Right now in Huntsville, the people who own, run and work in restaurants are trying to keep local flavors alive. With the specter of mandated restaurant and bar closures in other parts of the U.S. due to coronavirus, here, in Alabama’s second largest city, businesses are shapeshifting to stay open as long as they can.
Domaine South is a European influenced eatery specializing in gourmet sandwiches, charcuterie, stews and wine. Located on the downtown square, Domaine South discontinued dining room service after a busy Friday dinner shift. Instead of opening Saturday, owner Kristian Denis held an employee meeting. There plans were discussed to reopen March 17 with curbside and delivery food service only “until we get to the other side of this.”
A couple of things led to her decision to close Domaine’s cozy, charming dining room. Bigger picture: Denis’ best friend and college roommate works as a nurse in Seattle, a city hit hard by coronavirus. Smaller picture, at Domaine South, Denis says, “We had taken tables out previously to keep everybody further apart and stopped accepting cash earlier in the week. But none of those things was really going to alleviate the fact people were right on top of each other. So that’s what we did.”
Denis also has moved all employees who were not making $13 an hour, up to that figure. Front of house restaurant workers, such as servers and bartenders, often make much less than that hourly, generating income mostly via tips left by customers. “We just wanted to make sure we do everything we can that their rent is paid and they have groceries,” Denis says.
Normally, Domaine South operates with a shift with five back of house, or kitchen, workers, five front of house, Denis and Domaine executive chef Luke Hawke. For now, they’ll operate with a crew of two back and two front, Hawke and Denis. “We want to make sure that we’re not on top of each other just because it’s so small and our kitchen is tiny,” she says. All employees are being cross-trained to do each other’s jobs, somewhat of a rare cross-pollination in the biz. And all employees on a shift will share tips.
Kristine Mears has been a server and bartender at Domaine South since November 2018. Passionate about her service industry career, Mears is excited to learn kitchen skills during this period. “We’re a fantastic team,” Mears says. “We’re honestly a family, so I’m willing to do whatever it takes to keep us going.”
Like a lot of people working in the service industry during the coronavirus pandemic, Mears’ emotions zoom from fear and gratitude. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t somewhat scare me,” Mears says, “just because we don’t know what the outcome from this will be. However, it’s really great to work for employers that really truly care about not only their employees but our guests. And we have amazing clientele that will make sure we are staying in business and are taken care of.”
Domainee South’s curbside service works like this: Customers call in their orders and pay via debit/credit card over the phone. Customers pull up to the curb near Domaine South and call again to let them know they’ve arrived and pop open their vehicle’s trunk. “We’re going to run it out and put it in their trunk,” Denis says. “Totally touchless.”
Many other local restaurants have initiated curbside service too, or shifted to takeout/drive-thru only. Some of these range from pizza (including Big Ed’s, Pan e Vino, Earth and Stone) to Mexican (Fire & Spice, Buena Vista, La Esquina Cocina) to sandwiches (Dallas Mill, Happy Tummy) to upscale (1892 East, Cotton Row, Commerce Kitchen) to international (Neon Lilly, Luciano, Ol’ Heidelberg, Beignet Cafe) to barbecue/chicken (ChuckWagon, Beauregard’s) to coffee (Offbeat, Honest Roasters) and beyond (Straight to Ale, Hippea Camper). Development nonprofit Downtown Huntsville Inc. has compiled a running list of downtown restaurants doing so.
Judd Vowell is chief operation officer of Food And Beverage Associates, a restaurant group that manages Mediterranean-tinged Jones Valley restaurant Mezza Luna. Starting March 17, Mezza Luna, home to an airy dining room, bar and patio, will move to curbside service only, taking orders via phone. They’re also working with their point of sale company to set up online options too. “It took a serious amount of deliberation to move from in-house dining to curbside only,” Vowell says, “with both our staff and the guests in mind. We didn’t make this decision without some difficult conversations.”
Mezza Luna had planned to close March 16 for staff-training regarding COVID-19, the disease coronavirus causes. “Over the weekend, the rapid spread of the virus became clear,” Vowell says though, “and we felt it was in the best interest of our community to follow the government’s social-distancing recommendations.” During this phase, Mezza Luna will utilize servers to deliver meals, including the restaurant’s brick-oven pizzas, out to customers’ vehicles. Mezza Luna, Domaine South and other Huntsville restaurants are also adding family style meals to increasingly malleable menus, such as spaghetti or short ribs.
Last week, Mezza Luna also intensified their restaurant’s cleaning policies, using downtime to deep clean and keep employees on the clock. “We’re doing everything we can to keep a steady paycheck coming,” Vowell says. As far as libations go, businesses like Old Town Beer Exchange and The Wine Cellar have also started curbside service for packaged sales. For its to-go wine sales, Domaine South is only admitting one customer at a time.
Local third-party food delivery service GrubSouth has been encouraging customers to opt for a “non-contact” option for orders. No signing required, tips are done in advance and the food’s left at your doorstep. Via Facebook, GrubSouth co-owner Katie Herron says, “We’ve definitely gotten more vendor applications than usual.”
Denis and Vowell say their respective restaurants’ wholesale supply chain has remained stable. For now, at least. The coronavirus pandemic’s looking impact on society is too overwhelming to outline in sentence. When it’s all said and done though, Vowell thinks that will include “a deeper appreciation for services we’ve taken for granted for so long.” He adds, “it’s critical for our community to support us as long as they can, utilizing the curbside availability while it lasts.”
Understandably, Domaine South employee Kristine Mears says worry is soaring among service industry workers. “We live on tips, that’s how we survive,” Mears says, “and a lot of us are very day-to-day. I’m lucky I don’t have any kids to worry about, but plenty of my service industry friends do.”
Domaine owner Kristian Denis restaurant career goes back decades, including an early ’90s stint waiting tables at bygone downtown Huntsville spot Richard’s on the Square. She says even the aftermath of 9/11 terrorist attacks or Hurricane Katrina can’t compare to present tense. “In restaurants and bars the margins are really slim,” Denis says, “so they rely on the business they’re doing today to pay their employees tomorrow and to buy their food. We’re lucky to be in a position that we can do this right now. But it’s going to be devastating for the service industry, and a lot of people are not going to come back from it.”