How the need to revise restaurants' business plans and physical spaces means breaking down old habits.
By Lane Harlan as told to Julekha Dash
During the past seven years, Lane Harlan and Matthew Pierce have established several restaurants in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood. First was speakeasy W.C. Harlan, followed by the James Beard-nominated mezcaleria Clavel, which they opened with Mexico-born Carlos Raba. A year ago, natural wine bar and outdoor beer garden Fadensonnen made its debut in a former carriage house and communal complex called Socle, which also houses their newest venture, wine shop Angels Ate Lemons.
When the governor of Maryland first shut down all non-essential businesses, we were extremely focused on how we could continuously pay everybody. And the next thing was how much can we afford to give as survival pay.
When a restaurant has a rough patch, maybe a slow a couple of weeks, you can always throw an event. You can do things to generate business. But when a restaurant comes to a hard stop like we did, with all the overhead, it’s pretty scary financially.
I own other businesses, but Clavel took precedence because we have more employees there. We have employees with children. We have perishable goods. So I pretty much just put W.C. Harlan and Fadensonnen on the backburner.
Closing the businesses was really scary. We’re having these symptoms of intense stress and grief while also trying to work quickly to create an economic system for a safe carryout operation, while having these ethical doubts about whether we should even have people in the building at all.
We just went right into the planning of our carryout operation, Pisa y Corre, which means “stop and go.” Carlos drafted a menu that had burritos, which are simple to reheat, plus bulk items and taco kits. Where Carlos grew up in Sinaloa, Mexico, there were these little stop-and-go markets like corner bodegas—almost like a 7-11, but not corporate.
People were just texting their orders and calling in, and we were processing everything through cash apps like Venmo and PayPal. The first day or two, we had lines around the block, and people were very generously showing their support. They were really patient with us, but we were messing up left and right because we were such a small operation.
We added 20 percent to every food item and every margarita so we could pool that money and distribute it to our staff who weren’t getting the tips from working. It allowed people to keep getting paid. We’re not doing it now because we got the PPP loan, and that allowed us to pay people instead of using the 20 percent. We immediately put everyone working on a salary, and then everyone at home got $14 an hour.
It was absolutely critical that we could sell alcohol to go. We couldn’t just do it off burritos. There’s not enough of a markup. A lot of restaurants are successful because they have bars. A lot of food operations rely on the sales and the profits of the bar to do the farm-to-table stuff without charging an arm and a leg.
Lawmakers need to understand that right now all these bars are selling cocktails to go, and nobody’s dying from that. Nothing bad is happening. I think they’re going to have a hard time after this telling us “no” now that the general public is changing how they shop. If they’re going to come and say “no” to to-go alcohol, that’s insane to me. And for what reason? We’re all paying taxes. They should support small business owners and understand the important role that alcohol plays.
The thing about Angels Ate Lemons is now I know in the future I will always do delivery. I will always ship to the Eastern Shore. I will always do these things because we can sustain this even after the pandemic. It’s going to be another aspect of the business.
What happened when the house of cards started to fall is that all of a sudden, everyone was on the same level with pay. How do we close the divide between the back of the house, which is the kitchen, and the front of the house, which is your traditional service staff? There’s a huge divide there. We started tip pooling and putting everyone, including the bartenders, on the same level with tips.
You look at the back of the house—these are the people who do hard labor, sometimes for 12 hours. You’re on your feet on hard concrete, and you’re moving. Those people should have health insurance. Restaurants can get away with not providing health insurance because their people are getting tips—but only some people.
You realize you have to pay a lot of money to provide health insurance, and that just means that food costs have to go up, unfortunately, and it sucks. I’m speaking from a point of owning a taco restaurant where we pride ourselves on being accessible and affordable. We want to continue to do that, but these things have to cost more because the labor behind them is worth more. If I can’t figure it out for my people, then I don’t want anything to do with this business anymore.
There’s nobody to help us. You know what I mean? Restaurants are not getting a bailout. We’ve got to look at ourselves as more than just a restaurant. We’re a business in the community that is here to stay, that does more than feed people, and we have a responsibility. I like to walk to the corner bar, and I like to eat and drink here.
But if a regular says, “My kid’s in elementary and we’re doing an auction. Would you consider donating?” We say “Yes, here’s a gift card you can auction.” Then we are more than just a restaurant. I think these things create bonds and memories for people. And in times of crisis, they feel like they will want to support the place that has a stronger meaning to them. And it might not just be a restaurant. It might be a place that touched them in a different way.
We are starting to go into this new phase of looking toward a potential reopening and what it would look like at partial capacity. How do we continue a carryout operation? We’re taking it one day at a time. We’re just being very careful. We’re not going to be the first to jump into opening, even if it’s outside. A lot of things have to be considered. We’ve been planning for the last month how we would open the outside at Fadensonnen. We’re not ready to do it now. And we’re projecting that potentially we would do it in July or August.
We’re working as quickly as we can. But COVID is going to set us back. We’re losing our entire beer garden season. That’s really what carries us a lot. Businesses all have our seasons. We have about six outdoor tables at Clavel. It doesn’t make any sense for us to bring on more staff to do an outdoor section. We need to focus on carryout until we can at least have 30 to 50 percent capacity in the restaurant. We really function on volume—we’re a very fast-paced, high-volume restaurant. We try to keep things as affordable as possible.
If we were to reopen inside, we would eliminate the bar. We would space tables out six feet apart. We would probably do reservations only, with a couple of seatings and a 45-minute break in the middle so we can sanitize everything. We would probably ask customers for a deposit. We have to make sure that people know not to crowd out front and try to get in.
That’s tough for a restaurant that’s known for thriving on crowds. It used to be perfectly acceptable to stand and eat at Clavel. You could just show up and walk around table to table and talk to people. It’s a very social environment. Nothing about it is serious.
But we have to have a Plan B. What if carryout starts to slow down because people are going out again? We can’t have a hard stop on sales again, or we will suffer. We have to have this plan ready to go, with the staff knowing exactly what’s happening in the event that we have a slow week.
The last thing you want to do is open too soon. It’s difficult because it’s more than just outdoor seating at Fadensonnen. Our bathrooms are inside. How are people going to go to the bathroom? How are you going to make sure it’s clean and safe? I’m being cautious and waiting for the right moment. I have to feel good about it.
Top photo: Matty Tae.