BEMIDJI — Just minutes after Governor Walz announced the temporary closure of restaurants and bars to dine-in customers due to the coronavirus on March 16 – leaving many food establishments scrambling for a plan of action – Tutto Bene was already at the forefront of the takeout option.
Upon unveiling a newly designed website and menu, the upscale Italian eatery made it known that it was prepared to continue catering to customers’ palates with handcrafted dishes – even if those dishes now had to be boxed, bagged and sent on a car ride to somebody else’s kitchen.
“Up until now, takeout had been a very, very, very small part of our business model because we're a sit-down restaurant and one of the few fine dining restaurants in town,” Justin Frederick, co-owner of Tutto Bene, said. “But this is a completely different animal – and all of a sudden. So we had to ramp up certain parts of our system to be able to go solely to takeout.”
Frederick, who owns Tutto Bene with his wife Jerusa, had begun planning for Gov. Walz’s mandate a week prior to it.
Originally from the Twin Cities, he said his connections to chefs and restaurateurs in larger cities around the country helped him foresee the coming changes because “we're a week behind them on what's going on – more or less as far as Minneapolis is concerned.”
So when the governor finally did make the announcement, Frederick was prepared to “press the launch button” on his restaurant’s temporary switch to takeout.
“I've been in this industry for two decades now,” Frederick said. “I've been through 2008. I've been through 9/11. I've been through major events in our country and the world in this industry. And I've never seen a shock-wave like this. This is unprecedented. There's no script for this.”
Frederick made the decision to discontinue Tutto Bene’s lunch hours – instead, giving sole focus to its dinner service – but the restaurant’s menu remained mostly the same. However, he knew some of the dishes wouldn’t travel well in to-go boxes, so he substituted them for more “bulletproof” items.
These dishes would ensure that once a customer got home and put their meal on a plate – or just ate it out of the box – they would be getting the same food representation that they would get if they were dining in the restaurant.
“As far as the portion sizes and the integrity of what we're putting into that box, it’s the same as if I was doing it for somebody sitting in the restaurant. So we haven't cut any corners in that department,” Frederick said.
The restaurant is also offering a 15% discount on all orders, and the response from customers has been “humbling and overwhelming," Frederick said.
“We decided to go all the way and remain open for our staff and for our customers,” Frederick said. “We understand people out there are hurting and watching their money, too. So we're trying to do what we can – you know, a give-and-take kind of relationship.”
But not everything has been easy for Tutto Bene.
Frederick had to lay off his entire front of house staff, and the restaurant is now functioning with just around 40% of its typical crew.
“I didn't have a choice. There's nothing for them to do, so with a very heavy heart, we had to temporarily lay them off,” Frederick said. “We are in contact with them, and they all have their jobs back the second this goes away.”
The restaurant is also adjusting to the challenge of implementing safeguards to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. Frederick said they’re having to spread out orders to help customers practice social distancing when arriving for their meals.
“We're trying to avoid 20 people standing in the lobby waiting, so my front of house manager and I are being very strategic in telling people what times they can come pick it up,” Frederick said. “We are hyper-aware of not having too many people walk in that door at the same time to get their food.”
And while the restaurant and bar closures are set to expire at 5 p.m. on Friday, March 27, Frederick is expecting the mandate to be extended over the next six to eight weeks.
He also predicts a change in the landscape of dining culture by the end of the health crisis.
“I don't think a lot of places are going to be able to weather the storm,” Frederick said. “The big corporate places are always going to be fine. It's the mom-and-pop, independent, smaller restaurants and bars – who don't have that corporate design, structure and resources – that are going to have the challenging time.”
But as of now – preferring to take his business day by day – Frederick said he's mainly concerned with covering his restaurant overhead and food expenses as well as keeping his current staff employed.
“I’m planning on things not going back to normal for quite a while,” Frederick said. “Personally, I'm not making money. I just want to have it be a zero-sum game, like a nonprofit organization, at this point.”
Nevertheless, Frederick remains hopeful that – with the backing and generosity of the community – restaurants and bars around town will persevere through this time of unprecedented challenges.
“We all need to embrace each other and get through this together, which is what I love about Bemidji. That's why we moved up here and bought this restaurant – to be part of a community,” Frederick said. “Everybody just needs to take a deep breath. Hug the ones you love, and we'll just take it one day at a time because that's all we're promised anyway.”
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