Explore St. Louis has launched a new online hub to help people find restaurants that are serving take-out food during the coronavirus outbreak.
The site, Curbside STL, came online late Thursday and aims to provide a shot in the arm to St. Louis-area restaurants facing plummeting sales after Missouri and Illinois leaders ordered restaurants to shut down all dine-in services. While many restaurants are scrambling to accommodate curbside orders, others have already decided to close.
“People just ceased going to restaurants,” said Brian Hall, chief marketing officer of Explore St. Louis. “And it’s crippling, because they’re all small businesses.”
Hall said Explore St. Louis, a convention and visitors commission for St. Louis city and county, wanted to help restaurants reach customers so they can support their workers in the short term. The long-term goal, he said, is helping the businesses survive the COVID-19 crisis.
The site provides resources to both restaurants and consumers, including a form for restaurants add themselves to the list of takeout vendors and advice for consumers looking for other ways to help restaurants — such as donating to the St. Louis Community Foundation’s relief fund.
The site also offers guidance about how restaurants can safely provide food to customers and how customers can protect themselves.
“We can help restaurant owners navigate this new space of how to protect their customers and their staff,” said Roo Yawitz, who owns the Gramophone sandwich pub in the Grove and has helped consult on the site development. “It’s not just about being able to get food to the curb.”
Metro East Eats offers a similar list of restaurants from Illinois.
The shift to curbside
Restaurant owner and chef Nick Bognar said he’s trying to get his three restaurants — Indo, Nippon Tei and Ramen Tei — on as many resource lists like Curbside STL as he can find. And he said he’s encouraging other restaurant owners to do the same.
“I want to see as much word get out for all these restaurants that are doing this, and I am hoping that some places aren’t left out,” Bognar said. His restaurants opened for curbside service Thursday.
It’s tricky to convert a full-service restaurant to just takeout service, he said. There are already fewer hours for employees. Bognar said he’s providing free meals to all his staff twice a day, to make sure everyone is fed, and instituting a tip-share program in which all hourly employees split the pool of tip money.
He said he’s not sure whether the takeout business will be sustainable or how long it will last, but on their first day open, his three restaurants sold about twice his minimum goal. Bognar hopes business continues at that pace.
“If people can go home and take our food home and ‘play restaurant’ and enjoy a night a little bit more special, I feel good about that,” he said. “This is the new way to dine — who can make really great curbside food? Let’s try really hard to cheer people up with that.”
Kitchen House Coffee converted its two locations, in Tower Grove East and Carondelet, to curbside service on Wednesday.
“Business is way down, just to be bluntly honest,” co-owner Paul Whitsitt said. “I’m not sure how long we can survive in this mode.”
But he said the restaurant has seen unprecedented generosity from the community, so he hopes his employees will have strong paychecks despite decreased business. Two customers left $100 tips on small orders, he said. Another customer ordered 6 dozen bagels for her workplace. Someone else bought a large gift card. And one of his landlords waived rent for April.
Whitsitt said he’s also doing what he can to support others, such as ordering lunch from other restaurants. He said he hopes people who feel comfortable leaving their houses will consider doing the same for local businesses.
“Think of us for lunch, think of us for coffee,” he said. “I’m not making that pitch just for me. Think about the businesses out there that you’ve patronized before.”
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