.”

Rachael Stanley of Dottys

Owner Rachael Stanley (pictured) offers takeout at Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry, something she never intended to do pre-COVID-19. Photo by Sharon Vanorny

Thankfully, Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry, a local icon that is no stranger to adversity, is still surviving after 46 years. When Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry made its final move to Frances Street in 2003, Rachael Stanley became a co-owner with her dad — she became the sole owner when her dad died in 2019. And she has no plans to close anytime soon.

“It’s scary. It’s unsettling. But I just refuse to give up,” Stanley says. “Until someone tells me that there’s no other option, I will keep fighting for my business and I know everybody else will in Madison, too.”

Stanley has the support of loyal customers — some of whom are original patrons — and new customers excited to check an icon off their list. Due to a contentious history as tenants (they’ve had four locations), Stanley felt it prudent to purchase Dotty’s building after her dad died in January 2019, a move that has proved essential right now.

In addition to seating the dining room at the mandated 25% capacity, Stanley converted space behind the building into a patio with six tables. The restaurant is doing a fair amount of takeout business, something she never intended to do pre-COVID-19 but which has become a really good adaptation. One of her biggest lessons has been to let go of control, be flexible and keep her focus on the people.

“What can we do to just take care of ourselves a little bit more and the people we love? I think food can go a long way with that,” Stanley says. “I have to believe that this is not the end of the restaurant era … we all need a space to congregate and to share food and laughter and joy and sorrow. I do strongly believe that’s coming back; it’s just not the time.”

As they continue to face uncertainty and take on the slow winter season, restaurateurs finally have the luxury of time to think about what the other side of the pandemic might look like for the industry. Many hope to establish a more sustainable business model with fair wages and a better understanding about the value of dining out. And they’re certainly reevaluating how they can make the industry more efficient.

“To go back to what we had before would be a level of insanity,” Fox says. “I can’t say I was the happiest camper every day. It’s very, very difficult to run a restaurant like ours … to have that become a healthier, more sustainable thing for myself and everyone I employ, to feel that energy — I think that’s the bright side. It’s good to remind yourself that there is one.”

Candice Wagener is a nationally-published writer living in the Madison area.

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