From ubiquitous masks and sanitizer to car-to-table valets.
By Molly McCook as told to Nikki Vargas
Molly McCook is the chef behind Ellerbe Fine Foods in Fort Worth, Texas, an 11-year-old farm-to-table restaurant and James Beard Award semifinalist.
We made a decision early on that we were going to face this pandemic together. For us, that meant not furloughing or laying anyone off. Now does that mean everyone is doing the job they are meant to do as a cook, server, or bartender? No. We’ve had a lot of painters, builders, and all kinds of needs around here, but we feel we’re a family and we’re going to take care of each other during the good times and bad.
Starting three days before the shutdown, we began offering family-style meals to-go as well as our regular menu. Once we were closed for all dine-in, we expanded our to-go family-style menu, which was available for curbside pickup and delivery. After about a week, we saw a need for groceries. I wanted to continue to work with our farmers and keep that relationship going, because they too were being shut down suddenly.
We started offering co-op boxes available for curbside pickup and delivery, which would supply vegetables and eggs from our farmers that we would usually have used for our regular dine-in service. We had a great response to the co-op boxes from the very beginning. Our clientele really enjoyed having the option to get their groceries from us, knowing that they were being supplied by local farmers, and that we were continuing that community food chain. This also helped a lot of our farmers whose businesses went from thriving to a standstill. As you know, when you’re gardening and farming, the vegetables don’t listen to what’s going on—they keep right on growing. The farmers had a situation where they had a lot of produce to move, so the co-op boxes worked out for everyone involved.
Since reopening our restaurant, it’s been a challenge to wrap our minds around doing business in a different way. We’ve had three different mock services with our front-of-house servers and our kitchen, just so we could have a sense of what this new normal would be like. It’s almost as if we’re opening a brand new restaurant for the very first time.
I’m not sure we fully felt 100 percent comfortable with reopening, but it felt like the right thing to do to start moving forward. Everyone, ourselves included, was apprehensive at the beginning. But once we had a full team meeting, went over what our protocol was going to be, and that we truly had a plan and were going to practice executing it, then everyone was on board. We put in place very strict guidelines for ourselves and our staff—above and beyond what the local government had in place. We understand that we’re a team and it takes all of us to do this properly.
When we started thinking about what service would be like, we tried to think of all the small details that make our restaurant special and how we could still offer that unique experience in a way that follows safety guidelines. For example, we offered valet service, which is no longer allowed at this time. Instead of valet we still offer a parking lot attendant to direct our customers to their parking spot, get their names, let the host know they are here, and then let the guests know when their table is ready. Guests go directly from their car to their table, and we don’t have to worry about anyone waiting in the lobby area and being too close together. This way, we can continue with social distancing.
We also are changing out the menus every single day, and we increased the waitstaff per table. Usually you would be assigned one server and have a runner that looks after three tables at a time. Now, each table is getting two servers—one that speaks with the table and touches the table (while wearing gloves), and another that only touches items being dropped off or cleared away (also while wearing gloves). We are being very conscious about any type of cross-contamination that might occur. Masks are not required for our customers, but they are required for our staff, who must wear them at all times.
We have always set our standards extremely high, and we are keeping them there and pushing ourselves even harder during this time. Our staff is not only having to learn a new way of service in the front and back of house, but we’re still expecting them to know every detail of the menu that is still changing seasonally. They’re expected to know every last detail of the market menu and our wines, so that when customers sit down, there is that familiarity of eating at Ellerbe Fine Foods and knowing the staff is knowledgeable and will greet you by name. We want to continue that.
Throughout the pandemic, the community of Fort Worth has been very supportive of the restaurant industry as a whole. When it comes to reopening, each restaurant has made their own decision with their own timeline. At this point, about 70 percent of the restaurants here have opened up in some capacity—whether they were shut down completely and are starting to do curbside pickup, or they were doing curbside and have started offering 50 percent capacity dine in.
We have a wonderful family atmosphere in Fort Worth, and I think everyone is just trying to get through this pandemic. We know there are the ones who are ready to get out and dine-in, but at the same time we are expanding our curbside menu and offering special at-home menu items for the clientele that are just not ready yet. We have embraced both types of customers. New pandemic numbers come out every single day, and we are all affected by those and what we see. I think not having certainty is keeping people going back and forth.
These have been such unprecedented times for our restaurant and the larger industry. I know we are made up of fighters and survivors, and that we will get through this—our own Ellerbe family, as well as the restaurant industry. I think each restaurant is so unique, and during this time is when it really shows. We are all just trying to do our best at this point. Have we second-guessed choices we’ve made along the way? Of course, but none of us have been in this situation before, and we’re all trying our best and putting the safety of our staff, our clientele, and ourselves at the forefront of our decisions.
I don’t think the restaurant industry will ever look like it did pre-coronavirus. Do we know what it’s going to be like once things calm down? No, but we’re all dedicated as an industry to making this survive, and we’re learning to go with the flow, which is something that restaurant folks are not known for.
I think what Ellerbe has really tried to do throughout all of this is pivot with the times, be ahead of the curve of what is going on, and listen to our clients on what their needs are. It has been relatively easy to maintain all of the required safety guidelines once we put our protocol in place. We still have not brought in any of our other tables—we’re still only seating at 25 percent capacity, even though Governor Greg Abbott has given us the greenlight to seat up to 50 percent. Right now our staff is comfortable, our guests are comfortable, and that’s what’s important. We don’t want anyone to feel that our reopening is rushed, and we don’t want to rush it. The last thing we want is for another round of coronavirus infections to occur. We’re trying to be as cautious as possible.
The biggest lesson that we’ve learned has been to pivot and to be open to what the community needs. To any other restaurant that is looking to open, keep an ear out for your customers and what they are truly wanting at this time. It might not be what you thought you would be reopening as. Definitely, I didn’t think I would be making casseroles in our kitchen for eight weeks, doing butcher block items, or Zoom phone calls, but these are the times we’re in. We all have to continue to pivot with what we’ve got.