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For participants, Howard County Restaurant Weeks mean opportunity amid pandemic

Lourdes Pinto didn’t think her Clarksville restaurant, Tasty Empanadas, was “fancy” enough to participate in the biannual Howard County Restaurant Weeks & Craft Beverages event this past summer.

With some convincing, Pinto, 42, ultimately signed her Paraguayan restaurant up for the July event, calling it “the best decision ever.”

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Now Tasty Empanadas is back on the list for this month’s Restaurant Weeks, taking place Jan. 18 to 31, which will be held for the second time since the coronavirus pandemic took hold early last year.

In the summer, Pinto, a Laurel resident, offered customers family and individual meal options for the Restaurant Weeks. Next week, she plans to do the same, grouping 12 empanadas for a family meal and three for an individual meal with a side of bean salad.

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“We were so busy during the [summer] Restaurant Weeks. I’m excited to see if that’s going to be the same thing this time,” Pinto said.

Tasty Empanadas is one of 27 restaurants participating this month, according to Amanda Hof, executive director for Visit Howard County.

For a restaurant week that could have businesses taking in more than 50% of their revenue through carryout or curbside options, Hof said planning worked differently. Visit Howard County focused on placing big banners outside the restaurants to identify them as participants and emphasized curbside options in advertising.

Visit Howard County is also providing participating restaurants with stickers to seal carryout bags, as well as hand sanitizer from Columbia’s Lost Ark Distillery, which shifted from specializing in rum and bourbon to hand sanitizer back when the pandemic began.

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“Because of our willingness to adapt and our creativity, I was determined that we would find a way to still be able to support restaurants through a restaurant week program,” said Hof, 50, of Columbia.

On the other side of the county, Anthony DiGangi, co-owner of Walker’s Tap & Table in Glenwood, is readying for his first time participating in the county’s Restaurant Weeks.

DiGangi, 42, opened Walker’s in October 2019, five months before COVID-19 struck the county. The business was just getting into the groove of things when it was forced to shut its doors amid capacity restrictions during the early months of the pandemic.

So the Woodbine resident went to work finding ways to help out the community and keep his restaurant’s doors open, what he calls the “pandemic pivot.”

DiGangi put together twice-weekly fresh produce and meat kits in March, April and June for residents to pick up. The restaurant sold flowers for Mother’s Day in May and made pizza kits so customers could build their own pizzas at home.

“We’re lucky to be a part of such a great community in Glenwood where we’re able to sustain our operation, keep everyone employed and remain OK in this time,” DiGangi said.

DiGangi saw participating in Restaurant Weeks as another creative opportunity for Walker’s Tap & Table.

Grace Hill, a food runner at Walker’s Tap & Table, prepares a to-go order for a customer on Tuesday. The Glenwood restaurant will be featuring curbside specials for Howard County Restaurant Weeks starting Monday.
Grace Hill, a food runner at Walker’s Tap & Table, prepares a to-go order for a customer on Tuesday. The Glenwood restaurant will be featuring curbside specials for Howard County Restaurant Weeks starting Monday. (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media)

“When we opened in October 2019, we opened as a dine-in restaurant. We didn’t build the restaurant to be a carryout restaurant, but we had to adapt because of COVID to be a carryout restaurant,” he said.

The restaurant is using the ability to sell alcohol for carryout to its advantage, offering burgers, fries and a beer or pizza and a beer for its Restaurant Weeks lunch option. DiGangi said that also gives him a chance to promote local beers.

He also said he’s trying to select foods that are more likely to travel better since some days the restaurant sees as much as 50% of its revenue from carryout. Back in February, it only had 5% to 10% of its revenue come from carryout.

“Pizza and burgers tend to travel better than a seafood dish,” DeGangi said. “The switch there is to look at items that people will buy for takeout – sandwiches and pizza. In a sit-down environment, we would cater to entree-type dishes. You want your product to hold up [when it travels].”

In Columbia, Joe Barbera, owner of AIDA Bistro & Wine Bar, is in his 16th year participating in Restaurant Weeks, this one much different than the rest.

Barbera, 66, said Restaurant Weeks typically is for people to try out a new restaurant or visit a family favorite, but with rising COVID-19 numbers in the county and cooler temperatures, that’s not likely to be the case this January.

While AIDA participated in this past summer’s Restaurant Weeks, Barbera said the temperatures were warmer and the number of COVID-19 cases was lower, bringing more customers to their outdoor patio.

“Since COVID-19, the whole economic model has changed, from a primarily dine-in restaurant like us, to a carryout and delivery,” said Barbera, an Ellicott City resident. “Primarily the focus now is that the food that people had at the restaurant can carry home. When we created a menu, we had to make sure it was going to carry.”

Barbera said AIDA used its Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve nights as templates for what they expect during Restaurant Weeks. On those two days, almost half its business was from carryout.

The restaurant is also including directions on how to reheat certain carryout meals after customers have arrived home.

“It’s a new year and there’s a vaccine out there and it gives people hope,” Barbera said. “There’s pent-up demand. We expect things to pick up in the next six months, [and] things won’t plummet like it did in the last few months. People want to support local restaurants. They want to get out and have a great experience.”

Due to the ongoing pandemic, outdoor dining is allowed at restaurants where it’s provided, with social distancing and strict public health requirements in place. Indoor dining is allowed at 50% capacity following the same health guidelines.

All businesses participating in Howard County Restaurant Weeks are required to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, as well as state and local COVID-19 precautions and restrictions.

Participating restaurants include:

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