Not Just Business As Usual: St. Louis Restaurants Learn How to Get Creative
Updated: Jun 17
By Gina Sigillito
After more than two months of struggling to keep their businesses afloat after closing dine in service due to the latest pandemic, St. Louis restaurant owners received some much welcome news at the end of May. They would be able to resume dine in service and open their doors to customers for the first time since March 23rd. For many owners, who had maintained some of their business for carry out and curb side service, the news was a relief, but social distancing measures and strict health precautions also meant that restaurants and bars would still be operating at about 25 percent capacity.
While many area restaurants are up and running, many have chosen to stay open only for carry out until they can more fully open their dining rooms, and some, like the popular West End restaurants Sub Zero and Gamlin House have decided to close permanently, deciding that opening partially would not be enough to survive the damage of losing more than two month’s worth of profits. The challenging rules of PPP loans have also prevented some restaurants and bars from being able to pay their rent and retain their employees. Recent protests over the death of George Floyd also prevented several restaurants from reopening or discouraged customers from venturing out to their favorite spots. Despite the challenges facing St. Louis restaurants going forward, their owners can agree on one thing: the best way to help St. Louis restaurants is to patronize them. And restaurant owners are finding more and more creative ways to lure customers in.
For Tim Metz and his partner Sean Olsen, owners of the award-wining Pickles Deli in the Central West End, things have begun looking up, even though they had to close their second location in Downtown for more than two months. “We have never closed the downtown location before, even early, but we had to make the hard choice when we saw that we were at only ten percent of our regular sales,” says Metz. However, their flagship store in the West End continued to see consistent business, thanks to the support of the community and the ingenuity of the owners. Pickles invented a Lunch Kit which enabled customers to pick up the ingredients for sandwiches and assemble them at home for their families, an invention which has remained popular even after dine in service resumed. They also were able to cater to the employees of area hospitals and prepared 75-150 box lunches a week for Meals for Meds, a program that allows customers to donate free meals to healthcare workers through local restaurants. Companies like Schnucks, Home Depot, and Procter and Gamble began feeding their employees who were working at home from local restaurants, and Pickles was able to use local company, The Food Pedaler, for free delivery service. Customers were also generous with tips, recalls Metz, as he recounts that one customer left a tip of a $150, and others $50. “We can’t thank the local community enough for their support. They kept us going,” says Olsen.
Now that some of the restrictions are being lifted, Pickles in the West End is now back to being busy, despite having to remove 75 per cent of their tables. They are utilizing their patio and sidewalk areas to accommodate customers and have stepped up their curbside service, as well as selling meat by the pound, and offering online ordering and touch-less pick up. The downtown store has reopened after a deep cleaning and the store is seeing traffic from tourists and families, despite several downtown businesses still being closed. With the West End store thriving, Metz and Olsen are hopeful about Pickles’ future in both locations.
(Pickle’s Deli is located in the Central West End at 22. N Euclid, Ste. 105 from 9-3 on weekdays and 10-3 on Saturdays and Downtown at 200 N. Broadway, Ste. 110 from 9-3 Monday-Friday)
For James Beard Award Nominee, Qui Tran, owner of Mai Lee Restaurant in Brentwood and Nudo in University City and Creve Coeur, the reopen has been more complicated. Like many restaurants, Mai Lee and Nudo were both offering carry out and curbside service despite their dining rooms being shut, but that only accounted for twenty percent of their business. Despite being packed every night of the week before the shutdown, Mai Lee has still not reopened for dine in service yet. Like many other owners, Tran has had to furlough most of his front of house staff. The renowned Vietnamese restaurant is also a family business, and Tran was concerned about reopening too early and risking his elderly parents becoming ill. The Covid precautions also meant that he could only reopen 25 percent of his tables and reopening dine in service just wasn’t economically feasible. “It was a case of the risk outweighing the reward.”
With more restrictions being lifted at the end of June, restaurants will be able to reopen at 50 percent capacity and Tran hopes to open all three of his dining rooms on July 7th. His restaurants were already sanitary and now he is taking even more precautions to make sure diners feel safe and comfortable when dining out. Nudo already has a menu board, and Tran is looking to implement something similar for Mai Lee so that menus don’t have to be constantly sterilized or thrown out. As Tran says, “we have everything pretty much figured out for the reopen and I think the menu board will be the way to go to keep everything safe for customers.”
The Mai Lee is located at 8396 Musick Memorial Drive and is open Tuesday-Thursday 11-9, Friday-Saturday 11-10, and Sunday 11-9. Nudo East Loop is located at 6105-A Delmar Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63112 in University City and is open Tuesday-Sunday, 11-8 and 11-9 when back to normal and Nudo is located at 11423 Olive Boulevard, 63141 and is open Monday-Saturday 11-8, 11-9 when back to normal
Crown Candy Kitchen owner Andy Karandzieff has also had to adapt and learn after 43 years of being in business. The St. Louis favorite was able to reopen at first just fulfilling carry out orders in May. Like many restaurant owners, he received a PPP loan and had eight weeks to spend it. “With the PPP money, people found they had to reopen whether they were ready or not.” The length of time to spend the money was soon extended to 24 weeks, and the iconic restaurant continued fulfilling call in orders and curbside service. Fortunately, the restaurant’s layout enabled him to adapt fairly easily to the new social distancing rules, and he installed 60 inch barriers to enable him to keep eight of his four top tables open for customers.
Now, while Crown Candy is operating at more or less back to normal, with dine in and waitress service, Karandzieff is now juggling dine in service with carry out business and customers who still want curbside service. “We’ve got a three-way avenue to food delivery which has been a new challenge for us. I’ve been doing this for 43 years and this whole thing is a learning process.” Crown Candy is also coping with shortened hours. While business has been steady, all the events and attractions like conventions, City Museum, concerts, and sporting events are still closed, which means much less foot traffic for the restaurant in the evening. But he notes, “the neighborhood people have been wonderful, always stopping in for lunch or ice cream.” He has also been able to maintain most of his staff, more than 30 employees to date by getting creative with the jobs he gives them. “Sometimes I’ll have two people answering the phone, and two people working curbside.”
Like many restauranteurs in the area, Karandzieff notes that while dining rooms are open, it does not mean that they are necessarily full. Some customers are still wary about dining out and still prefer carry out or curbside service. When asked what St. Louisans can do to help, he says, “pick local businesses to support if you’re comfortable going out or continue to do carry out curbside if that’s what you’re comfortable with.”
Crown Candy Kitchen is located at 1401 St. Louis Avenue and is open from 10:30-5, Monday-Saturday.
While it’s clear that St. Louis restaurants are now facing challenges they’ve never faced before, It’s also more evident than ever that St. Louisans look after their own, and are more willing to support their local businesses than ever. Our city has a rich and vibrant history that locals want to preserve and our food culture is an integral part of that history. With a little help from the community, the local culinary scene that makes St. Louis so unique can survive and thrive no matter what trials it faces.