The members of the Marriner restaurant family thought they had experienced the worst in 2018 after a second catastrophic flood hit Ellicott City and left a beloved employee, Sgt. Eddison A. “Eddie” Hermond, dead. Then COVID-19 hit.
“We thought that 2018 was going to be the sucky year. But this has been the hardest,” said Rachael Mull, chief executive officer of Victoria Restaurant Group LLC. “This has impacted everybody. It’s really hard to know the right things to do. It has been a challenge. That is for sure.”
Mull’s father, Randy Marriner, founder of the businesses, said dealing with COVID-19 has been one of the most difficult things he’s faced as a business owner.
“How do you rate it? This is the most God-awful thing any of us have seen in our lifetime.” he said.
This year was already looking to be a challenge. In February, the Marriners made the tough decision to close their third and largest restaurant, Food Plenty in Clarksville, after two years of operation.
The closure was in part to eliminate stress for Mull, who had just fought cancer. The family wanted to scale back restaurant operations and focus on the company’s remaining restaurants, according to a February news release.
But then the coronavirus pandemic started. Randy Marriner said he started seeing the writing on the wall in early March.
“We were concerned about our employees primarily and our customers secondarily,” Marriner said. He was planning to reduce capacity in his restaurants, start practicing social distancing and take other preventative measures.
“The governor took it out of our hands," he said. "We weren’t considering closure.”
When Gov. Larry Hogan banned indoor dining with an executive order March 16, Marriner laid off 140 “precious” team members.
“It was gut-wrenching,” he said, pausing. “I’ve got a really big family. I know my employees. Some of them have been with us for years. The only people we kept were salaried managers.”
COVID-19 created an additional concern for the family. Although Mull has been cancer-free for more than a year, her immune system is still compromised.
“My white blood count is still low, and I’m more susceptible to catch [COVID-19],” Mull explained. “That has caused us to be even more careful. Healthwise, I’m feeling great. We are just being extra-smart.”
Mull also had to worry about her parents’ health. They are in good health but are both over age 65, which puts them at a higher risk for developing serious complications from the novel virus.
Ensuring her parents were safe and quarantined from the public “was a little hard," she said. "We kind of joke now that it was like taking your keys away from your parents. We’re trying to do the right thing. Randy likes to manage by talking to people. We just can’t do that right now.”
As a result, all have taken extra precautions.
Mull has continued to work as CEO. But she works from an office at the brewery. On the office door, a sign warns, “No Entry.” It remains locked and is off-limits to the public.
“She has been in lockdown,” Marriner said.“Keeping her healthy has been the most important thing in all of our lives. … I’m allowed to drive in bank deposits, [or] go to the restaurants and have someone bring and take things out of my car. It’s better to be pound-wise and penny-foolish.”
Getting their businesses to return to life as it was before the pandemic will be an arduous process.
The company tried to run Manor Hill Tavern as a carryout business for three days following the indoor-dining ban.
“It was an abysmal failure,” Marriner admitted. “The public wasn’t social distancing, and people were beating on the door and gathering on the sidewalk. We just closed it.”
Marriner transferred the management team — 15 employees — to Victoria Gastro Pub. There, for two months, the location operated as a carryout and curbside pickup restaurant from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week.
“For the most part, the revenue was just enough to cover payroll,” Marriner said. “[But] every day we lost money. The one day that we didn’t was Mother’s Day.”
Mother’s Day proved to be a turning point for the restaurant group. “We did almost as much revenue that we did last year from curbside [this year],” Marriner said.
He said they had 600 orders that day.
“It was all hands on deck. People who had their day off came in to help. It was amazing.”
Two weeks later, they reopened Manor Hill Tavern.
Things are slowly returning to normal.
The company has brought back almost all of its 250 employees, according to Marriner. The remaining 40 employees the company had before the shutdown have either left the industry or found other jobs, according to Marriner.
The response to the outdoor-dining phase has been positive so far, he said.
Loyal customer Cary Albert and his wife, Susan, ate at Manor Hill Tavern the first night it offered outdoor dining.
“It was great. We sat outside upstairs,” Albert said. “The night was beautiful. It was nice to be out and have a glass of wine and have dinner.”
The experience was slightly different. The Alberts had to call to be let into the building to get to the terrace upstairs. The staff wore masks. Paper menus were provided and immediately thrown out after the couple used them. And there were only 20 outdoor seats compared with the original total restaurant capacity of 220 before COVID-19.
Albert said the staff was friendly and they were able to get their favorite meal, a chicken dish called The Bird in the Hand. It was mostly the overall experience of the evening that made it worth the trek from their home in Pikesville, Albert said.
“It’s the contact with the customers,” Albert said of the allure of restaurant dining. “I’m an outgoing guy. I like social contact.”
Albert loved the evening.
“I texted Randy the minute we left,” he said. “I told him how good [the manager] was and how good the food was. He’s got a great staff there.”
Anecdotes like this make it worth it for Mull.
“I am so incredibly proud of our staff. The way that they have rallied together, it brings tears to my eyes some days,” Mull said. “It is not easy opening up these restaurants under the [new state] rules and regs. They [staff] are just awesome. That is one of the silver linings. I can’t sing their praises enough.”