The Landing Kitchen opened in Bala Cynwyd, PA last March during the start of the pandemic.
There can be an argument made that opening a restaurant in a pandemic when there are restrictions, lockdowns, and an overriding fear of any human contact, much less any in an indoor space, is one of the worst business decisions a person can make. Why not just burn a bunch of money in front of City Hall and get it over with?
Or you could bet it on the Eagles to win the next Super Bowl.
How about picking a stock and trying to spark the next short squeeze?
None of those is a particularly intelligent pursuit, but some people might think they represent wiser behavior than starting up a business serving food in 2020-21.
Derrick Gibbons is not one of them. The owner and managing partner of Glu Hospitality has not only opened a new restaurant during the pandemic; he has opened several of them. Even established places have been impacted drastically—or have flat-out closed—due to the COVID-19 catastrophe, but Gibbons believes that the best people of all to handle uncertainty and potential disaster are restaurateurs, since they deal with crises of all kinds every day.
“If anybody can do it, it’s restaurant owners,” Gibbons says. “We roll with the punches. It’s either that, or we’re out of business.”
Gibbons’ Glu group has started the Germantown Garden in Northern Liberties, opened Hunnies Crispy Chicken as a “ghost kitchen” in two other properties and last July launched Anejo, a Mexican spot and tequila bar, also in NoLibs. Finally, Glu introduced SET NoLibs, an Asian fusion sports bar at the Piazza, right near Anejo.
Oh, and Glu has two new concepts planned for the spring, Bagels and Co. and Figo, an Italian spot, both in Northern Liberties. It’s a bold business plan, and if the businesses can survive the coronavirus, they will be well-positioned to thrive once people start going out again. Gibbons believes Glu’s critical mass in the Piazza area will offer plenty of options.
“It’s definitely a down market now,” Gibbons says. “For anyone coming in, there is certainly risk involved. It’s like the stock market. When it’s down, some people invest more. But there is an upside. When we are back to normal, and people feel comfortable coming out again, we will have dining opportunities for them.”
Gibbons is not alone. Other brave souls have risked their capital and perhaps their sanity by introducing new places to eat and take out over the past year. Some are following dreams. Others are chefs who need to bring their bills of fare to the public. All are facing considerable challenges and hoping to hang on throughout the most challenging times in order to receive a payoff down the road.
Even as the health climate in the area improves, cases drop, vaccination totals grow and people become more confident that the craved “return to normal” is within reach, there are still plenty of people who are unwilling to venture out to do much of anything, much less dine indoors.
“We’re so close to the finish line,” said one Philadelphia suburban woman. “Why take a chance?”
That reticence is real, and it has led to the death knell for many restaurants. But the brave entrepreneurs who have followed through with plans to open new spots are counting on their strong concepts, together with warmer temperatures that will again allow outdoor dining, along with science’s best efforts against the pandemic, to survive.
One such believer is Huyen Dinh, who opened The Breakfast Den last July. The restaurant serves breakfast and lunch and fulfills a dream for Dinh. “I have wanted to open my own restaurant since I was 14,” Dinh says. Dinh gained experience for eight years working “the front of the house” at restaurants on the west coast. The Philly native moved back to the area in 2019 specifically to open The Breakfast Den when she learned that getting the necessary resources to open in California was too difficult.
Although Dinh was following her dream, it’s not as if she felt her project would have an easy road. Opening any dining spot is difficult. Doing it in 2020 was particularly hard.
“It was very, very scary,” she says. “So many restaurants around us were closing, and people were learning how to cook and bake at home.”
The Breakfast Den is located at 1500 South Street in Philadelphia and boasts a menu that takes the comfort food concept and gives it a Vietnamese spin. Of course, patrons can get pancakes, French toast and a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. But there is also a hash made with Vietnamese marinated pulled pork, and there are other dishes flavored with some Asian seasonings that people may not be too familiar with.
“Since I’ve opened this, I have been surprised and happy to see how many people like fresh herbs,” says Dinh, who loves running The Breakfast Den and who gets the most happiness from her job when she is in the back cooking eggs.
By late winter, The Breakfast Den could only accommodate eight people out of the 30-person capacity at the spot. But the property came with a back patio that can hold three other tables, so even if restrictions remain in place into the summer, Dinh will be able to welcome more diners. And the sidewalk next to the restaurant can allow for up to 10 tables. Things are going well, and they should keep getting better, meaning that Dinh’s gamble might just pay off.
“I have been getting really good feedback,” she says. “People can sometimes be hesitant when they look at our menu and see some things that aren’t familiar. But they are then surprised by how much they like the food.”
Back in late 2019, when Matt Lang came up with the concept for his Zig Zag BBQ in East Kensington, Pa., he couldn’t have imagined that his Texas-style barbecue spot wouldn’t be able to offer eat-in opportunities for customers until almost a year after its opening. But that’s what has happened. Zig Zag opened on July 3, 2020, and has pretty much been a one-man effort as Lang tries to limit his costs until the pandemic releases its grip, the weather warms, and people are willing to dine in person again. Because he made a strong commitment to the restaurant, he had to open, even though the conditions were bleak.
“It was a necessity,” says Lang, who grew up in Baltimore. “I had sunk a bunch of money into something and had to make some money off it. I wasn’t going to sit here and have to pay rent for months on end without any money coming in.”
Lang produces his beef with pretty basic seasonings—although he does cop to “taking some liberties” here and there—and offers traditional barbecue sides with some twists. For instance, his coleslaw features tahini, instead of mayonnaise, and also includes some lime and sumac. His pork shoulder has a Thai-style marinade, and he cooks it for 48 hours.
This is the second restaurant Lang has owned. He previously was responsible for Lake Trout, a “fish fry place” in Brooklyn. He admits that the winter was particularly difficult for business, but remains optimistic that Zig Zag will thrive in the future.
“Hopefully, people will want to get out and try new things at some point,” he says. “We’re losing a tiny bit of money, but it’s nothing to get concerned about now. We will definitely be okay until April or May.”
In Bala Cynwyd, PA., the Landing Kitchen debuted in March as an adjunct to the new Residence Inn. Located in the Pencoyd Iron Works building, the restaurant is the result of a collaboration between Nick Elmi and Fia Berisha and will eventually be an all-day café that has some old favorites, like a grilled cheese sandwich, with some more creative takes. The partners hope to serve the community while also attracting those staying at the Residence Inn. Its dishes will be made with ingredients that are locally sourced—most within 80 miles of the restaurant—something that could contribute to the goal of creating a “feeling of a neighborhood restaurant.” At first, the space will offer breakfast and lunch, with dinner and drinks coming later.
Elmi describes the opening date as “a moving target” but also knows that the two years it has taken to bring The Landing Kitchen from concept to reality have included challenges that are normal to a restaurant launch, as well as unusual, thanks to the pandemic.
“Opening a restaurant pre-pandemic or in “normal” times is not easy,” he says. “Doing so in a pandemic is unsurprisingly more challenging. This project is about two years in the making, and we’ve experienced a number of delays, from construction and installation due to weather, shipping delays and then some. However, all of these delays and challenges have given us time to be very thoughtful and calculated when it comes to the design of the space and menu execution.”
At first, The Landing Kitchen will be something of a “grab-and-go” concern. But as the weather gets warmer, the goal is to provide a more expansive experience.
“Later in the spring, when it warms up, and more people are vaccinated, I imagine we will get more people hanging out in our scenic garden patio to enjoy our dinner and drinks menu when we launch those.”
Sounds like a good plan—and one hoped for by restaurant owners throughout the area.
2020 and COVID-19 hit most businesses hard, but one of the most affected industries was hospitality. Restaurants, bars, catering venues, entertainment halls and casinos were all forced to close their doors for some time and rethink their entire business strategy. It was heartbreaking to watch small “mom-and-pop” restaurants shut down, unable to pivot during this pandemic. But some local restaurants found a way to overcome this catastrophe.
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Hometown favorites like Braddock’s Tavern in Medford, NJ, have created dining-in and dining-out packages that are hard to resist. A $24.99 Lunch for Two, a $35 wine & cheese board to go, a make-your-own Bloody Mary bar and weekend curbside takeout specials that will make you salivate.
Our recommendation: The bone-in pork chop
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Cherry Hill, NJ staple, Caffé Aldo Lamberti, is another local restaurant that has pivoted during the pandemic. With takeout specials like a Chicken Dinner for Two (we’re talking salad, chicken entrée, pasta, dessert, bread and a bottle of wine for $55!), they’re making dining at home feel like a date night out.
Our recommendation: Sweet Potato Gnocchi
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Seasons 52 in Cherry Hill is another restaurant that rolled out the deals and stepped up their game this past year. During the height of the pandemic, they were offering a two for $48 promo. Salad for two, choice of two entrees and dessert for two. Along with this they improved their online ordering, had curbside pickup via text and elevated their social media game.
Our recommendation: Caramelized grilled sea scallops
– by Ashley Dunek