Taking Fine Dining Curbside During the Uncertainty of Now
It’s repetitive to say so at this point, but many of us are probably still more than a little shocked by the place we find our society in at the moment. Yes, there are people out there whose job it is to prepare society for this eventuality. (Even Netflix, in a prescient turn of programming, produced a miniseries on pandemic readiness.) But for the vast majority of us, this was more or less a surprise, and we don’t have anything in our cultural memory that provides a useful template for addressing the rapid spread of a global pandemic.
We are, by our nature, largely reactive, solving problems as they arise. Putting aside political ideology, it should be obvious to anyone that our society has no contingency for the particular problem we are experiencing as there is little precedent.
Restaurants are uniquely positioned right now as places that play out some of our greatest anxieties about economic realities—and also our greatest strengths, especially the adaptability and resilience that we will need to make it through this time.
Restaurants thrive on human interaction and upward economic momentum. And while those traits make them especially vulnerable to the difficulties of this moment, they are also why restaurants remain important centers of their communities during times of crisis, often fostering deeper ties and loyalties.
Community is part of what inspired Jonathan Schoen and Brian Schmitz to open Polite Society in Lafayette Square three years ago. Schoen points out, “You look at the places that are here … they’ve been here 10-plus years because of the neighborhood support.”
In June of 2019, Schoen and Schmitz opened a sister restaurant, The Bellwether. Visiting either place is exactly the experience one might expect from an evening of fine dining: exceptional food and drinks, comforting and stylish ambience and an impeccably polite (get it?) and helpful waitstaff.
From left to right: Brian Schmitz, Tom Futrell and Jonathan Schoen.
The problem Schoen and Schmitz must now navigate is the ungainly task of translating that business—one that’s all about intimate personal interaction and connection—to a situation that demands distance and isolation.
“The dominoes fell so incredibly fast. We had a few emergency meetings, do we close lunch, do we go to five nights a week, do we change our hours?” recalls Schoen.
The first question many places in their position had to ask themselves was whether to close and wait it out or adapt. Schoen and Schmitz chose to adapt. This solution solved a number of other questions, such as what to do with the food already on hand and what to do with the staff: Lay everyone off or keep them hanging around in the hopes that this turns around sooner than later?
Curbside service allowed them to figure out how to move through the food they had on hand and keep at least some employed for the time being. Some other challenges—including what to do with a sizable wait staff—were fairly obvious. Like most restaurants, they had to lay off many of them. No surprises and little good news there. But they hoped to have allowed their employees a little bit of a head start getting unemployment or finding other avenues of income, rather than stringing them along with no income.
Some challenges were a little less obvious. Perhaps, for the average neighborhood bar and grill, simply boxing up the standard offerings is enough. But fine dining doesn’t translate so well to a waxed cardboard box. Those familiar with The Bellwether and Polite Society know them for their potent flavors, balanced and well-measured so as not to be overpowering or heavy-handed. This is food that’s meant to go to the table and be consumed there, not a half hour later out of a box.
“People are more interested in comfort food,” Schoen observes. While the restaurants’ menus and websites have adjusted to reflect this demand, Bellwether and Polite Society have also maintained some the brand they are known for by including some of their menu staples. Patrons can also purchase wine and beer to go with their meals, a strategy many restaurants are utilizing.
How Schoen, Schmitz and team have handled this transition in particular speaks to the high bar of professionalism they maintain, even at this uncertain time.
Curbside food is not without its critics, though. To some, operating kitchens are another way for the virus to be delivered to the public. Surely this very scenario will play out somewhere in this vast world, but in Schoen’s estimation, “If you’re going to the grocery store or going to the gas station, you’re assuming some element of risk and getting someone to place food in the back seat of your car is probably on the low end of that spectrum.” And he is very likely correct. The number of people contacted with carry-out or curbside is far fewer than a trip to the unusually crowded grocery stores.
But the concern for safety at this time is real and one that The Bellwether and Polite Society take very seriously. The small staff that they have retained take additional steps to ensure their safety and, by extension, that of their patrons. “The main thing is that we’re just trying to keep the pool of people who have access to the building who are coming in contact with the food or the facility to a small group,” says Schoen. “The last thing you want is to get someone sick by virtue of them dining at your place.”
Curbside is not the solution. It’s a Band-Aid at best—“the tiniest Band-Aid you can imagine,” Schoen says. And while The Bellwether is getting a better reception to its curbside service than they expected, the reality is that it’s simply not enough. “The trickle of revenue we get from curbside, it’s a nice thing to be able to do for the community and it’s a nice thing to do for a handful of people to be able work and maybe make some tips, but it’s not really making a dent in any kind of costs,” Schoen explains.
The Bellwether and Polite Society are not the exception. They are the rule. They are the reality of all restaurants in the region (and most of the country) right now. When he speaks, Schoen comes across as confident that they will, one day, reopen for regular service. But make no mistake, this is nothing short of an existential threat to the food culture of this area. Some restaurants will very likely close. It is a near certainty and a cultural and economic tragedy.
But we can each do something to benefit the local economy and the culture that makes this region the place we want to live. You can order that takeout when you just don’t want to do dishes for the third time that day, and you can purchase gift cards. Guided: St. Louis has helped launched the Curbside STL site to help you find curbside and delivery in your community. So, if you have the means (and for many of us, this too will change) get some carryout from a neighborhood restaurant that’s about more than just the food in the box.
Images courtesy of The Bellwether and Polite Society.