MICHAEL THOMAS, manager of True Food Kitchen, ensures that customers are aware of the restaurant’s precautions that protect against COVID-19. / Photo by Judy Walker

It’s challenging enough to open a restaurant.

Try opening one in a pandemic.

Even if your restaurant has major star power behind it, the still-present COVID-19 knows no boundaries, throwing curveballs on occupancy rates, training ability, customer interest levels and other facets of dining out.

None of this is stopping True Food Kitchen, which held soft openings as it geared up for Sept. 1 – the day it opened the doors of its new Roosevelt Field Mall restaurant to the public in Garden City, New York. It’s the restaurant’s 34th location.

The hurdles –and there are many – have become opportunities to constantly stand up to the COVID-19 crisis.

“We’re learning all kinds of new things – the team has become resilient and adaptable,” Christine Barone, True Food’s CEO, told Long Island Business News.

Opening a restaurant in a pandemic is redefining hospitality. It means finessing graciousness, so customers can relax for a meal. It means reconfiguring training and operations to accommodate new regulations. And it means building buzz to cultivate a customer base.

Long Island remains an attractive market, and compared to elsewhere in the country, is perhaps even more so now with the rate of infection low.

Star power

But star power can provide a meaningful boost.

True Food, for example, already has the backing of Oprah Winfrey, who invested in the company in 2018 and, according to published reports, joined its board of directors because she was so impressed with the eatery’s anti-inflammatory menu.

That menu was developed by integrative medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil, who touts food that makes you “feel better, not worse,” according to the restaurant’s website.

It’s a mantra that is starting to resonate more now that it became known that those with pre-existing medical conditions – diabetes, obesity and other comorbidities – were most vulnerable to bad outcomes if stricken with COVID. Among some, there’s now a trend toward eating anti-inflammatory foods, given that inflammation is thought to be the root cause of long-term health risks. But that food is hardly dull.

“Dr. Weil founded True Food to show that food that is good for the body is absolutely delicious,” Barone said.

It helps, too, to be a restaurateur with rock-star credentials, like in the case of Steven Del Lima, who is in the process of Hooks & Chops in Commack, New York. A graduate of the famed Culinary Institute of America, the noted chef has made headlines for opening Wild Fin in Huntington, New York; Black & Blue in Huntington, New Tork; Perfecto Mondo in Commack, New York; White Oak Oyster Bar in New York City and The Homestead in Oyster Bay, New York among others.

“We’ve been planning this opening since the beginning of March but have been having to push the date back due to COVID-19 restrictions,” Del Lima said.

Star power can bring out crowds but may be more essential now that people have limited entertainment options and so seek out dining experiences that promises to be special.

Hooks & Chops, for instance, touts offering the “freshest seafood available,” “uniquely-aged steaks” and wines from “every corner of the globe,” complementing the menu.

And right now, True Food’s seasonal food focus includes the more eclectic heirloom tomato and waterman salad as a starter, and spaghetti squash casserole as an entrée, though grass-fed burgers and a variety of tacos are also on the menu.

And because it can be timely to chop and roast vegetables at home, the restaurant runs on the premise that its roasted veggies “can become a convenience food” – a lure for those who are short on time, but want to quickly feed their family a healthy meal, Barone said.

Business model, reconfigured

Like other restaurants reconfiguring their model amid the pandemic, True Food has taken a new look at offering to-go family meals, understanding which dishes – salads, bowls with bases of grains, and pizzas – travel well for off-premise orders, offering new ways to please customers.

“Some people still don’t want to go to restaurants,” she said.

But the restaurant is taking big steps in helping people feel comfortable dining in. In Garden City, New York, manager Michael Thomas ensures that tables are spaced apart to meet physical distance guidelines. And posters indicate that tables are sanitized between seatings.

Menus are disposable, and people can fill out their own order sheets, or even pull up the menu on their phones and place orders there. This way, there are fewer items for people to touch in the restaurant.

Pre-COVID, Barone looked to hide sanitizing wipes, thinking “nobody else wants to see that.” But now, clients comment, “It smells like alcohol – thank you so much,” grateful for the extra sanitization measures taken, she said.

And True Food is thoughtful about taking reservations, staying below capacity, so that the restaurant never seems too full and people feel safe.

Training, too, has been staggered – some it moved to virtual – to allow for physical distancing, Barone said.

At Hooks & Chops, timing has been an issue since the virus’ outbreak.

“COVID-19 happened towards the end of my construction, so I had to change the floor plan on the fly,” Del Lima said.

“The cost has been more than usual because of the changes that New York State is mandating as well,” he added. “We also had to install a special HVAC filtration system, which was an additional expense. We’ve added a fogging sanitation which we’ll be doing twice a week. I’m trying to do what I can to make my clientele feel safe here at Hooks & Chops. Safety will always be the priority here, no matter the cost.”

True Food developed new measures since the virus’ outbreak, incorporating best practices from its other restaurants across the country. It is partnering with Ecolab – a provider of water, hygiene and infection prevention strategies – on new certification for keeping customers and employees safe, Barone said.

Landlord support

Landlord support is key, especially amid a pandemic, experts say. Simon Properties, for instance, houses other True Food Restaurants, and “early in our growth recognized how different our concept was,” Barone said. The landlord “helped us open the right way – we had some time to adjust.”

It helps, she added, that leases are “10 to 20-year partnerships, and that Simon was “very thoughtful in understanding our partnership is for the long term.”

Del Lima said he’s “very lucky when it comes to the landlord. I think he has seen the passion and investment that has gone into Hooks & Chops and understands that we are in this for the long haul and plan to expand and open more Hooks & Chops in the near future.”

Buzz

Even with landlord support, new restaurants must get the word out that they are open for business.

Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, a new franchise concept in Centereach, is giving away free barbecue for a year through Facebook campaign.

Hooks & Chops’ Facebook page “already has 800 followers and we aren’t even open yet,” Del Lima said, adding that “feedback from the community in general has been so positive and exciting.”

And influencers began flooding social media platforms about True Food during its soft opening.

Proof that even with star power and safety measures, old-fashion buzz and wowing customers still very much matter.