After Baltimore City extended home stay orders last week, Sergio Vitale, Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano’s owner-chef on High Street, has led a coalition of Little Italy venues hoping to close one of the neighborhood’s main streets to allow open seating so customers can enjoy side of the road air rates.
Vitale hoped the city government would support the effort, but said that private telephone conversations with Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young did not go as he had hoped.
“I never wanted to make this about me,” Vitale said, “but I feel to be the voice of a growing movement in the City of Baltimore. The mayor’s response was, “If you try to operate, we will kill you.” He said he would withdraw our food permit from the health department and turn us off. And I consider that permanently. I don’t want to discuss it, but he is the current decision maker – he and the governor. We need a lifeline here. All we ask is the chance to make a living. “
At press time, the mayor’s office could not be contacted for comment.
Tell us about your idea to have an open food court in Little Italy.
The ideas are not original – we are just trying to do what other places have done. I have tried throwing this “curbside-plus”, as I call it, a kind of outdoor food court idea. All the rules of the curb are already there, you order the same as you ordered now, but you can eat like at Herald Square in New York. We will whiten the table in between and make the protocol. I hope this call to the mayor can be followed up with a meeting where we build a joint protocol with stakeholders, public policy makers, restaurant owners, and small businesses to talk about the next steps, but he rejects the opportunity.
We were 10 weeks into the restaurant and the bar was closed for dining in by Governor Larry Hogan. Why did you make this plan now?
All pieces that can be made have been made. What else do we do? Curbside works for about half of restaurants in my anecdotal experience, but for the other half, this is a slow way to lose money. They talk about the next steps, and 25 percent occupancy is a quick way to lose a lot of money. We need 50 percent, and no one is really comfortable with that.
“Curbside works for about half of restaurants in my anecdotal experience, but for the other half, it is a slow way to lose money.” —Sergio Vitale
Why is 25 percent occupancy problematic?
With 25 percent occupancy, you are at a different level of service. There are more costs involved than just the curbside model. I have to set the air conditioner for that. I have to bring staff. We must take responsibility. Nobody talks about potential civil liability if someone, God forbids, contracts COVID and blames you for it. I’m not sure how you prove it, but it is a potential liability. And then rent is a difficult thing. This is a sad and tiring cliche, but it has never happened before and we must find a new way to do it.
Why be opposed?
He made a public health argument. He said, “What if we have outdoor dining and someone coughs?” Well, why is the restaurant industry held to different standards? The city encourages people to ride the bicycle lane and close the road to exercise, so if its size is someone coughing within 50 feet of you, we will never move forward. And people must assess their own risk, we do not force this on anyone.
I closed my restaurant the day before the governor ordered it. I checked four out of five boxes for high risk for COVID, so I took it seriously. My father is 75 years old, he checks five out of five boxes. We don’t want to put anyone in danger, our staff or our guests, but we try to put this needle in order to move forward and this is only a small step. I am now very concerned because what should have been an easy opportunity to work together has been completely rejected. I am worried about the entire restaurant industry in the city now.
What is the solution if the mayor tries to turn you off?
We want him to make a public commitment that if the governor further facilitates restrictions, he will follow at low tide. At Little Italy, we are in a position to want to take this matter into our own hands, at our own risk. We will close the road ourselves, put the table on the road, serve invited guests, and invite the media to show what it will be like. I invited the mayor to come there to announce his policy revision and use the opportunity and he shouted at me and said that he would close us, fine us, open the streets, and withdraw health permits from the health department. I cannot ask my colleagues to risk their entire business just to make a point, so we will increase the pressure and continue the good struggle.
It is recommended that we reunite with a group of experts so that we can provide proposals to the mayor. I don’t understand why we have to do that – other cities have done yeoman work in this matter. If he wants a benchmark, there are 1,000 of them out there. I ended my fierce telephone call with the mayor by saying, ‘Don’t end in a sour tone. Thank you for taking my call and leaving the lines of communication open. ‘That is still my position. In the end, it’s not about one of us, it’s about the industry and the whole city.
“I’m now very worried because what should have been an easy opportunity to work together had been totally rejected. I am worried about the entire restaurant industry in the city now. ” —Sergio Vitale
When did all this happen?
We have all been trying to think of what the next steps will be for a number of weeks now and last week was a turning point at the curb. I haven’t talked to anyone who was open who didn’t see a decline in their roadside business last week. I think the governor’s orders [to reopen the beaches and boardwalks] is a wet kiss for Ocean City. People with cabin fever two months want to get out of the house and if they are allowed to do it legally, they will go there. I think that was the boost behind the decline in Baltimore City last week. That becomes more relevant. Government programs such as PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] does not apply to easy restaurants. The state is slow in giving grants. It becomes inevitable that if we don’t start raising our voices now, there will be nothing left to save in a few weeks.
How about carryout for you?
My experience is the same as many others. It starts strong enough. We love and appreciate the support. One of the things that you find now is who your friends are. It’s amazing to see people coming out. Really modest, but this is not a sustainable model. Last week, we experienced our worst week on the curb. We rebounded on Saturday and Sunday a little. But from Monday to Saturday, we do total sales of around $ 4,000. I heard from another restaurant last Tuesday that they did $ 90 on the curb.
But some restaurant owners do it very well. At one point I looked at our income and we did 25 percent of our normal volume with a curbside. One of the things that allows us to operate the sidewalk is a generous tip from the people who pick up, which is amazing. Talk about improvement – if the mayor and political class advance like the general public, it will be extraordinary. Instead, we have this disgusting and hostile relationship, which is disappointing.
Every day I talk to Alex Smith from the Atlas Restaurant Group, I talk to Patrick Russell at Kooper’s at Fells Point, Jim Kinney at The Capital Grille, Chad Gauss at The Food Market, and Elan Kotz at Orto, who used to work for me. We have formed a coalition to try to move forward. I will tell you, it is difficult for Italians like me to be arrested, but we must do something here to move forward. I feel compelled to speak at this time.
“Din addition to the destruction of our industry, when rent is reset, there will be another opportunity for the revival we have just seen in Baltimore recently – a kind of funky and fun little chef and ethnic concepts, which makes the city attractive. ” —Sergio Vitale
What will the culinary landscape look like when it’s all over?
This is a mixed bag. Unfortunately, I think 50 percent of the restaurant will not reopen. You have to re-invest to open up fully to eat indoors, that’s tens of thousands of dollars in training and supplies. If you don’t close permanently before that happens, you might find yourself having to close permanently after that. Having said that, in spite of our industrial collapse, when rents are reset, there will be other opportunities for a renaissance we have witnessed in Baltimore recently – a kind of funky and fun little chef, and often ethnic concepts, that make a pleasant city . That will be a positive result from this.
Why do you think there will be more places where the chefs drive?
Large chains may temporarily dominate the landscape, but when there is a correction in the rental market, no one will charge the rent they did before. People will start to see opportunities for small models, 500 square feet to 1,000 square feet, maybe shipping and curb oriented. My feeling is that this is how things sink in. Eating is a very challenging area because of concerns about the spread of COVID indoors, but all models have been attacked for years with thin margins and this only exacerbates the underlying problem. After the initial surprise, how the restaurant business will return to being small, it’s cheaper to open a model.
Will the restaurant survive?
It is a human need to want to break bread in someone else’s company. That’s the reality. This is what we do. We who are stupid enough to get into this business before will be stupid enough to get into it again. Unfortunately, there are many devastations between them.
Are you going to pursue this career path again?
When people ask about the restaurant business, I often say good days are good and bad days are terrible. On average, this is a very pleasant thing. I have eaten better than a medieval king. I have been in the company of some extraordinary people who have become better people and captained the industry. I gave the opportunity to have this experience because of the restaurant business. And then all the staff who have worked with us. I love this business, it’s a good way to use my very unemployed political science degree from Loyola. If I have to repeat it again, I will do it.
“It’s a human need to want to break bread in other people’s companies. That’s the reality. This is what we do. We who are stupid enough to get into this business before will be stupid enough to get into it again. ” —Sergio Vitale
You must have been a war fighter for this city, where did it come from?
Mother is a warrior and both of my parents have a deep contempt for a sense of injustice. I think I might take a little of it. I know it is difficult to overcome injustice at the moment, and you have to balance it with public health issues, but choosing winners and losers by the government is not fair. I think I might get the fighting spirit from mom. He fought against small cell lung cancer for 14 months. It was a terminal diagnosis from the start and she fought until the end. It’s hard not to witness something like that and be inspired.
Why is a restaurant important?
Why do you go to town unless you eat well and have the opportunity to see culture in the company of like-minded people? Isn’t that the ancient Greek who said “all the good things from this earth flowing into the city?“ The restaurant is the cutting edge.
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