Low-wage workers, like many restaurant workers, have greatly struggled throughout the pandemic. 

Low-wage workers, like many restaurant workers, have greatly struggled throughout the pandemic. 

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the daily operations of businesses across the region, and restaurants have been no exception. With social distancing protocols in place, local restaurants are finding creative ways to adapt to a new normal. But how are their patrons adjusting?

We’ll sit down with local restaurant owners to find out how you can be a better customer at your favorite eateries.

Produced by Kayla Hewitt



  • 12:32:02

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. For several weeks now, restaurants in the region have been ordered to shut down their dining rooms, forcing local restaurant owners to reimagine the way their businesses operate. So, should restaurant patrons do the same? What does the new normal look like for local eateries, and how can you be a better customer at your favorite local restaurant? Joining us now is Patrice Cleary, chef and owner of Purple Patch Restaurant. Patrice, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:32:27

    PATRICE CLEARYThank you so much, Kojo, for having me.

  • 12:32:29

    NNAMDIPatrice, how does your restaurant usually operate, and how have you had to adjust since the start of the pandemic?

  • 12:32:36

    CLEARYMy restaurant is about 150 seats upstairs and downstairs, and we are a full-service restaurant. You know, we're pretty packed throughout the week, and then, on the weekends, we're really busy. And so, during this time, now that we've had to change, we have reinvented ourselves. You know, we are no longer that full-service restaurant. We have changed ourselves into a market, and really just kind of said, okay, what is working -- what will work best for us right now, and, you know, what could work best for the community that we're in?

  • 12:33:17

    CLEARYBecause we're in a very kind of knit community within the city, because it is Mount Pleasant. And Mount Pleasant really tends to want to support the local businesses. So, you really have to think, how can I support the community, at the same time? So, what you were before is completely different than what you are now. You have to think in the eyes of, like, what do they need? What necessities do they need right now, and how can we help them?

  • 12:33:42

    NNAMDIJosh Phillips is the general manager of Espita Mezcaleria. He joins us now. Josh, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:33:49

    JOSH PHILLIPSThanks, Kojo.

  • 12:33:50

    NNAMDIHow has your restaurant had to change its operations since the pandemic hit?

  • 12:33:54

    PHILLIPSSo, we're about similar size, 150 seats, including a bar and patio. We were a full-service fine-ish dining Mexican restaurant. We've transitioned to entirely doing take away and pickup. We also serve grocery boxes. A big portion of our business at this point is to-go alcohol, which is kind of interesting. It's been an interesting transition. We've also had to cut down our staff from about 54 people, down to seven of us, at this point. So, the name of the game over the past month has been trying to figure out how can we do things that are both interesting, affordable and with the smallest labor pool possible.

  • 12:34:30

    NNAMDIAnd back to you, Patrice Cleary, how have you been providing services to your community now?

  • 12:34:36

    CLEARYWhen we first started out, I, of course wanted to find a way to help the community, help some of my staff members stay onboard. I've cut my workforce to about half the size now. I have 19 employees on staff. So, what we have done is I provide breakfast and lunch, free breakfast and lunch for children and families in the community. And then we offer takeout, carryout delivery through carryout services. And then walk up to our market that we replenish daily with local goods that they may need.

  • 12:35:21

    NNAMDIAlso joining us is Laura Hayes, food editor at the Washington City Paper. Laura, good to talk to you.

  • 12:35:26

    LAURA HAYESHi, Kojo. Great to hear your voice.

  • 12:35:28

    NNAMDILaura, many people want to support local restaurants and order takeout and delivery, but it's not business as usual. What should people keep in mind when placing these orders?

  • 12:35:37

    HAYESI think patience and flexibility are the biggest ones. Some of these restaurants are experimenting with to-go food for the very first time, especially some of the ones that are on the more fine dining end. You know, while a pizza place or a Chinese takeout restaurant has, you know, years of experience in boxing things up, not every restaurant does.

  • 12:35:56

    HAYESAnd, on top of that, you know, they're trying to do the work of 10 people with only two or three staff. They're facing things like their supply chain's being disrupted. They're also applying for financial assistance on the side, while trying to run a restaurant. One of the biggest ones, when it comes to patience and flexibility, is changing up when you order your meal. Obviously, you know, most people like to eat dinner around 7:00 p.m., but that's not going to work, because there's, you know, only so much room in a pizza oven for pizza. So, ordering before 6:30 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. can really help.

  • 12:36:36

    HAYESIf you think about, you know, a dining room and a kitchen, they're set up to feed a certain number of people who fill those seats. And they have reservation platforms to control, you know, when people sit down and how much food they have to cook at a time. So, just because you see that, you know, a restaurant is overwhelmed with orders, you know, it doesn't necessarily mean they're rolling in a money bin and don't need your support. They just need for all the orders to come in at a more staggered fashion.

  • 12:37:05

    NNAMDILaura, tell us about the frustrations with third-party apps. Is delivery actually hurting local restaurants more than helping?

  • 12:37:11

    HAYESIt's tough, and, you know, not all delivery companies are created equal. But, you know, typically, companies like DoorDash and Postmates and Uber Eats take up to about a 30 percent commission on orders. Some of these companies have taken a couple steps to try and help. GrubHub offered to differ fees for restaurants, which, you know, won't help when they're struggling later down the line.

  • 12:37:38

    HAYESSo, the best thing you can do is call a restaurant before you order on one of these third-party apps and find out if they're trying to do their own delivery. What's very interesting is that cities across the country are realizing how kind of unfair it is that restaurant delivery platforms are still charging these high commissions at a time when restaurants need them the most.

  • 12:38:02

    HAYESAnd so, a couple cities have actually passed legislation that are putting caps on these commission fees. San Fran was first. They said you can't take any more than 15 percent commission during this crisis. Seattle followed at 15, and now New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are also debating something similar. So, it's a very real problem that's causing legislators to act. And, you know, I hope that some good kind of comes out of that, down the line.

  • 12:38:29

    NNAMDIPatrice Cleary, what has been your experience with third-party apps in your restaurant?

  • 12:38:34

    CLEARYI mean, as a chef and then owner, you feel very responsible for everything that happens in your restaurant and happens outside of your restaurant, even when you have no control of it when it leaves your restaurant. We do this because of the love and the passion that we have for our food. So, not seeing the end product is very difficult for me and challenging.

  • 12:39:00

    CLEARYBecause I want to know that everything is good, that, you know, I know when it leaves my restaurant, I know aesthetically how it looks. I know it tastes good. But when they receive it, how are they receiving it? How did the delivery guy handle my food when it left the restaurant? And, you know, that's something that's really scary for me, because problems always happen within a restaurant.

  • 12:39:27

    CLEARYI can't say that there's been a time when, you know, everything's been perfect. There are always times when something happens within, you know, someone getting their food, you know, something -- a sauce may have reduced just a little bit too long. But when it's in the restaurant, you have complete control over it. You can say, oh, my God, please let me take that for you and remake it. But when it's going out the door, you can't address those problems. So, it's hard, because we don't have the connection.

  • 12:39:58

    CLEARYAlso, with these delivery companies, they don't represent us, really. They represent the delivery company. And so do they really care about Purple Patch's food and how it gets to the customers? No. They just want to get as many deliveries as possible. And I understand that, but at the same time, there is a concern of how my food is being handled when it gets there.

  • 12:40:23

    NNAMDIAnd how can patrons show their support for your staff, even if they ordered through a third-party app, Patrice?

  • 12:40:30

    CLEARY(laugh) So, you know, in the industry, everybody is used to some sort of gratitude, whether it's a thank you, whether it's a tip. There is a, you know, correlation to getting your food and, you know, somebody appreciating what you've done. And, you know, my staff is working very hard and diligently to get these orders out, and there's really no gratitude in there. And when you go through a third party, not only are they not hearing thank you so much for this and working so hard, but they're not getting tipped on it, either.

  • 12:41:04

    CLEARYWhen you see all those fees on your statement, the service fee, the delivery fee, the tip, none of that goes to the restaurant. So, on top of it, the restaurant is then taking a huge hit of, like, anywhere from 22 to 30 percent. And so, not only aren't you able to bring a little extra revenue in, but then you're actually losing it, because, you know, they're taking their percentage. And then you have to invest in take-out containers. So, we're really hitting a loss right now.

  • 12:41:39

    NNAMDIHere's Cole in Annapolis, Maryland. Cole, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:41:42

    COLEHi. Good morning. Thank you, Kojo, for taking my call. Just a quick comment, two comments. One, what I've been doing to sort of help the local restaurants in the area, and cafes, is whatever my entrée cost will be, I'll just double that up in the form of a tip. So, if it's $20, I'll leave a $20 tip, just being grateful to the people who are, you know, working during this time.

  • 12:42:04

    COLESecondly, I work with Thompson Hospitality, which owns Matchbox, Big Buns, Logan Honey Express. And we can actually say from what we see, customers have definitely been patronizing the business, being calm when we're slammed with orders, 50, 60 tickets at a time. And the third-party delivery companies have actually, you know, negotiated with us, at least on a per-unit basis, on some of their fees. And it's actually helped us sort of regain some of the lost revenue just through dine-in in a lot of our units.

  • 12:42:38

    NNAMDIThanks for your call, Cole. Steven from Baltimore couldn't stay on the line, but he wants to know: I'm still purchasing meals from local restaurants. I choose to keep tipping 20 percent, since I understand that workers rely on tips because of the tipped wage. Is this a time that restaurants need to rethink tipping wage versus a higher wage for employees? Josh Phillips, should there be a new protocol when it comes to how much customers should tip?

  • 12:43:01

    PHILLIPSThat's kind of a loaded question. Right now, I think it's good to continue to tip, just because every restaurant, at this point, is having trouble paying wages. Most restaurants have seen, you know, an 80 percent reduction in revenue, at this point. We're all trying to do the right thing and make sure that all of our unemployed employees are getting wages. So, we've actually implemented a system this week that, if you order online, you can make a donation to our team that hasn't been able to get unemployment through Caviar and Uber and all those things. So, you're able to actually tip our staff that is not working. Doing away with tipping is kind of a loaded question, though. It really depends on the business model.

  • 12:43:46

    NNAMDIYes, it's a question for another time. Right now here is Tababu in Takoma Park, Maryland. Tababu, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:43:54

    TABABUThank you very much. This is just highly important. Actually, my question is like a suggestion for another show. I'm a member of a community support group established to rescue a new high-end African restaurant opened in February in the heart of Washington, D.C. called Swahili Village Consulate. Beyond being fine dining, it is created a vision of creating a (unintelligible) like where African conversation from diplomatic culture and economic can be conducted.

  • 12:44:24

    TABABUThis is a budding institution that's going under. It employs over a hundred employees. And the question that I have is, because this an immigrant business, it's completely out of the public view, and it's not accessing money. Literally, we are micro-economy and a local economy, and completely disconnected. Yet, we create so much value, cultural vitality and create jobs and the stories. How do we reach out? We're there, but we're not there.

  • 12:44:50

    NNAMDIWell, I think I have somebody who can respond here. Imad, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:44:56

    IMADHi, Kojo. I'm a longtime listener and a very, very big fan of your show. And thank you for making the time for us to talk. The name of the business that Tababu was talking about is Swahili Village. It's African fine dining restaurant that serves the D.C. diplomatic corridor. And I'm the director of operation of the brand, and I'm hired to open five restaurants in this year.

  • 12:45:22

    NNAMDIHow has the pandemic affected you?

  • 12:45:24

    IMADThe pandemic affected us, because all the trillions of dollars that's been given out has been given out to big business. And we opened on March 2nd, and we have to be open before February 15th. And we invested a million five in this location. We're investing in Jersey more than a million five.

  • 12:45:44

    NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, how do you expect to be able to hang on in this region? For how long do you think you can hang on in this region?

  • 12:45:51

    IMADIt's very difficult. We have not shut down. The partial shutdown impacted us dramatically, so we're only doing curbside pickup. I am putting the hat of an operator, a server, a to-go person and wearing masks and wearing gloves and delivering food at the front of the door, and doing the same thing for the delivery service. But this is just to keep the name in the market, and we serve 500 free meals a week to first responders, Washington Hospital Centers, the Children's Hospital, fire department, police department...

  • 12:46:26

    NNAMDI(overlapping) Glad to hear -- glad to hear it. I'm interrupting only because we don't have a great deal of time. But the name is clearly now out there. We'll have to see what happens. And thank you very much for your call. Laura Hayes, is it possible to order too much food at one time?

  • 12:46:43

    HAYESI don't think so. I mean, the more you order, you know, the higher total dollar amount the restaurant is working off of. I haven't been ordering too, too much takeout and delivery, but when I do, I order enough for, you know, both, let's say dinner that night and lunch the day before. Everything goes up when you do that, including the tip amount, and it makes it worth the trek for the driver.

  • 12:47:06

    HAYESYou know, we can't forget about that critical segment of the population that's doing this work, which some consider dangerous. You know, they're out there in their masks and their gloves and taking every precaution. But I think, yeah, the bigger the bottom line is at the end of that bill, the more worth it it is for both the restaurant and the customer.

  • 12:47:26

    NNAMDIJosh Phillips, your restaurant is known for its mescal cocktails. Have you started selling cocktails to go?

  • 12:47:33

    PHILLIPSActually, cocktails make up about 65 percent of our sales, at this point.

  • 12:47:38

    NNAMDIWhoa. Why do you think that is?

  • 12:47:41

    PHILLIPSBecause we make ridiculously good margaritas. (laugh) Now, part of it is, honestly, we've been marketing our cocktails pretty effectively. Cocktails are a better margin for us, even though we're taking a much worse margin on them than we would normally do.

  • 12:47:54

    PHILLIPSBut we've been forced to kind of get creative. When this whole thing happened, we had about a $20,000 inventory of alcohol. So, we kind of sat down and had a meeting. We're, like, how can we turn all of this into cash? So, it kind of opened things up a lot for us.

  • 12:48:10

    NNAMDIInteresting. Here's Owen, in northeast Washington. Owen, your turn.

  • 12:48:15

    OWENHey, Kojo. How you doing today?

  • 12:48:16

    NNAMDII'm well.

  • 12:48:18

    OWENI'm calling from the point of view of a food deliverer, a dasher, okay.

  • 12:48:24


  • 12:48:24

    OWENI know you guys were talking about the third party apps. One of the things that I want to bring up, and a lot of -- the restaurants depend on us to pick up the food and deliver it. The people are depending on us to deliver their food when they get hungry. And so we're moving about a lot. One of the things we need to do, we need to use the bathroom. We go into the restaurant and say, can I use the bathroom? No, we can't use the bathroom, all right.

  • 12:48:48

    OWENWell, of course, no one's going to let us in their homes to use the bathroom. But why is it that the restaurants won't allow the food delivery people to at least use the bathroom? It's as simple as that.

  • 12:48:57

    NNAMDII'll turn that one to you, Patrice Cleary.

  • 12:48:59

    CLEARY(laugh) Thanks a lot, but I actually had a dasher come into my restaurant and ask me to use the restroom. And I've only had one. And I will say that there was that slight trepidation of, wait a minute, I'm not sure. And then it just clicked like, you need to use the bathroom. And so, I think, at this point, we're all nervous about the what-ifs, you know, the social distancing.

  • 12:49:27

    CLEARYAnd so just understand that it's not personal, but we're allowing somebody that's unfamiliar into our now personal space. And so there is that, I'm not sure, should I be doing this? But I did allow somebody the other day that did ask me. You just have to kind of be nice about it and just say, I really need to use the bathroom. And then we'll look at you like, okay, you're right. You do need to use the bathroom.

  • 12:49:49

    NNAMDIJosh Phillips, we only have a minute left, but many eateries have started selling grocery items, as well as prepared meals. Why did your restaurant decide to start selling pantry items?

  • 12:49:59

    PHILLIPSPart of it was because of our own experience in grocery stores. Talking to my entire team that's there, everybody gets afraid of being in grocery stores. It's a little less of a controlled environment. So, it seemed like both something we could offer the community, and then as an additional revenue stream for us. We've got kind of like a basics box that we kind of add in a bunch of Espita staples to, to make it a little more interesting.

  • 12:50:22

    NNAMDIOkay. Josh Phillips, Patrice Cleary, Laura Hayes, thank you all so much for joining us.

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