By Len Panaggio
Well, it’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, but it sure doesn’t feel like it! As I am writing this, the weather has changed to seasonably cooler temperatures, which is having an adverse impact on outdoor dining. We set the clocks back, losing another hour of daylight, and while there will still be some random days of warmth in the sun, the number of useful days for outdoor dining is winding down.
The governor is reacting to the uptick in positive COVID-19 cases and she is none too happy. As I have written previously, and Gov. Gina M. Raimondo recently concurred, the problem is not restaurants but rather “unstructured” social gatherings. I have witnessed many in my neighborhood alone – no masks, no distancing, etc. – and they act like they are in a COVID-free zone; total ignorance.
Thankfully, the RI Department of Health has been able to track these activities, and now the governor is imposing severe fines for those caught violating guidelines. I say: good for her! Hopefully that gets their attention. If the number of cases continues at the level we are experiencing or goes higher, she will have no choice but to impose another, really painful lockdown, and who knows what businesses will survive that.
Now, again, as I am writing this, we are still open pretty much in phase three guidelines, so at least we are open and living to fight another day. Our bars are still not like the bars of old and the vibe is just not the same. For those that have installed plexiglass, at considerable expense I might add, one has to raise their voice to be heard by the bartender and the visibility is distorted, both of which take away from the experience. Order a bottle of wine at the bar and the bartender has to come around to serve it. Ugh! Sure, it’s nice in one respect that there aren’t a bunch of guests reaching over you for drinks, shouting orders, etc., but that was the energy of a bar that made it fun and now that is gone.
So, as we move into the holiday season, what are the prospects of office parties? Small parties at best. What about New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day? Will those that have social gatherings at a private home on New Year’s Eve let loose on New Year’s Day to cure their hangovers like days of old?
Everyone is fearful of the lockdown and no one wants to continue having inventory on hand that doesn’t have the sales volume needed to make it worthwhile. In my conversations with many managers and owners, beer, wine and spirits that don’t need to be replaced will not be ordered and will fall off lists. Surely these are dire scenarios for the hospitality industry, but music to the ears of retailers as they will truly be the beneficiaries of any draconian measures placed on us.
The creative genius that so many of you have brought forth might feel like it has run its course and there is not much else you all can do but hang on – don’t give up the fight. We will be tested again and again until the virus is brought under control, so until then, keep being creative.
Gift certificates and merchandise are a good way of getting cash in while not serving anything and they make great holiday gifts. Emphasize curbside pickup and delivery, which for many have been the key to survival. Stress sales of alcoholic beverages to go, perhaps at retail pricing, which is not good for margins, but a buck is a buck.
Above all, be safe and make the best of the holiday season. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year; next year has to be better!
Len Panaggio’s career in food and wine spans more than three decades as an owner and as a beverage director at some of the top restaurants in Rhode Island. Currently a hospitality consultant, Len is a graduate of the University of Rhode Island and has attended the Culinary Institute of America Master Sommelier program and the Sterling School of Service and Hospitality.