Above: Sunday brunch at Dante’s. The bar has plastic separating patrons from servers.
Restrictions are loosening, vaccines are coming & the EG Chamber’s new “Team Takeout” campaign is helping
Rhode Island businesses, especially restaurants, have been hit hard during the pandemic. The state’s indoor capacity limits (it’s now 50 percent but was as low as 25 percent) has undoubtedly reduced restaurants’ dine-in customer base. Several restaurants in East Greenwich felt the need to change their set-up and menus entirely, just to stay in business.
One of those restaurants is Finn’s Harborside. Being a seafood restaurant, Finn’s typically closes down in the winter months. However, the restaurant decided to stay open throughout this year’s winter season to keep business stable.
“We’ve decided to stay open [this winter],” said General Manager Connor Finn. “The main reason is obviously due to the decrease in volume we saw this summer. We needed to make up that business. So, we decided to stay open seven days a week, adhering to all the COVID guidelines.”
One big change to the menu at Finn’s is that there are now many non-seafood options for customers, says Finn.
“We tried to cater to every demographic,” said Finn. “There are seafood lovers out there, but there are also those who don’t like it. We just want them to know that they can come here for everything.”
Many restaurants have been focusing on their takeout menu in particular, since the demand for takeout has increased this past year.
“We’ve gone through a lot of different phases and had to reinvent ourselves in different ways with takeout,” said Rick Mignanelli of Ritrovo and Richard’s Pub. (Mignanelli is one of the owners of Ritrovo. His father, Richard Mignanelli, owns Richard’s Pub.)
“However, even with some of our total sales coming back,” added Mignanelli, “the increase in takeout still affected our profitability because our profit margins aren’t as strong on food as they are on beverage… It’s still been hard to be profitable.”
To help restaurants during the pandemic, the East Greenwich Chamber of Commerce done a variety of things to boost business, including working with the town on last fall’s “Take It Outside” campaign. Now it’s established a website, teamtakeout.org, that showcases takeout options for 42 local restaurants. Each restaurant has its own page. Each page includes the restaurant’s top five takeout dishes, the types of food served, a link to the restaurant’s online ordering system, and details on how to reserve a table.
The website and advertising campaign came as a result of a $12,000 grant the EG Chamber received from Rhode Island Commerce. The Chamber applied for a “HArT” (Hotel, Arts & Tourism) grant for marketing COVID-safe activities in town, like take out.
“Our Chamber team thought the best thing we could do [with the grant] was to support our restaurants,” said Steve Lombardi, the EG Chamber’s executive director.
“Because the grant and a lot of what was being promoted with Commerce Rhode Island had to do with ‘taking it outside,’ and dining safely, and supporting our restaurants,” said Lombardi, “we decided to focus on takeout for our restaurants.”
Lombardi says the inspiration for the takeout website came after hearing directly from restaurant owners that they would benefit from such a site.
“A couple of our restaurant members mentioned to me the fact that it would be great if there was a website attached to the Chamber [website] which was for our restaurants,” said Lombardi. “Glenn [Fontaine, the Chamber’s Marketing Director] and Amy [Moore, the Chamber’s Main Street Coordinator] developed the ‘teamtakeout.org’ concept to do that.”
Lombardi said the feedback’s been good, with many restaurant owners appreciating the Chamber’s new website and anticipating it will help with their business.
“I think [the website] gives our business, and a lot of the local restaurants in EG and neighboring cities and towns, that exposure that we do have takeout,” said Finn.
Finn also said the website’s “top five takeout dishes” section is a plus, emphasizing its similarity to the idea of restaurant workers informing in-person customers of the dishes that travel well.
As helpful as it is, some lament not having had the dedicated website sooner.
“I think it’s a really good idea,” Lisa Altieri, owner of Dante’s Kitchen, said of the site. “I wish it came a little bit sooner rather than later because we are already a year into this. I think it would’ve been much more effective if it was put into place prior [to now] but nevertheless, it’s still a good idea and I still think it’s going to be beneficial to the town.”
Altieri also says her business is at an even bigger disadvantage than others because she serves breakfast and lunch, which are not as popular for takeout as dinner.
“Breakfast typically is a little more difficult to do takeout with,” said Altieri. “And you have a few things going against you when it comes to breakfast. A lot of kids are being homeschooled so the parents don’t really have time to pick up takeout for breakfast… So, that’s a strike against us.”
With decreased business, it’s been especially difficult for restaurant owners to keep workers employed.
“In the past, we had to lay people off because we’d been slow,” said Finn, “even to the point that we thought it was beneficial to close the doors because we were spending more money than we were making.”
“We’re able to at least bring in enough money to pay all of our employees,” said Mignanelli. “There’s not really a big return on our investment right now, but at least we’re able to employ all our employees and serve as many of our patrons as we can.”
Last week, the state lifted some COVID restrictions, allowing restaurants and pubs to open their bar areas. Parties are limited to four people and bars are to close by 11 p.m.
“We were very excited when they lifted that restriction,” said Finn. “I think you could definitely tell just how excited our customers were to be able to sit at the bar.”
The opening of the bar has even created a few more jobs, which is a plus, says Finn.
Though bars are now allowed to be open for dining, says Mignanelli, that still doesn’t help Richard’s Pub much.
“We’re still restricted to 50 percent,” said Mignanelli. “It’s not going to make a drastic change until we’re able to operate at full capacity.”
“What we’re not realizing is a lot of people come in [to the bar] by themselves,” he added. “They didn’t really have a place to go for months. We kind of alienated [those people], which isn’t really right, especially with everything that’s going on.”
Restaurant owners emphasize the need for vaccinations to happen quickly.
“I think that the state definitely needs to step it up as far as vaccinations for people,” said Altieri. “And I think that restaurant workers and grocery-store employees should definitely be vaccinated. We are around hundreds and hundreds of people, and we try our best to keep everything up to code.”
“I feel that we should be able to be vaccinated if we’re going to continue to put our lives on the line as well,” she said, adding “and for me, putting my own personal money into the business just to keep it afloat.”
Owners also say they appreciate customers’ support throughout the pandemic.
“We just ask that you come in, and we just appreciate the support,” said Finn. “Every customer that walks through this door, we’re super grateful of it.”
“We really appreciate everybody’s support through all this,” said Mignanelli. “We even heard of some new customers that have ordered takeout from us that have never actually [done] business with us before, and they’ve become regular customers.”
Overall, owners hope the pandemic will end soon and that business will go back up again.
“We’re definitely sustaining and holding our own,” Altieri said, “We’ve closed a couple of times. But for the most part, I feel like the end is near, so that’s a good thing.”
“If we can get through this and people can get vaccinated,” said Finn, “I think it’ll be a great summer for East Greenwich, and Main Street, and the waterfront.”
Aiza Shaikh, a senior at EGHS, has been an EG resident since 2008. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, traveling, and eating coffee ice cream.