Scene in South Bend: Local restaurants are ‘playing catch up’
On March 16, lights were dimmed, tables cleared and chairs stacked in restaurants across Indiana without a hint as to when life would return to dine-in businesses. Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb had just announced an order to end in-person dining, and, days later, a stay-at-home mandate would go into effect. After a few months of near-total lockdown, the state cautiously looked to resume business as usual at the start of the summer.
For many restaurant owners, taking an indefinite vacation from work during the lockdown wasn’t an option — they worked to keep their businesses as viable as possible by providing delivery services, grab and go options and other alternatives to the dine-in experience.
Local restaurants — whose workers would be considered essential during the pandemic — would spend the months following the initial spring shutdown trying to play “catch up.”
“We’ve been through a lot … but this was probably the worst.”
L Street Kitchen opened in June 2018 and became a go-to establishment for downtown workers looking for a low-cost quality breakfast and lunch, as well as a popular and comfortable brunch spot on the weekends. Local police officers, firefighters and hospital workers flock to the spot across from the courthouse for their popular breakfast burritos and “Meat Lover’s Hash” in between shifts.
“People don’t realize there’s not a television,” Mike LaCarrubba, the chef and co-owner, along with his wife, Meg, said. “It kind of makes it nice for the clientele that we get are actually people that engage with one another.”
Meg works the front end as a waitress, hostess and manager, while Mike runs the kitchen of this majority locally-sourced restaurant. The two met in New York decades ago, where Mike owned another restaurant and Meg was a waitress. They married and had five kids; eight restaurants later, the couple moved to South Bend to be close to their growing family.
After almost two years of growth, February 2020 was the L Street Kitchen’s most profitable month to date. But just a month later, they would bring in their lowest total yet.
Once the city shut down in March, the LaCarrubbas began to offer only takeout and cut their staff down from eight workers — soon, it was just the husband-and-wife duo coming in to work every day. Although they applied for a PPP loan for small businesses, it was lower than they expected. Mike said they have begun investing a couple thousand dollars of their own money into the business each month just to stay afloat.
“So in February we were hitting $32,000. And then in March we did $11,000, but still had to carry the bills from February,” he explained. “… To put it in perspective, we were making money. And now I’m using my Social Security money and my salary.”
In May, the dine-in space reopened, altering its table arrangement due to social distancing rules and capacity restrictions. Meg posted the reopening on social media and hired back much of the restaurant’s old staff. She also made QR scannable codes that would link to the restaurant’s menu so staff members and diners would not have to worry about the virus spreading through the menus.
Despite the reopening, restaurant business has yet to return to previous levels.
“It did probably [take] about five or six weeks for people to come in and it’s only been the last maybe three or four weeks that we’re getting closer to the numbers [from before],” Mike said.
Now, the restaurant is able to sit diners at 75% of its usual capacity. However, COVID-19 safety regulations leave the LaCarrubbas and their staff cleaning up every day for an extra hour after close.
In addition to reduced capacity and extra clean-up, owning a restaurant during a pandemic means buying masks in bulk to give to customers who forget theirs, bleaching and sanitizing everything between dining parties and hoping people will follow the rules. It also means paying triple the price for disposable cutlery and takeout containers.
“One thing I will mention though, ever since we’re doing a lot of takeout now, things like this plastic fork and knife pack … The price has tripled. You can’t always find to-go boxes when you go to the restaurant supplier,” Meg said.
“Or even our gloves,” Mike added. “Gloves are normally $12. Now they’re $64.”
The restaurant is now spending about 20% more to serve their meals.
“To be honest, we do have a cash flow problem,” Meg admits.
However, the couple said they never had any plans to close the restaurant.
“Right now, our numbers are getting to be close to where they were prior,” Meg said. ”But it’s hard because you always feel like you’re playing catch up. You know, you get behind on certain bills and you just were catching up.”
The South Lafayette downtown location, which typically closes at 2 p.m. daily, will soon foray into the dinner dining game under the name “Roselily” with the addition of their son as an evening chef starting Sept. 22.
Mike and Meg have run a restaurant in the aftermath of 9/11 and survived hurricanes knocking out the power at their restaurants in North Carolina — none of this, though, has compared to managing a restaurant during a pandemic.
“We’ve been through a lot,” Meg said. “But this one was probably the worst [period].”
“Everything has changed … And now you start over.”
In late 2018, Bantam Chicken and Seafood made its first appearance on the restaurant scene as a nightly pop-up in the L Street Kitchen space, with head chef Dont’e Shaw taken under the LaCarrubba family’s wing as a “protege.” But after Shaw left eight months later to lead the kitchen at LaSalle Grill, the upscale southern food concept lay dormant.
Josh Pola, the chief operating officer at Springwise Facility Management, helped reanimate the popular comfort food place, partnering with Shaw to bring the restaurant to its permanent location on South Bend Avenue in the spring of 2020.
“When this all stopped, we were already working on signing the lease,” Shaw said, referring to the hiatus placed on in-person dining. “And we actually had potential backers at the moment in time, [but] it didn’t pan out that way.”
Pola, a native of Northwest Indiana, joined the service industry as a line cook with no formal culinary education.
“I started off working in mom-and-pop restaurants and even worked in the food court at the mall and McDonald’s, Taco Bell, [places] like that … and I just basically taught myself a lot,” Shaw said.
When the pandemic hit, Shaw knew he would have to put his work ethic to the test.
“It was really rough at first. You know, the hours — I haven’t had a day off yet. It was just me and one other server that I had here,” Shaw said. “Everybody on our team has one goal. And that’s basically to succeed in this and get past all of this.”
Ingredient shortages became a symptom of the shutdown for Bantam’s kitchen, including a scarcity of their menu’s star player.
“At one point, it was hard to find the type of chicken that you needed,” Shaw said. “The thing about the chicken industry is that you have really big chain suppliers, and then you have these small local suppliers also too. The small local suppliers — you had to try to figure out if they could keep up, and if they can’t keep up, a lot of the stuff [would] have to be frozen coming in. Even Wendy’s ran out of chicken.”
Though Shaw enjoys the challenge of avant-garde cooking, he recognizes that, right now, customers may be craving simplicity.
“This is more so of a family restaurant,” Shaw said. “I definitely feel like right now, that’s what’s more important with everybody. So, instead of me doing what I want to do right now with the restaurant, do what people actually need.”
This flexibility has been key in explaining the restaurant’s achievements in their first year.
“We all grow together,“ Shaw said. “You know … since the restaurant industry has been impacted by this, everything has changed. It’s a stop. And now you start over.”
When the location first opened in the spring, they were limited to takeout orders, but have since increased to 40% dine-in capacity. Shaw and his team have continued carryout, and are expanding their takeout menu with a new option.
“We actually are going to also start doing our grab-and-go meal kits … a family edition menu,” he said. “If you can give a good quality product that costs 40 bucks, but you’re feeding people and you have leftovers for the next day, why not do it?”
Shaw remains grateful for the restaurant’s loyal customers and is hopeful for the future.
“Our success right now is definitely due to the support of the community,” Shaw said. “And our chicken sandwich.”