Forced to slow down and unwind by the pandemic, but still accepting that change is the new constant for restaurants and their communities.
By Ralph Brabham and Aschara Vigsittaboot as told to Chris Mohney
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Chase Sapphire®.
Through the difficulties of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve pivoted to takeout, provided meals to essential workers, and so much more. The Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest is awarding $50,000 business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide COVID-19 pandemic recovery assistance. Zagat Stories is featuring interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.
Ralph Brabham and Aschara Vigsittaboot are partner and chef-founder, respectively, at Beau Thai, a Washington DC restaurant with locations in Mt. Pleasant and Shaw.
RALPH BRABHAM: Before the pandemic, most of our sales were dine-in. I would say that between 20 and 30 percent of our business was carryout, delivery, and DoorDash. The biggest change that the pandemic imposed on us was that transition to sales being almost exclusively carryout and delivery and third-party apps. During the pandemic, our restaurants and our dining rooms essentially became warehouses for to-go boxes and dry goods and ingredients.
We were pretty nimble in responding to what we knew at the time, which was not much. Early in 2020, we started to cut out items on our menu that were not fully cooked, like our garden rolls, our salads, and things like that because we weren’t sure how the virus was transmitted. I think that we were on the forefront in DC in terms of eliminating hard-copy menus and transitioning to QR codes.
We reconfigured our front-of-house operations to be hubs of to-go and carryout. We installed plexiglass windows to protect our staff as best we knew how in that transition. We implemented a new website that modernized the consumer experience and made ordering online easier. We had to eliminate our bar staff altogether and cut down on servers. Physically, responding to the District’s rules regarding social distancing and spacing, we took out most of the furniture from our dining rooms.
ASCHARA VIGSITTABOOT: We also limited the time that we took orders. Our staff had to go home, and public transit was stopped very early, so we tried to help them.
BRABHAM: Here in DC, subway and bus service was restricted by a lot in terms of hours. We really haven’t rebounded from that. We’re still operating at reduced hours.
VIGSITTABOOT: For kitchen staff, we still have everybody. We didn’t let them go, only at the bar. The servers became packers.
BRABHAM: The year has been very taxing mentally on everyone. But beyond the pandemic, everyone is a little more aware of the mental health needs of people you work with. That’s translated into us, as an employer, taking a step back and looking for ways that we can make our employees’ lives better. We’re constantly assessing how we can provide a better work environment for the whole person.
Aschara and my husband and me have become a family over the past decade. Our social lives constricted a lot in the past year, and we became even closer. And we’ve even become closer with our staff. We’re kind of all in this together. It’s been a time where A, it’s not been responsible to hang out with strangers, but B, it’s really been important to be together.
Candidly, there’s certainly a lifestyle benefit to not having to be at work. We’ve had quiet moments apart from the restaurant a lot over the past year, just having a fire in our backyard and having the chance to unwind and give ourselves the space to just be. There’s so much going on, and so much to worry about. It’s devastating, the toll the pandemic has had on our restaurant peers and our restaurant employees. As much as we want to be all things to all people, it’s also important to give yourself a breather.
VIGSITTABOOT: It’s tough to go back to the way it used to be. You start to get used to packing the food to-go and not seeing the customers at all. Now we’re starting to have the customers coming in again.
BRABHAM: Once you’re used to the new normal, that normal has to change, and you have to adapt with it. It’s always onward and forward without necessarily being comfortable.
We continue to focus on the online consumers, whether it’s ordering to-go or making reservations or whatever. That’s our future, in a way. We never really were as technology-oriented as we are becoming now. We’ve also implemented new staffing structures. We have someone who is overseeing operations at all three places. We’re focusing on building an infrastructure that is a little more nimble and also more efficient. If, god forbid, we have another pandemic or more shutdowns, or if someone gets sick, we can take one team offline and plug people in to the other restaurants in a way that we didn’t used to have the capacity to do.
Our community has been pretty phenomenal. We have several people that were regulars before the pandemic and have continued their regular meals, just via takeout and delivery, which has been cool. We’ve had customers that have since moved far from DC, and we send Beau Thai meal kits to them. We’ve had a lot of fun composing meal kits and mailing them everywhere from Chicago to Raleigh, North Carolina, to Boston. It’s been fun to see people enjoy Beau Thai on social media even when they can’t physically be with us. That kind of support and loyalty has been pretty awesome and humbling.
VIGSITTABOOT: Even when people move away, they’ll come back in and order the food when they’re visiting.
BRABHAM: Several times last year, we had to board up the restaurants for various reasons. We made it a point when we boarded up to write the word “love” on our boards. It really resonated with our neighbors, because it was an expression from us to them that our love was sincere. We tried to just give out the message of hope and togetherness via our social media channels and in person as well. At both of our Beau Thai locations, we had a local artist paint huge hearts on our windows, which are still up.
VIGSITTABOOT: I’m most proud of keeping all my staff, especially in the kitchen. Some of the servers couldn’t come to work, and I always offered them the chance to come in and eat with us. We are really close, like family. I’m quite proud of that.