Providence Restaurants Are Launching New Ideas and Patios to Combat Crisis

Many local restaurants are staying positive and getting creative to generate revenue during a tough time for the restaurant industry.
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The patio at New Rivers. Photo by Jamie Coelho.

If only takeout could have always been this easy. With two small children, it previously was a hassle to load my little ones in the car, drive to a restaurant, get out of the car and go inside to pick up and pay for my order, kids in tow, touching everything and being the energetic little beings that they are. A silver lining of this whole COVID-19 crisis is that many of Rhode Island’s best restaurants are now offering contactless takeout, pre-paid through websites, and brought right out to your car or handed to you through a curbside window.

That’s exactly what New Rivers in Providence is doing for Fried Chicken Friday, a Friday takeout special complete with all the fixings, that is prepaid through the website and carried right to your passenger seat or trunk by a staff member. The special and the full menu can be enjoyed for takeout or service on the restaurant’s new patio.

“Fried Chicken Friday is something that morphed from our existing ‘once in a while’ fried chicken night (one of our most popular promotions) to the fun-to say Fried Chicken Friday,” says New Rivers chef-owner Beau Vestal. “We offer three-piece, a half-bird and whole bird options all with lots of seasonal sides and desserts. It definitely has turned into a fun option that lots of people look forward to. Comfort food is what it’s all about.”

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Fried chicken and fixings from New Rivers, plated at home.

Many local restaurants are coming up with new ideas for takeout specials or frozen prepared items that people can take home and reheat later. It’s all in an effort to generate extra revenue to replace some of what’s been lost due to the current coronavirus crisis. These same restaurants are also embracing an opportunity to create the outdoor patios they always wanted, but never had the capacity to do. Now that indoor dining is limited, they have no choice but to move or expand service outdoors.

It’s a tough time to own a restaurant in Rhode Island, and in the United States, right now. Obviously, lives take precedence over profits, but the pandemic has also taken an economic toll on families who own small businesses. Most local restaurant owners are reporting only about 30 to 50 percent of the revenue that they would normally see this time of year, so they are making extra efforts to find ways to recoup those losses.

“Sometimes people forget that we’re human. We are affected the same way everyone else is,” says Dolores and El Rancho Grande co-owner Joaquin Meza. “We just get seen as a business owner, but we have families we have to provide for, we have to pay rent, mortgages, kids’ school, college, and also keep a restaurant afloat.”

In Rhode Island, Phase III of Reopening RI encourages socially distanced outdoor dining and allows 66 percent indoor dining capacity as long as spacing requirements can be maintained. Restaurants have had to lay off many employees and serve fewer guests due to reduced capacity, while continuing to pay the same rent, utilities and taxes and other overhead costs. Some owners have decided to forgo indoor and outdoor dining completely for takeout only, narrowing margins even more drastically.

As the pandemic continues on, several notable Rhode Island restaurants have been forced to shut their doors for good, including Loie Fuller’s, Bravo Bistro, Red Fin Crudo, Luxe Burger Bar, Red Stripe in East Greenwich, Eleven Forty Nine and others, and that’s just the beginning as we move into the fall. But even with the difficult situation they face, some local spots are staying positive throughout the situation. They are getting creative about new ways to bring in revenue and survive this crisis, especially in Providence, where daily activity has decreased due to canceled events and conventions.

To help the situation, Go Providence, the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, has relaunched a four-week Providence Restaurant Weeks promotion called Stay Local. Eat Well., running from August 16–September 12. This time around, there’s a lot of flexibility on dining offers, whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner deals, a signature cocktail, a family-sized entree and more. See all the restaurants that will be participating and their offers here. Go Providence is also teaming up with WhatsGood local food delivery service to allow for the delivery of meals from select Restaurant Week participants. Meals will come packed on ice with reheating instructions.

At Dolores, Meza just wants to stay relevant during a difficult time. “I’m open not to make money, but just to keep the lights on and the business and brand going,” says Meza, who also manages his temporarily-closed family restaurant El Rancho Grande, also in Providence. “We cannot just disappear and restart again. By keeping the takeout going, essentially it’s keeping the lights on. This is the reality right now.”

Dolores is a contemporary Mexican restaurant located on Hope Street, focusing on cuisine from the Mixteca region of Puebla and Oaxaca, where the family is from. In addition to takeout, the Meza family recently launched patio dining with several tables on the sidewalk as well as socially-distanced indoor dining. The menu includes six different mole sauces paired with pork, beef, chicken, veggies or seafood, as well as tacos, tamales and seafood ceviche. Before Dolores reopened for indoor/outdoor dining, Meza says they were only seeing about 30 percent of their usual revenue, but once they expanded service, it is now closer to 50 percent. They made some changes to the menu in hopes of increasing sales.

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The patio at Dolores. Photo from Dolores’s Facebook page.

“We wanted to change the look of the menu and be creative, but continue with the same mindset that we had when we opened in November,” Meza says. “It’s more summery, and we’re taking advantage of all the seafood we have in Rhode Island.” Takeout is served through a large window right from the sidewalk, and can be contactless, if preferred.

The Meza family also owns El Rancho Grande, which shut down before the pandemic, and then suffered a fire on the second floor a few weeks ago. The family decided not to reopen ERG during the pandemic because of its small size, but Meza says they plan to bring it back eventually, possibly with a reduced takeout menu. “There are plans to reopen, but it’s not the right time, especially with its small size and the current spacing regulations. We would only be able to seat two tables outside and maybe four inside,” Meza says. “That’s my mom’s pride and joy. She would have a heart attack if I told her that we weren’t going to reopen.”

Instead, the family is focusing efforts on outdoor dining and takeout, and limited indoor dining at Dolores. Selling takeout bottled margaritas and mezcalitas has been good for them, and they also started selling packages of their frozen tamales that can be reheated at home. “We heard from people that they were taking them and freezing them for a later date, so we decided to vacuum seal and freeze them here,” he says. “Now they can just take them and reheat them whenever they want.”

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Corn tamal and fish taco from Delores, plated at home.

Despite the tough climate for restaurants, Persimmon, located directly across the street from Dolores, is also turning lemons into lemonade. The restaurant is making an extra effort to market its popular Bolognese and red and white clam sauces for take-home meals. “Our goal has always been to officially market the Bolognese,” says Persimmon co-owner Lisa Speidel, who runs the restaurant with her husband, the James Beard Award-nominated chef Champe Speidel. “We sell the Bolognese and the two different types of clam sauce, the red and the white. We’re constantly making fresh batches, so that’s always on our takeout menu.”

Persimmon closed for awhile during the height of the pandemic, then slowly reopened by serving only the Bolognese and clam sauces for takeout pickup, then takeout with a larger menu and special packages, and then they decided to roll out new patio seating on the cobblestone sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Now they are open for both patio and reduced-capacity indoor dining. Persimmon has been operating for four years, but this is the first time they’ve offered al fresco seating.

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Patio dining at Persimmon. Photo from Persimmon’s Facebook page.

“The funny thing is, we always wanted to add al fresco dining. Obviously, there’s necessity now, so we said let’s do it,” Speidel says. “It’s been great and the response has been wonderful. Now Dolores also added outdoor dining so the whole corner of Hope and John Streets has a little light to it. It glows; it’s really pretty.”

Guests can continue to order takeout food and bottled cocktails from the entire Persimmon menu. The chefs have also created some fun one-time takeout packages, like a lobster picnic and a clam boil option for special weekends like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. “The packages are nice whether there is a pandemic or not. People might get takeout and bring it out on their boat or to their back deck,” Speidel says. “On Instagram, I see people enjoying food in different settings. It’s fun to see where they take our food.”

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Persimmon’s takeout lobster picnic.

Over at New Rivers, owners Beau and Elizabeth Vestal are also embracing patio seating, though they are not open for indoor dining. The restaurant first reopened with contactless takeout, then eased into service. “We needed to get our bearings and slowly begin to ‘wake up’ the restaurant after being closed so long,” Beau Vestal says. They reopened for patio-only dining in an area that’s set up to the right of the restaurant in a portion of the parking lot.

“We’ve wanted a patio for as long as I can remember, but we were afraid of not being able to handle the expanded volume out of our tiny kitchen,” Beau Vestal says. “It’s been great to be able to offer a ‘regular’ summer menu with offerings that might not translate the best to takeout and to see guests enjoying the view up College Hill all while feasting on summer’s bounty.”

New Rivers is being especially careful about all safety precautions. Not only do they offer 100 percent contactless takeout, but they also have strict dining guidelines. “For takeout, when the guest arrives, they’re instructed from the app to call and let us know they are here and we run it out to their vehicle and place it in their trunk, back seat or wherever they would like,” Vestal says. “For dining at the patio, we send all guests who pre-reserve an email detailing our protocols and hold them accountable to following our mask, social distance and contact-tracing protocols.” Dining parties’ contact information is recorded for Rhode Island contact tracing requirements and staff is pre-screened each day using the CDC and Department of Health screening tool. The restaurant also requires masks when not seated at a table and asks guests to also wear masks when interacting with staff.

Persimmon’s Speidel says both staff and guests have all been very respectful about wearing masks and keeping distance. “Just like everyone else, we long for the good old days, but we’re just trying to work with what we’re able to do at this point, and to be super safe both for our guests and our team,” Speidel says. “Wearing masks, the constant changing of the gloves, using sanitizer and obsessively washing hands, it has all become second nature.”

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