By: Ahmad Graves-El
Local restaurant owners are giving it the old college try, attempting to adapt to the new normal we’re all living in due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
On Saturday, March 21, Governor Phil Murphy, to “mitigate community spread of COVID-19,” issued Executive Order 107, which led to, among other things, the closing or shuttering of many restaurants.
Operators of eating establishments that provide dine-in service have had to change course and formulate new ideas on how to stay open and continue to provide services to their valued customers.
Some of those restaurants have found a modicum of success, relatively speaking — while others are struggling to maintain their businesses.
Late last week, SNJ Today spoke with Russell J. Swanson, executive director, VDID/Main Street Vineland and several Vineland restaurateurs to find out how they are coping during the current health crisis.
“Due to the Governor’s orders,” Swanson said, “all restaurants are not permitted to have customers dine in, but are permitted to offer takeout and delivery, and must adhere to the 8 p.m. curfew as well. Many of our restaurants are still open for delivery and takeout, although some have chosen to close for the time being.”
Restaurateurs that stayed open have had to think out of the box to continue operations, showing much resiliency and adaptability to current circumstances.
“Many of our downtown restaurants have embraced, some for the first time, delivery services such as Grubhub and DoorDash, as well as using their own drivers,” Swanson noted. “They, as well as The Ave, have been more aggressive in promoting what they offer — delivery and takeout. Most of the restaurants in our downtown district are family-owned-and-operated, so being resilient and able to respond quickly is in their blood.”
The VDID, he said, is helping to support the restaurants on The Ave in several ways.
“We are using press releases, social media, radio, television, and print media to get our messaging out,” said Swanson. “We have published and made available on our website, as well as our Facebook page, a map showing the location as well as the name, type of cuisine, address, and phone number of all of our restaurants.
“In addition, we are launching a $1,000 giveaway of gift cards to our downtown restaurants thanks to the generosity of Century Savings Bank. People will be able to register for 40 $25 gift cards that will be given away through NJ Heartland. Check our website or Facebook account for more information.
“The current crisis has many individuals and business owners very concerned,” Swanson continued. “We are working every day to find ways to assist our businesses both now and in the future. For those who are ordered closed, we know that when they reopen, they will need all the help that they can get. Our office is looking into all the resources that may be available to assist businesses, and we are looking at ways to offer additional training to our businesses.”
SNJ Today also spoke with three Vineland restaurateurs — Sharonda Harris Bunton, co-owner, Vegans are Us with a Touch of Soul; Thomas J. Merighi, Jr., president of the Savoy Inn; and Victor Villar, owner of Bagel University and co-owner of Manny & Vic’s. The first is located on The Ave. The Savoy Inn is located in East Vineland, Bagel University is on South Main Road, and Manny & Vic’s is on North Delsea Avenue.
Vegans are Us started off several years ago as an off-premises catering company and opened the restaurant this past November. The Savoy Inn has been operating “66 years this June.” Bagel University has been in business for 23 years and Manny & Vic’s Pizza, 17 years.
SNJ Today: How has COVID-19 affected your business?
Sharonda Harris Bunton: COVID-19 has affected my business drastically. There’s been a halt on certain items that I order, and supplies have been out of stock. Some distributors I have accounts with have gone out of business. Sales have declined and visitors have [dwindled] due to people being afraid to come out. We have lost revenue and cannot produce all the items on the menu because distributors have laid warehouse workers off, so orders are not being handled.
Thomas Merighi: We are basically shut down with the exception of takeout. We have limited our operation to five to seven key employees and Merighi family members who are preparing foods, constantly sanitizing, fielding phone calls, creating takeout menus, more sanitizing, keeping our customers and employees informed.
Victor Villar: We had to close any and all eat-in business. Everything is pickup or delivery. Everyone is on edge, employees and customers. Tomorrow is not promised, this has affected our perspective.
SNJ: What kind of changes/business decisions have you had to make to survive during these challenging times?
SHB: I had to close down the back area of my restaurant to save cost on electricity. I also had to put a halt on ordering extra inventory and in large quantities. Instead, I’m ordering as needed. I also had to cut [employees’] hours.
TM: We had to completely pivot our operation to become a takeout, curbside pickup operation. Through dedication of our key employees, our team was able to make this shift basically overnight. Social media and e-mail have been instrumental to keeping our customer base informed. We also had to lay off all hourly employees, which was not an easy thing to do and was unprecedented in our 66-year history.
Decisions are now made on the fly, based on minute-by-minute information — some true and some false. This is not the best business environment to be operating in, but it’s the hand we are dealt.
VV: I have adjusted the schedules of the employees. Some come in later, others earlier. Business has changed, more deliveries, online ordering has increased, credit card usage has greatly increased. This increases our percentage that the processors take out, which in turn, decreases our bottom line. We offer free espresso to any and all on-duty policemen, firemen, EMT, doctors, nurses etc., at Bagel University.
SNJ: Are your menus the same as normal, or have you had to tailor them?
SHB: My menus are the same, but some items are not available because of distributors not having those items available.
TM: Due to supply factors of some items, delivery schedule changes of our purveyors and also a decrease in business, we have decided to create nightly menus, which change often to keep our loyal customers interested in our culinary offerings.
We are now doing Theme Nights as well. Tuesday is Wing Night, Wednesday is Italian, Thursday is Comfort Food, Friday is Seafood (Lent) and Saturday is a potpourri of items off our regular menu.
VV: We have introduced Pizza Kits to take home and make your own pizza at Manny & Vic’s. Most of our business is geared to delivery and pickup at both locations so our menu has been able to stay the same.
SNJ: What are you doing to keep your and your employees’ morale up?
SHB: I am fortunate to have great employees that understand what we are going through. We keep an open line of communication about what’s going on and how it’s affecting us.
My employees are constantly practicing good hygiene and disinfecting the door handles and restaurant every 20 minutes. I also have been scheduling workers to come in for split shifts so they can still have some kind of money coming in. I feel really bad that I had to cut employees’ hours.
TM: We are trying to stay in contact with our employees who are not on the ground with us here at the restaurant. As the owner, I’ve been sending out personal texts to a few team members at a time. They have been great! This week we offered all our laid-off employees a free takeout meal for themselves off our Wednesday or Thursday menu. The response was fantastic! We will be doing all we can to make up this time for our valued employees going forward. We are nothing without our great and caring staff.
VV: This is a difficult feat. We have a wash-your-hands-constantly policy as well as gloves given to all the drivers. We use a pickup window at Manny & Vic’s. We want them to feel safe. They are the “essential” part of our businesses. Shorter hours also have been put in place to limit contact and exposure. We keep everyone educated on how the virus works.
SNJ: Do you have a message to your customers that you’d like to share?
SHB: I would like to thank the community for their continued support and prayers and truly appreciate each one of you. I would love for the community to continue to support Vegans are Us and spread the word once this crisis is over.
TM: I’ve been sharing with customers via social media all through this tough time. We are asking for patience and understanding as we work to get through this as a nation. The Savoy has a long history and luckily, we have resources at our disposal to weather this storm. I know customers who have booked events with us are concerned with when and if they will happen. We are at the mercy of the government at this time, but please know that we will do everything in our power to ensure safety for both our customers and our employees. We appreciate all your support of our takeout business and hope you will continue to let us serve you as we have for decades and decades. All we want is for normalcy to return so our rooms can once again be filled with family, friends, employees, and loyal customers.
VV: We work in a safe environment. We pride ourselves in our product and our service. We are diligently trying to execute this directive to the best of our abilities. We thank you for your patronage and truly appreciate your support. From a true Vinelander, we need to take care of ourselves. We need to be respectful of each other. We are the only ones that can make a difference and move into a better future. Please stay safe and stay aware.
VDID’s Swanson concluded: “We are developing a pledge program, whereby we are simply asking our local community to pledge to support our local businesses both now, and in the coming weeks and months. They will need all the support and help they can get. We have asked the Greater Vineland Chamber of Commerce to join us in getting this pledge out to our community to help to offer support to all of our businesses in the area.”