How To Open A Restaurant in the Middle of a Pandemic

The construction was nearing completion and the staff was mostly hired. Equipment had all been purchased. After years of practice, really for the first time ever, we were holding our timeline and set to open the newest Skinny Pancake at Stowe Village on April 15th, 2020. And then the pandemic struck. 

Rather than open a new location in April, we closed ALL Skinny Pancake locations in late March and launched ShiftMeals to support the charitable food system. By the end of May, we were producing over 6000 meals a week. By the end of June, ShiftMeals had made more than 50,000 meals for Vermonters experiencing food insecurity. In doing so, we piloted a program and worked to help write the legislation for a $5,000,000 CARES ACT allocation for VT to fund restaurants around the State to assist with emergency feeding efforts.

In late May, with the encouragement of the Federal government and their Payroll Protection Program, we began reopening existing locations. We started with our smallest and simplest outlet in downtown Montpelier. We next reopened our flagship location on the Burlington waterfront. Days later we re-opened in Quechee, VT. With each of these openings, we worked through the mental gymnastics of how to operate a restaurant during a pandemic. In each case, we created stacks of new Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and circulated them with the staff emphasizing the importance of their safety and the safety of the guests, and thereby the importance of employee perspective and feedback on these proposed SOPs.

The business world became a pineapple upside-down cake. The financial bottom line is temporarily no longer one of the ‘triple bottom lines’ advocated for by sustainable businesses. The health and safety of staff and guests come first, foremost, and last. Federal funding through the PPP allows us the ability to operate with negative margins for a few months as we try to piece together something that is primarily SAFE, secondarily, pleasant for everyone and finally, hopefully, profitable enough to be viable once the funding runs out. 

And yet, we still had this nearly complete restaurant in Stowe, VT sitting there empty…with all the existing overhead and a team full of people expecting to be employed. 

So we set to work in doing the seemingly unthinkable: ramping up to open a restaurant during a pandemic. It is one thing to bring a tenured team back together and introduce a series of new rules and regulations like the use of facemasks at all times, taking the temperature of each staff member upon arriving, and new reservation and contact tracing requirements. It is a whole different ball of wax to manage all of the above AND train a mostly new team from soup to nuts on how we do the most fundamental work of pouring, spinning, flipping, stuffing and folding of a crepe alongside the dance of running and bussing food while generally taking care of the crepe lovers eager to get out of their homes.

The first thing we do when we bring a new team together is go around in a circle and have everyone introduce themselves, their position with The Skinny Pancake and perhaps something about their personal life or passion that they want to share. Now that process happens muffled behind face masks, hiding everyone’s genuine smiles. Training in the kitchen typically happens with a member of our leadership team standing side by side with a new cook, supporting their learning process. Now that work will happen at a 6-foot distance with the experienced member of our team monitoring and preparing to jump on the line if the new cook is struggling. 

And the restaurant itself will remain empty of patrons…we will only be serving out on our patio. This is by far and away the prettiest location we have ever built. The aesthetics are awesome. The walkways are generously wide. We have a sweet bar that is adjacent to a gosh darn fireplace! It came out better than we ever would have hoped for…and yet, upon opening there won’t be a big party of people checking out all the nooks and crannies of the place…rather, we will be taking reservations and carefully limiting the total volume of guests. 

Truth be told, it’s not all bad. Our team here in Stowe will benefit from a slower-paced opening. With just 8 tables on our patio to start, the volume of food coming out of the kitchen should be much more manageable than a typical grand opening. And even though everyone has been wearing face masks the whole time, the COVID-era highlights the value of human connection that so many of us have sometimes taken for granted in the past. Our sense is that our team may end up tighter than other crews when we launched new locations. After all, their health and safety will depend on each other in a way we’ve never known before. 

Of course, we miss the old days. Foodservice is all about community…both amongst the staff and our guests. Restaurants are a place to gather. Bars are a place ‘where everybody knows your name.’ That connection is a big part of why we’re all in this hospitality business and why we’re looking forward to its return. 

In the meantime, we still serve the essential function of feeding people while now more than ever also providing a relaxing, safe alternative venue for guests with a vigilant commitment to ensuring our team’s safety. 

We have officially opened our new location in downtown Stowe VT amidst this pandemic. Please join us in welcoming the newest Skinny Pancake baby to the family. 

Stay safe and keep up the kindness to others, Vermont. Our gratitude for calling this brave little state home is beyond words. 

-Benjy Pancake

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