While some restaurants have remained closed or have limited carryout business, The Corner Pantry co-owners Emily and Neill Howell say they’ve been working more hours than ever between catering, a new online ordering system that has increased carryout traffic at the cafe, and a large construction project that started pre-COVID-19 and will double the size of their space in Lake Falls Village. The restaurant is currently closed to wrap up the the expansion, but is set to reopen along with the new space in the coming days.
The Howells are also parents to Annabelle, 9, and Clive, 6, both of whom are home for the remainder of the school year. “Everyone is talking about how clean their house is,” says Emily, “but we’ve been working more than we worked before this happened.”
How have you adjusted to this new restaurant reality?
Emily Howell: I was sort of like, ‘Until someone says something, I didn’t believe it.’ But when it happened, we just pushed our tables up against the wall. We’ve slowly made amendments to keep it more and more safe. We do one customer inside at a time. Our new online ordering has really helped. Before that, people were just ordering by phone and someone had to be on the phone all the time. We’ve been able to bring in more revenue now because before people just couldn’t get through. Toast, our new online ordering system, has helped a ton and we’ve been able to bring in more revenue.
“If I’m being honest, the first few weeks I was struggling a bit because we buy all these amazing products from local farms and I was having to put them in a cardboard box. I got over that and decided we are going to try to put out the best food we can.” —Neill Howell
What was your thinking when Governor Hogan closed restaurants and bars for dining in?
EH: When everything happened, we took it day by day. One of the things we did was lunches for the Josie King Foundation. [The foundation’s founder] Sorrel King is one of our oldest customers. She called one day about having us do 50 hospital lunches and we ended up doing over 5,000 in six weeks.
Neill Howell: We were set up for carryout and to-go from the beginning. Now we are spending our days putting things in brown boxes. As a chef it’s not the best thing, but we’ve lost a lot in catering—thousands and thousands of dollars that we are not going to get back. It has been stressful, but from day one, we never had the mindset to close the shop—even if was just me and Emily in there. We would have just kept going because we are workers, and we want to keep our business up and keep our name out there. Our clientele is committed to us, so they’ve been coming in each day for the family meals we’ve been doing, from chicken tikkas to lasagnas. Online ordering is going really well. We’re busy, but we’re nowhere near where we were before—we are 50 percent down, but many places are worse off. Some places haven’t even re-opened and I just feel for them.
“I saw one of those memes that said, ‘I now realize that my hobbies are bars, restaurants, and small businesses.’ Neill and I, all we do for fun is eat.” —Emily Howell
How are you staying inspired?
NH: If I’m being honest, the first few weeks I was struggling a bit because we buy all these amazing products from local farms and I was having to put them in a cardboard box. I got over that and decided we are going to try to put out the best food we can. If someone is down in the dumps, this brightens up their day. We’ve had a really good connection with our farmers. We buy lots and of stuff from them and their passion has brought us back to, ‘Okay, this is cool.’ We both want to just keep banging out good food. You can either give up or try your hardest, we are trying our hardest.
What will change as a result of the way you’ve done business during the pandemic?
EH: We are trying to make a takeout-style window. We created a second counter anyway but having a takeout window that people can walk up to from the outside was a last-minute pivot—hopefully the landlord approves it. That will keep everyone who is waiting for pickup outside. All of the changes we were making were to utilize the space better, so it’s all just coming together.
One thing that we haven’t totally figured out is our cold salad bar. That might just go to pre-packed, or we might close it up and have people serve it to the customer. Regardless, it will be fine. Every single person has had to adjust to a new way. When this all ends, people will just be happy to be out.
NH: Everyone is so impressed when they come to our place because we work out of a really small kitchen. We just make it work. It’s tough, but [with the expansion] we are about to have more kitchen space and a nice, big butcher’s block to do butchery in-house, which we’ve already been doing but it has been tough. We have a new wood pasta table. The plan is to do what we’ve been doing slowly from day one—making good home cooked food using local ingredients.
I’m going to take these next couple of weeks and really connect with the farmers again. I’m looking forward to having tomatoes when we get back. And strawberries and rhubarb are coming in soon, so I can’t wait to start work with all that nice spring and summer product. I’m most excited to see the faces of our staff when they see the new space and the equipment they can use. This is isn’t about me and Emily—it’s about our staff and, obviously, I’m excited for our customers to see it.
“The plan is to do what we’ve been doing slowly from day one—making good home cooked food using local ingredients.” —Neill Howell
What will the new space look like?
EH: We used shiplap in white, so it still has that modern feel, but we’ve added in some natural colors. In our new space, we extended the counter to the window. We will have two registers. We are putting a half wall up from the counter so that kind of separates the dining room from where you would wait in line. We have some banquettes and we’re bringing in some new fabric choices and new light fixtures. It’s going to feel a little less industrial and a little bit more English farm.
What do you think the restaurant scene will look like when the pandemic is over?
NH: I personally think that when they do open back up, people will be a little bit hesitant at first. I’m sure that there will be some new systems in place, but if you make it through, I think you’ll come out the other side and you will be fine—you might even be busier than you were before
EH: We are lucky that we are in warm weather months—it gives those with outdoor dining the ability to spread out. In normal times, when summer hits, our dining room is really quiet, and everyone is outside. But I think it’s going to be hard. Luckily for us, we have that carryout model anyway. For strictly fine dining this has to be really, really hard.
Why do restaurants matter?
EH: I saw one of those memes that said, ‘I now realize that my hobbies are bars, restaurants, and small businesses.’ Neill and I, all we do for fun is eat. If we go out, it’s what we are going to do—eat and drink.
NH: It’s pretty simple. Good food makes people happy.