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Baltimore-area restaurant owners are racing to meet demand for holiday dining ahead of second COVID winter

Susan Levine walked through the high-ceilinged event space attached to Citron, the restaurant she and her husband opened in Pikesville five years ago. Just outside, the waters of Quarry Lake glistened in the fall air.

“This place was just rocking Sunday night,” she said.

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The high-end Baltimore County eatery’s private events schedule is filling up fast for the holidays, with private events on the books and some customers buying out the entire restaurant for an evening. Saying they’re “gearing up for a big Thanksgiving, a big holiday season,” Levine and her husband have been converting storage space into additional seating to accommodate all the guests.

After a drop in business during 2020, Citron is closing out its busiest year yet.

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“People found our restaurant during the pandemic,” Levine said. “People were Googling ‘outdoor dining near me.’”

Citron boasts a high-tech air filtration system, enviable outdoor patio and ample space for social distancing — all factors that put guests at ease during the pandemic.

Despite supply chain woes and staffing headaches, the coming winter season is looking relatively bright for restaurant owners. Late last fall, with COVID-19 cases rising and an unclear timeline for vaccine rollout, many restaurants wondered how long they could hang on. Months later, boosted by community support and, in some cases, millions of dollars in federal and locals grants, some have relocated to larger spaces, expanded outdoor seating areas or added additional locations.

Citron also has benefited from diners looking to avoid neighboring Baltimore City’s comparatively tight COVID-19 restrictions. A recent client who bought out the whole restaurant for an event “didn’t want to be downtown because they were going to have to wear masks.”

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But the rebound for restaurants isn’t just happening in Baltimore County. Restaurants and catering companies within Baltimore’s city limits report increased business as the holidays approach.

“Things are better this year than last year, of course,” said Phillip Quick, co-owner of Jay’s Catering in Midtown-Belvedere. He qualified that: “Much better — but still nowhere near to pre-pandemic levels.”

For Quick and many others, government loans and grants offered a lifeline during the worst of the pandemic. Jay’s Catering received $2.9 million through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, and an additional $286,000 through the Paycheck Protection Program.

“The government stepped in and helped,” Quick said. “They were definitely throwing us a lifesaver.”

The money is allowing Quick to hire new staff and pay better wages than in previous years.

Server William Taylor pours wine for Shawn Barnes, center, and DeLena DeSchiles as they celebrate a new business venture together in Citron’s covered terrace section on Thursday.
Server William Taylor pours wine for Shawn Barnes, center, and DeLena DeSchiles as they celebrate a new business venture together in Citron’s covered terrace section on Thursday. (Ulysses Muñoz)

Not everyone has been so fortunate: Faidley Seafood, for example, received nothing, co-owner Damye Hahn said. She’s urging Congress to replenish the fund. The Levines say they didn’t receive money from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, either.

Now, after a year of hardly any business at all, Jay’s has seen catering orders increase to about half of pre-pandemic levels.

In lieu of the buffet orders of previous years, more and more corporate clients are requesting single-serving meals.

“That’s the new catering,” Quick said. “Even the calls that we’re getting for holiday parties — everyone is more interested in the individually-packaged stuff.”

Of course, it’s a more labor intensive approach and requires additional supplies like containers, something that can be hard to find at times.

Nora Reyes, manager at Jay’s Catering, seals up ready-to go meals. Since the pandemic, Jay’s Catering has seen an increase in demand for individually-packaged meals, rather than buffets.
Nora Reyes, manager at Jay’s Catering, seals up ready-to go meals. Since the pandemic, Jay’s Catering has seen an increase in demand for individually-packaged meals, rather than buffets. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

In addition to the catering company, Jay’s Restaurant Group owns four restaurants on a single block of N. Charles Street, including Turp’s Sports Bar and an all-day breakfast and chicken restaurant that opened last year, the Chicken or the Egg. Those businesses have all seen a noted increase in foot traffic and orders since September, when students returned to area campuses.

That’s in keeping with a trend across the city. Smartphone data tracking visits to bars and restaurants show an increase of 29% this October over the same month last year, according to Safegraph, a company that tracks anonymized smartphone data. Still, those percentages are about a third of what they were in 2019.

Most recently, Quick reopened XS, a sushi and cocktail lounge, with a slimmed-down menu and scaled-back operating hours. The restaurant that previously operated all day, seven days a week, now serves just dinner — and six days a week. The reduction in hours was largely because of staffing challenges, he said.

“You needed to do that when you needed to rehire a whole new staff to reopen,” Quick said.

XS is far from the only restaurant to reduce operating hours even as business picks up. In Fells Point, Peter’s Inn owners Karin and Bud Tiffany now accept dinner reservations just three nights a week. Karin Tiffany said the pivot has helped them adapt to rising food prices.

“The food costs so much money and if you’re not busy and guaranteed to sell, it’s a waste of money,” she said.

Rising food prices have been an issue — and so has sourcing ingredients.

At Station North’s Alma Cocina Latina, co-owner Irena Stein said: “We never know exactly what’s available and when. Sometimes there’s not a wild caught fish … The delivery days are less frequent.”

Because of a shortage of delivery drivers, Stein said staff sometimes picks up orders in their cars now.

Stein and her husband, Mark Demshak, have pushed back the opening of Cielo Verde, a cafe at the American Visionary Art Museum that was supposed to launch in the spring of 2020.

While they originally had a menu ready to launch, Demshak said, “All of that is out the window because everything has gotten more expensive, and some of it considerably more expensive. What might have been a viable business model pre-COVID might not be a viable business model post-COVID.”

At the cafe, now set to open in January, they’ve dropped hot foods to focus solely on salads and sandwiches.

There are positive developments, too. Stein said an increase in vaccinations is making more people, including older guests, comfortable dining indoors.

“At the beginning-beginning, you never saw people my age coming in,” said Stein, who is 68. “Now it’s everyone.”

A broader comfort with dining inside means that some restaurants are ditching the outdoor equipment they purchased last year.

“If you’re selling a $40 steak, you can’t serve people outside with a kerosene heater,” said Tiffany, at Peter’s Inn.

Though she and her husband and business partner purchased multiple heaters last winter, she was never satisfied with the level of warmth they provided.

Stein echoed that, saying she would prefer guests order carryout than dine outside in freezing temperatures.

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“We don’t want to serve cold food,” she said. During the colder months. “It’s not a great experience for people.”

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In contrast to the “traumatic” last winter, Tiffany said she’s feeling positive about this coming winter, despite the continuing spread of new virus variants.

“I think we all should be optimistic but yet wary,” she said. “I play it day by day, minute by minute.” In any case, she isn’t one to complain: “I think people are tired of hearing about restaurants and their woes.”

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