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Surviving Towson, Catonsville restaurant owners say community has kept them going amid pandemic

As a year marked by a global health crisis slogs on, restaurant owners are still holding their breath to see if they make it to next year, and are relying on the community support and government aid they say has kept them afloat.

But business has improved, and owners are hopeful, they said, despite the unknown and despite the grim outlook of economists who say there will be far fewer independently-owned restaurants by the end of the pandemic.

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Ping Wu, owner of Red Pepper Sichuan Bistro, said sales had been growing steadily since she opened the downtown Towson restaurant in August last year.

Those sales ground to a halt when the restaurant closed in March to comply with state restrictions, and customers still seem wary of dining indoors, choosing carryout or delivery services more often, she said.

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But since Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan began allowing indoor dining again, Wu says there are more and more customers dining in as the weeks go on, and said she was thankful for community members who have continued to support her business.

And with the loosened restrictions, Wu is exploring ways to bring in new customers — possibly with open mic nights, she said.

Red Pepper Sichuan Bistro owner Ping Wu sets out hand sanitizer in her downtown Towson restaurant Oct. 22. With a large indoor dining space and ample room for social distancing, Wu said Red Pepper can safely accommodate many dine-in customers, but the preference among customers remains through food deliveries.
Red Pepper Sichuan Bistro owner Ping Wu sets out hand sanitizer in her downtown Towson restaurant Oct. 22. With a large indoor dining space and ample room for social distancing, Wu said Red Pepper can safely accommodate many dine-in customers, but the preference among customers remains through food deliveries. (Taylor DeVille)

In Catonsville, it’s much the same.

“We’re seeing an uptick in carry out for sure, but [sales] are still not at pre-pandemic numbers,” said Steve Iampieri, owner of Iamp’s at Jennings Cafe on Frederick Road.

“But we’re certainly inching closer and closer back to those numbers every week," Iampieri said.

Ahead of winter, Hogan in September issued an order allowing restaurants to offer expanded indoor dining, capped at 75% of its capacity limit.

That’s good news for restaurants who during the summer relied heavily on outdoor diners, Iampieri said.

Baltimore County followed the state’s lead to prevent confusion between differing county and state edicts while others in the region, like Baltimore City, were slower to act.

In Catonsville, Iampieri vice president of the Catonsville Restaurant Association, said local restaurant owners were weathering the pandemic with the support of neighbors.

“It’s a tight community,” he said.

For businesses that were already struggling, Iampieri said the pandemic was “the final nail” in the coffin. But “I think for the most part, a lot of Catonsville restaurants are doing OK,” he said.

Black Kettle, for instance, opened on Frederick Road five years ago, and shuttered in late March. But restaurateurs Evan Brown and Keith Holsey have plans to lease the former Black Kettle space and open a new restaurant there across the street from the popular State Fare, which they co-own.

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Brown and Holsey also opened an El Salvadoran restaurant, El Guapo, earlier this month, and Brown says business was good — or “about as good as it can be,” during the pandemic, Brown said.

More than anything, Iampieri says he worries what restaurant patrons will do after the pandemic, how consumer habits will change, and if that will mean less money coming in even when the novel virus is eradicated.

“The question is, longer term, how many restaurant will the industry support?” said Steve Isberg, chair of Towson University’s Department of Accounting, referring to consumer demand and a trend among customers who he says have been spending more at grocery stores since they’ve been staying home far more often than is typical.

“I don’t think the industry is going to support as many restaurants as it once did,” Isberg said.

Iamp's at Jennings Cafe server, Maddie Clarke, serves entrees to diners at lunch in their outdoor seating area. Steve Iampieri, owner of lamp’s at Jennings Cafe on Frederick Road and Vice President of the Catonsville Restaurant Association, said the Catonsville community has kept him in business during a pandemic when so many other restaurants have folded, but he worries that consumer habits have changed so much that customers will continue to lean toward the less-profitable delivery and take-out options once the pandemic subsides.
Iamp's at Jennings Cafe server, Maddie Clarke, serves entrees to diners at lunch in their outdoor seating area. Steve Iampieri, owner of lamp’s at Jennings Cafe on Frederick Road and Vice President of the Catonsville Restaurant Association, said the Catonsville community has kept him in business during a pandemic when so many other restaurants have folded, but he worries that consumer habits have changed so much that customers will continue to lean toward the less-profitable delivery and take-out options once the pandemic subsides. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media)

The Maryland Restaurant Association says that food establishments across the state have seen losses totaling $1.4 billion so far.

The group projects 40% of Maryland restaurants could permanently close if customers stay away and dining restrictions stay in place.

Some experts say the pandemic has only accelerated changes in consumer spending that were already happening.

With millennials expected to be biggest spenders at groceries and restaurants within a decade, according to a report by investment firm CBRE Group, Inc., their spending habits will drive change in the food industry, said Dennis Sullivan, executive director of the Center for Business Innovation at the Community College of Baltimore County.

Millennials were already ordering food for delivery more often than previous generations, pushing restaurants in a more delivery-driven direction.

But customers who order delivery or pickup service usually spend less money buying appetizers or drinks, Sullivan said. And there’s also the rule of thumb among restaurateurs that serving at least 60% of its capacity is the minimum standard for a restaurant to break even, Sullivan said.

For chain food establishments, that figure is closer to 55%, and they have the overhead to weather the storm, Sullivan said.

“So who gets hurt in all this are the independent business owners — the mom and pop shop,” he added.

Baltimore County announced in October its COVID-19 Small Business Restaurant Reimbursement Program, a $2.5 million fund paid for through the county’s CARES Act money. This program aims to assist establishments that have been unable to operate or operating at a significantly reduced capacity because of the pandemic.

The county expects to distribute these funds to about 165 restaurants or other food establishments, including food trucks, up to $15,000 each. The deadline is Nov. 16.

And last week, Hogan announced he’d be drawing $250 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to help struggling businesses.

But it’s not clear how much money would be needed to turn the tide on the growing consolidation of small businesses being absorbed into larger companies — something that was already happening as the growth of the U.S. economy has slowed since 2008, Isberg said.

“You’ve got a smoldering fire before, and [now] it becomes a blaze,” Isberg said. “What state legislatures can do is protect small business; keep them from becoming predatory buyout candidates."

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