Cecil County restaurants get resourceful to plot their paths through the pandemicDec 31, 2020 12:48PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Food services was one of America’s industries hit worst by coronavirus, with almost two-thirds of workers “experiencing closures, layoffs or reduced hours,” the Motley Fool reported in September.
Cecil County establishments have had a wide range experiences in navigating the pandemic.
Of course, they followed all those changing government guidelines on capacity, social distancing, training, masks, sanitizing and everything else. They also ramped up takeout; mourned and renovated; moved; and altered entertainment and the menu.
Steak & Main
The biggest change at Steak & Main, the North East steakhouse, sushi bar and oyster bar, was in handling massive amounts of takeout, said Tony Covatta, owner and executive chef.
The restaurant reallocated tables for all the bags and takeout containers, and he expects the takeout business to prosper even after the state allows full capacity. “Customers are crying for it,” he said.
“It’s also important to let people know that business is up!” he said. “The pandemic has not hurt us at all. Here we are up 30 percent over last year, which was also a record year.”
His catering business, though, has fallen, with just a handful of full-fledged staffed events this summer but lots of drop-offs and pickups of trays of food.
He polled customers this spring on the takeout and found that they were “totally amazed by it, with 100 percent saying it was the same quality” as dine-in food. He acknowledged that some items, like calamari, don’t hold up as well, but putting sauces on the side and other touches help maintain quality.
“It was all packaged to perfection so that it was fresh and hot when we went to eat it,” Jill Simpson wrote on Facebook after Steak & Main catered her mother’s 80th birthday party.
Covatta said he hasn’t had to alter the menu due to the pandemic, which is part of his 17-year commitment to quality and consistency. “We don’t pull any punches,” he said. “Any time.”
Coronavirus restrictions hit in March, and the Wesley family was hit in April by the death of patriarch John Wesley, who had worked at Wesley’s Restaurant since his parents bought it in 1951.
Once family members got over his passing, they decided the restrictions gave them time to execute a renovation that they had been discussing, said Jennifer Wesley, his daughter-in-law.
“Our newly renovated tavern offers a more spacious atmosphere that’s perfect for a relaxed get-together with friends and family alike,” according to its website. There’s less seating in the formal dining room and more near the bar. “Don’t worry: the shuffleboard table is still there,” she said.
They modified their menu to cut out highly perishable ingredients.
Two additions “took off like wildfire,” she said. They’re the White Fish Dinner (the fish broiled, blackened or fried, with french fries and coleslaw) for $12 and the Taste of Wesley’s (a 4-ounce crab cake, broiled or fried, with ¼ pound of steamed shrimp, baked potato and vegetable) for $19.
They brought back karaoke on Thursdays in August but stopped it when they were concerned about the crowds. It’s back again.
In addition to the restaurant and bar, their Fair Hill complex includes a package store with a booming business and a vape shop.
“We came through, thanks to our loyal customers, some ordering takeout two or three times a week,” Wesley said. “I can’t even express how we feel.”
Old South Smokehouse
The staff of Old South Smokehouse took advantage of the lull forced by coronavirus restrictions to move 350 feet down the street, from 1205 to 1195 Jacob Tome Memorial Highway, near Port Deposit.
The new space, which opened in early June, is much bigger and has more potential, said manager Holly Hild. The old space had 14 tables and 10 seats at the bar; the new one, at half-capacity, has 20 tables. They’re also looking at a deck down the road for private events.
The staff worked together to make the move, marking the end of their exertion with takeout. “We wanted to save the first use of the new kitchen for our guests,” she said.
They’ve progressed with the reliability of smoking gear, so they no longer need to pop in overnight.
A beef shortage was temporary, but they’re still facing issues with canned and bottled beer and beer on tap, which has led to putting a hold on themed takeovers of their 14 taps.
“A lot of people are Covid-scared,” Hild said, pointing out times when people point out staffers’ masks slip in the rush of work or when people take off their masks when ordering. “It’s just been a learning experience, taken one day at a time as the rules change.”
“It’s been quite the adventure,” said Gianmarco Martuscelli, president of the Martuscelli Restaurant Group, on how the pandemic affected his family’s Chesapeake Inn Restaurant & Marina in Chesapeake City. Supply chains, entertainment, party bookings, staffing, cleaning and attitudes have all changed.
They’ve had problems getting a variety of items, including to-go containers, citrus and liquor. To cut costs and avoid frustrations, they’ve consolidated the menu and cut their inventory.
They’ve switched from large bands to smaller groups, since customers can’t dance and follow social distancing.
Brides and grooms have been postponing their wedding receptions, some two or three times. “90 percent with deposits have moved their receptions to the future, and that was a positive,” he said, rather than having to turn the deposits into gift cards, adjust to smaller guest lists or negotiate refunds. “We’re hoping things will get better,” he said, “and numbers are trending that way.”
The inn employs about 70 full-timers and another 180 part-timers. “It was really difficult to get people to come back to work” when unemployment got that $600 federal boost, and now that that boost ended, staffing is back to normal, but staffers aren’t getting as many shifts.
They’ve invested in Aerus filers and monthly disinfecting by Canal Town Solutions. “It’s all about keeping it safe,” he said.
The Chesapeake Inn is following all coronavirus protocols, but he and people he’s spoken to are frustrated that other places aren’t. “People are fed up. Over it. They’re tired of all the restrictions and the mask wearing. It’s divided the country, and we’re like a referee. It’s a headache.”