In the wake of Baltimore City extending its stay-home order last week, Sergio Vitale, chef-owner of Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano on High Street, has led a coalition of Little Italy spots hoping to close down one of the neighborhood’s main streets to allow for open-air seating so that customers can enjoy curbside fare en plein air.
Vitale was hoping the city government would support the efforts, but says that a private phone conversation with Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young did not go the way he’d hoped.
“I’ve never wanted to make this about me,” Vitale says, “But it fell to me to become the voice of a movement that’s growing in Baltimore City. This mayor’s response was, ‘If you try operate, we will shut you down.’ He said he would pull our food permit from the health department and shut us down. And I took that to mean permanently. I don’t want to make it about him, but he happens to be the decision maker in this right now—he and the governor. We need a lifeline here. All we’re asking for is an opportunity to earn a living.”
At press time, the mayor’s office couldn’t be reached for comment.
Tell me about your idea to have an outdoor food court in Little Italy.
The ideas are not original—we are just trying to do what other places have done. I’ve tried to pitch this “curbside-plus,” as I call it, sort of an outdoor food court idea. All the curbside rules are in place, you’d order the same as you order now, but you’d be able to eat like at Herald Square in New York. We’d bleach the tables in between and come up with the protocol. I was hoping this call to the mayor could have followed up with a meeting where we establish a protocol together with stakeholders, public policymakers, restaurateurs, and small businesses to talk next steps, but he dismissed the opportunity.
We are 10 weeks into restaurants and bars being closed for dining in by Governor Larry Hogan. Why did you come up with this plan now?
All the cuts that could have been made have been made. What else are we do to? Curbside is working for about half the restaurants in my anecdotal experience, but for the other half, it’s a slow way to lose money. They talk about next steps, and 25 percent occupancy is a fast way to lose a lot of money. We need 50 percent, and no one is really comfortable with that yet.
“Curbside is working for about half the restaurants in my anecdotal experience, but for the other half, it’s a slow way to lose money.” —Sergio Vitale
Why is 25 percent occupancy problematic?
With 25 percent occupancy, you’re at a different level of service. There’s more cost involved than just the curbside model. I have to zone air conditioning for that. I have to bring in staff. We have to assume liability. No one is talking about the potential of civil liability if someone were to, god forbid, contract COVID and blame you for it. I’m not sure how you’d prove it, but that’s a potential liability. And then rent is a tough thing. This is a sad and tiresome cliché, but this is unprecedented and we’re going to have to come up with new ways to do it.
Why the opposition?
He’s making a public health argument. He says, ‘What if we have outdoor dining and someone coughs?’ Well, why is the restaurant industry being held to a different standard? The city is encouraging people to go out on bike lanes and closing streets to exercise, so if the measure is someone coughs within 50 feet of you, we will never move forward. And people have to assess their own risk, we are not forcing this on anyone.
I closed my restaurant the day before the governor mandated it. I check four of the five boxes for high risk on COVID, so I take it seriously. My father is 75, he checks five of the five boxes. We don’t want to put anyone at risk, our staff or our guests, but we are trying to thread this needle to move forward and this is just a baby step. I’m now so concerned because what should have been an easy opportunity to work together has been so thoroughly rejected. I’m worried about the whole restaurant industry in the city now.
What is the workaround if the mayor is trying to shut you down?
We want him to publicly commit that if the governor further eases restrictions, he will retroactively follow suit. In Little Italy, we were in the position of wanting to take this matter in our own hands, at our own risk. We were going to shut down the street ourselves, put tables in the streets, serve invited guests, and invite the media to show what it would look like. I invited the mayor to come to that to announce a revision to his policy and use that opportunity and he yelled at me and said that he would shut us down, fine us, open the streets, and pull the health permit from the health department. I can’t ask any of my colleagues to risk their entire businesses just to make a point, so we are going to rachet up the pressure and continue the good fight.
It has been suggested that we reconvene with a group of experts so we can give the mayor a proposal. I don’t see why we have to do that—other cities have done the yeoman’s work on this. If he wants a benchmark, there are a 1,000 of them out there. I ended my acrimonious phone call with the mayor by saying, ‘Let’s not end on a sour note. Thanks for taking my call and let’s keep the lines of communication open.’ That’s still my position. At the end of the day, it’s not about either of us, it’s about the industry and the whole city.
“I’m now so concerned because what should have been an easy opportunity to work together has been so thoroughly rejected. I’m worried about the whole restaurant industry in the city now.” —Sergio Vitale
When did this all come about?
All of us have been trying to think about what next steps would look like for a number of weeks now and last week was a turning point in curbside. I hadn’t spoken with anyone who was open who didn't see a downturn in their curbside business last week. I think the governor’s order [to reopen the beaches and boardwalks] was a wet kiss to Ocean City. People with two months cabin fever wanted to get out of the house and if they were allowed to do it legally, they were going to go down there. I think that was the impetus behind the downturn in Baltimore City last week. It just became more relevant. These programs that the government has created like PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] are not applicable for restaurants that easily. The state has been slow to give the grants. It became inevitable that if we didn’t start to raise our voices now, there would be nothing left to save in a few weeks.
How is carryout going for you?
My experience is the same as many others. It started off pretty strong. We love and appreciate the support. One of the things you find out at this time is who your friends are. It’s just amazing at this time to see the people coming out. It’s really humbling, but it’s not a sustainable model. Last week, we had our worst week with curbside. We rebounded on Saturday and Sunday a little bit. But from Monday until Saturday, we did about $4,000 in sales total. I heard from other restaurants last Tuesday that they did $90 on curbside.
But some of the restaurateurs are doing really well. At one point I was looking at our revenue and we were doing 25 percent of our normal volume with curbside. One of the things that allows us to operate curbside are the generous gratuities of the people picking up, which is amazing. Talk about stepping up—if the mayor and political class would step up in the way that the general public has, it would be an amazing thing. Instead, we have this contempt and adversarial relationship, which is disappointing.
Every day I talk to Alex Smith of Atlas Restaurant Group, I talk to Patrick Russell at Kooper’s in Fells Point, Jim Kinney at The Capital Grille, Chad Gauss at The Food Market, and Elan Kotz at Orto, who used to work for me. We have formed a coalition to try to move forward. I will tell you, it’s difficult for an Italian guy like me to be restrained, but we have to do something here to move forward. I feel compelled to speak out at this point.
“Despite the devastation to our industry, as rents reset, there will be another opportunity for a renaissance that we’ve seen in Baltimore recently—sort of small chef-driven funky and fun and often ethnic concepts, which is what makes a city exciting.” —Sergio Vitale
What will the culinary landscape look like when this is all over?
It’s a mixed bag. Sadly, I think 50 percent of restaurants will not reopen. You’ll have to make a reinvestment to open fully for indoor dining, that’s tens of thousands of dollars in training and supplies. If you don’t close permanently before that happens, you might find yourself in a position to have to close permanently after. Having said that, despite the devastation to our industry, as rents reset, there will be another opportunity for a renaissance that we’ve seen in Baltimore recently—sort of small chef-driven funky and fun and often ethnic concepts, which is what makes a city exciting. That would be a positive outcome of this.
Why do you think there will be more chef-driven spots?
Big chains will probably dominate the landscape for a while, but when there’s a correction in the rental market, no one will charge the rents they did before. People are going to start to see opportunity for small, 500-square foot to 1,000 square-foot models, maybe delivery and curbside-oriented. My sense is that these are how these things percolate up. Fine dining is a particularly challenging area because of concerns about the spread of COVID indoors, but the whole model has been under assault for years with razor thin margins and this only exacerbates the underlying problems. After the initial shock, how the restaurant business will re-engage is small, less expensive to open models.
Will restaurants survive?
It’s a human need to want to break bread in the company of others. That’s the reality. This is what we do. Those of us who were foolish enough to get into this business before will be foolish enough to get into it again. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of devastation in between.
Would you pursue this career path again?
When people ask about the restaurant business, I often say the good days are great and the bad days are horrible. On average, it’s a really fun thing. I’ve eaten better than medieval kings. I’ve been in the company of some amazing people who’ve bettered society and are captains of industry. I’m afforded the opportunity to have these experiences because of the restaurant business. And then all the staff that has worked with us. I love the business, it's a good way to use my highly unemployable political science degree from Loyola. If I had to do it all over again, I would.
“It’s a human need to want to break bread in the company of others. That’s the reality. This is what we do. Those of us who were foolish enough to get into this business before will be foolish enough to get into it again.” —Sergio Vitale
You’ve definitely been a crusader for the city, where does that come from?
Mom was a fighter and both of my parents have a deeply imbued contempt for any sense of injustice. I think I probably picked up a little bit of that. I know it’s tough the inequities right now, and you have to balance that with public health concerns, but picking winners and losers by the government is not a just thing. I think I probably got the fighting spirit from mom. She fought small cell lung cancer for 14 months. That’s a terminal diagnosis from the beginning and she fought it to the end. It’s hard not to witness something like that and be inspired.
Why do restaurants matter?
Why do you go to a city except to dine well and to have an opportunity to see some culture in the company of like-minded people? Isn’t it an ancient Greek who said “all good things of this earth flow into the city?” Restaurants are the tip of the spear.