"Here I got a bank account with a couple million from investors to build a restaurant, and I've already demolished the previous spot. I can't say, 'Hold on to my money,' or 'Take back those documents I signed.' I had to figure out how not to lose my shirt and go belly up before even opening the doors," says chef Aaron Bludorn. "So we pushed ahead."
Bludorn, 36, opened his first restaurant, in Houston's trendy Montrose neighborhood, on Aug. 21. At a time when the pandemic has shuttered many restaurants forever, while others struggle with limited capacity and new safety rules, a few intrepid restaurateurs are opening new places.
Some had plans long in the works and decided to bravely move forward. Others saw an opportunity to employ workers and serve eager diners. They all had to grapple with a challenging, ever-changing landscape.
After signing a lease in December and breaking ground at the end of January for his eponymous Bludorn, Aaron Bludorn hadn't made much headway when COVID-19 shutdowns began in March.
While fear and worry were his first reactions, he next asked himself, How do we do it? He knew opening would look different than he'd imagined, given the circumstances. He set out to make sure the restaurant would be prepared to safely host diners and staff and be a luxurious experience where guests can leave their stresses at home.
"We wanted to make everything we did look intentional," he said, describing the expansive restaurant, which, even with mandated 50 percent capacity restrictions, can still accommodate 100-plus diners comfortably thanks to distanced tables and increased patio space. They've added plexiglass barriers between booths for an extra layer of safety. Customers scan QR codes to access the menu, eliminating passed paper copies, if they prefer.
Yet Bludorn admits he still doesn't feel 100 percent comfortable being open. "I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop."
At the beginning of August there was a spike in coronavirus cases that caused him to reconsider opening. He went forward with the plan, and he believes he made the right decision. His general manager and chef de cuisine had already moved to Houston from their homes in New York and Chicago because they'd been furloughed by their previous employers. His wine team, Jack Mason and Molly Austad, were also recently furloughed. "They all committed to us because of the promise and progress we had," said Bludorn.
Raised near Seattle, Bludorn, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, has worked at restaurants including Seattle's Canlis, Cyrus Restaurant in Healdsburg, Calif., and Daniel Boulud's Café Boulud in New York, where he took over as executive chef in 2014. After more than a decade in New York, he decided to move to Houston, the hometown of his wife, Victoria Pappas. (Her father is Chris Pappas, CEO of Pappas Restaurants.) The couple had been developing their restaurant concept for years, with Bludorn as head chef and Victoria overseeing the front-of-house and business operations.
After two months serving Houston, Bludorn said he feels lucky, and has experienced a warm response. "We know restaurants are struggling right now, and I feel lucky to be in this situation," he said, adding, "but we just wanted to come into the community and do what we could."
Osteria Fiorella, Las Vegas
Philadelphia-based chef Marc Vetri didn't plan on opening a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic, but the combination of an opportune offer and an eagerness to put his staff back to work led to the last-minute conception of Osteria Fiorella in Las Vegas' Red Rock Resort, which opened July 10. The spinoff of his Philadelphia pasta destination Fiorella originally debuted as a pop-up after a remarkably swift opening process. "From the first phone call to the opening, it was probably six weeks," Vetri said.
Several factors helped make it possible to pull off the project, most notably the chance to take over an existing restaurant. Red Rock decided that Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner Terra Rossa would not return when it began reopening its restaurants in May, leaving a vacant 4,000-square-foot space that was less than a year old, with coveted features like a shaded patio.
The team reached out to Vetri, whose Vegas outpost of Vetri Cucina is located in the Palms, a nearby resort owned by the same parent company. The restaurant has been temporarily closed since March, so Vetri jumped at the opportunity to relocate employees. "We had to do it," he said, despite a sense of uncertainty. "Everyone was nervous about opening restaurants. Was anybody going to eat at the restaurant, was anybody going to do anything?"
Still, he was motivated by the relatively low risk. "If it's not working, we didn't spend millions of dollars building a restaurant; we just opened one that was there," he recalled thinking. "And if it's not working, then it was just a failed pop-up." Just one week after he got the call, Vetri flew to Vegas and presented a potential menu, then signed a contract 48 hours later.
"They asked us, 'What's the fastest you can open?' And we [thought], 'Well, we've got the staff already. We have the restaurant. All we really have to do is all the operations systems,'" he said. Less than a month later, Osteria Fiorella welcomed its first guests, enforcing now-familiar protocols like distanced tables and mandatory face masks for all staff.
According to Vetri, adjusting to this new normal proved not as difficult as one might expect. His approach is simple: "Just follow the rules, be safe, wash your hands, wear a mask," he said. "I'm not making light of the virus or anything, I'm more anal about wearing a mask and washing my hands than anybody … I just feel like if you act responsibly, you're going to be fine."
Capacity for Las Vegas restaurants is still capped at 50 percent, and while that makes things easier on the staff, financially it's another obstacle that's challenging, but not insurmountable.
"It's definitely hard to get those labor numbers and food cost numbers right," Vetri said. But as with many restaurateurs in this era of COVID-19, profit is not the top priority. "To be open and not losing money is really the goal. If you can pay your staff, allow everyone to have health insurance, get everything working, get everything moving again and not lose money, it's a win-win."
Red Rock announced Aug. 31 that the restaurant is now a permanent fixture at the resort. Vetri says service has been going "really amazingly" well, with a steady stream of guests from the start. "I think people were ready to come out," he said, "and they haven't stopped."
The Joseph Hotel, Nashville
Chef Tony Mantuano and his wife, Cathy, had three new restaurants in the works before the coronavirus pandemic. The acclaimed hospitality duo behind Chicago Best of Award of Excellence winner Spiaggia were set to oversee the food and beverage operations for a new Nashville hotel, the Joseph, opening Aug. 25. The partnership included the debut of the main dining room Yolan, a more casual eatery called Denim, and a Bourbon-focused bar called Four Walls.
"[Opening] was always Aug. 25, and we hit it, which is crazy," Tony Mantuano said.
Preparation and adaptability were key. The Mantuanos were in close communication with the hotel's ownership and developers in the months leading up to the opening, re-evaluating their plan week by week.
"If you asked us in March or April if we were going to open in August, no one had any idea," Mantuano said. As the summer progressed and construction stayed on schedule while more of the city's restaurants began to reopen, "the conversation turned to, 'We're definitely going to do it. Now let's figure out how we keep everyone safe.'"
The team began integrating enhanced safety procedures into their service plans, like sanitizing between seatings and offering cards with a QR code for the menus and wine list to avoid passed menus. Guests also have the option to flip through the physical leather-bound wine list using white gloves. Such procedures add another layer to the training process, which presents its own COVID-related logistical challenges.
"When we did orientation and training, you're in a ballroom but everyone's 6 feet apart," Mantuano said. "It's really sort of weird to always be talking through a mask and addressing a room full of people that are socially distant, and keeping the crowd to 25."
But the Mantuanos did find a significant, albeit saddening, silver lining when it came to labor: The many restaurants across the country that had closed or scaled back meant more experienced hospitality workers seeking employment. Several staff members were relocating from larger cities like New York and Chicago that hadn't yet resumed indoor dining.
Even on opening day, uncertainty lingered. "We had no idea when we opened how many people were going to come," Mantuano said. "That was by far the biggest challenge, not knowing." The restaurants opened at 25 percent capacity before expanding to 50 percent, so the team had to quickly pivot to fit the demand, which went beyond their expectations. Two months into operating at 50 percent capacity, Yolan has been booked solid most Thursdays through Sundays. "We are incredibly surprised by the enthusiastic support of the people of Nashville," he said.
Though some aspects of service look different now, Mantuano remains focused on world-class service, which has only become more essential. "It's not the best time to open a restaurant or a luxury hotel," he said. "But the most important thing is hospitality, and treating people like you're so happy that they are there in a time like this, and to make sure people feel safe."