Forced to slow down and relax by the pandemic, but still accept that change is the new constant for restaurants and their communities.
All Zagat stories are written by our editorial team. This story is brought to you by our partner Chase Sapphire®.
Through the hardships of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve moved on to take-out, provided meals for essential workers, and more. The Sapphire Support Restaurants Contest is awarding $ 50,000 in business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide recovery assistance in the event of the COVID-19 pandemic. Zagat Stories features interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.
Ralph Brabham and Aschara Vigsittaboot are respectively partner and founding chief of Beautiful Thai, a Washington DC restaurant with locations in Mt. Pleasant and Shaw.
RALPH BRABHAM: Before the pandemic, most of our sales were done on site. I would say between 20 and 30 percent of our business was delivery, delivery, and DoorDash. The biggest change the pandemic has forced on us has been this shift to almost exclusively delivery and delivery and third-party app sales. During the pandemic, our restaurants and dining rooms essentially became warehouses for take-out boxes, dry goods and ingredients.
We were nimble enough to respond to what we knew at the time, which wasn’t much. In early 2020 we started removing items from our menu that weren’t fully cooked like our garden buns, salads and things like that because we didn’t know how the virus got transmitted. . I think we were at the forefront in DC in terms of eliminating paper menus and moving to QR codes.
We have reconfigured our front-of-house operations to be on-the-go and on-the-go hubs. We installed plexiglass windows to protect our staff as best we could in this transition. We implemented a new website that modernized the consumer experience and made it easier to order online. We had to completely eliminate our bar staff and reduce the number of waiters. Physically, meeting District rules for social distancing and spacing, we removed most of the furniture from our dining rooms.
ASCHARA VIGSITTA BOOT: We also limited the time we took orders. Our staff had to go home and the public transportation was stopped very early so we tried to help them.
BRABHAM: Here in Washington, metro and bus service were severely limited in terms of hours. We didn’t really get over it. We still operate at reduced hours.
VIGSITTABOOT: For the kitchen staff, we still have everyone. We didn’t let them go, only at the bar. Servers have become packagers.
BRABHAM: It has been a very mentally trying year for everyone. But beyond the pandemic, everyone is a little more aware of the mental health needs of the people you work with. This has resulted in us, as an employer, stepping back and looking for ways to improve the lives of our employees. We are constantly evaluating how we can provide a better working environment for the whole person.
Aschara, my husband and I have become a family over the past decade. Our social lives have tightened a lot over the past year, and we’ve grown even closer. And we even got closer to our staff. We’re all in the same boat. It was a time when A, it wasn’t responsible for dating strangers, but B, it was really important to be together.
Frankly, there is definitely a lifestyle benefit to not having to be at work. We have had a lot of quiet time outside of the restaurant over the past year, just having a fire in our backyard and having the chance to relax and give ourselves the space to just be. There is so much going on and so much to fear. It’s devastating the toll the pandemic has had on our restaurant peers and restaurant workers. As much as we want to be everything for everyone, it’s also important to give yourself a break.
VIGSITTABOOT: It’s hard to come back as before. You start to get used to packing take out and not seeing customers at all. Now we are starting to see customers coming back.
BRABHAM: Once you get used to the new normal, that standard has to change and you have to adapt to it. It’s always forward and forward without necessarily being comfortable.
We continue to focus on consumers online, whether it’s ordering take out or making reservations or whatever. It’s our future, in a way. We have never been as tech-savvy as we are now. We have also implemented new staffing structures. We have someone overseeing operations at all three locations. We are focused on building a slightly more agile and also more efficient infrastructure. If, God forbid, we have another pandemic or multiple shutdowns, or if someone gets sick, we can take a team offline and hook people up to other restaurants in a way we didn’t have the capacity to. to do.
Our community has been quite phenomenal. We have several people who were regulars before the pandemic and have continued with their usual meals, only via take out and delivery, which has been cool. We have had clients who have since moved away from DC, and we are sending them Beau Thai meal kits. We had a lot of fun putting together meal kits and sending them everywhere from Chicago to Raleigh, North Carolina to Boston. It was fun to see people enjoying Beau Thai on social media even though they couldn’t be physically with us. This kind of support and loyalty has been quite impressive and humbling.
VIGSITTABOOT: Even when people move, they come back and order the food when they visit.
BRABHAM: Several times last year we had to pack restaurants for various reasons. We made it our business when we settled down to write the word “love” on our signs. It really resonated with our neighbors because it was an expression on our part to them that our love was genuine. We just tried to spread the message of hope and unity through our social media and in person as well. At our two Beau Thai locations, we had a local artist paint huge hearts on our windows, which are still in place.
VIGSITTABOOT: I am very proud to keep all my staff, especially in the kitchen. Some waiters couldn’t come to work and I always offered to come and eat with us. We are really close, like family. I’m quite proud of it.