Vermont Restaurants Scramble to Keep Up With COVID-19 | Bite Club

Vermont Restaurants Scramble to Keep Up With COVID-19


Kortnee Bush and Benjy Adler - PHOTO: LUKE AWTRY
  • Photo: Luke Awtry
  • Kortnee Bush and Benjy Adler
At Butch + Babe’s in Burlington's Old North End, the ketchup is now served in individual ramekins, not communal squeeze bottles. In Middlebury, servers at the Arcadian deliver forks on a tray to diners, who pick up the utensils themselves. Hen of the Wood is offering its food to go.

These measures — and rigorous, repeated cleanings — are among the practices that Vermont restaurants are instituting to help protect staff and customers from the coronavirus and to assuage anxiety as the global pandemic makes its emergence in the state.

Local restaurants are announcing their cleaning routines online, along with messages about the importance of confronting the public health threat as a community.

“We need you more than ever” is the heading of an Instagram post making the restaurant rounds. The text assures diners that “every quality restaurant out there is sanitizing their place like a hospital to ensure your safety.”

Lee Anderson, owner of Radio Bean, the Light Club Lamp Shop and ¡Duino! (Duende) on North Winooski Avenue, posted on social media: “This crisis isn’t about politics, profit, class, race, age, gender or location. I’m concerned. We’re all concerned. Dow who?” he asked, referring to the stock market.

Also in Burlington, Kortnee Bush of Butch + Babe’s and Benjy Adler of the Skinny Pancake spearheaded a digital conversation for restaurateurs to share their ideas and concerns related to the virus. The aim is to pool resources and together develop a set of best practices.

Adler, talking at his Lake Street restaurant on Tuesday, called the effort a civic responsibility. “Preparedness and transparency are important,” he said.

Bush sent her original email to about 20 businesses on March 8, the day after Vermont announced its first coronavirus case. In a list focused on sanitary measures, she placed great emphasis on one point: “If you’re at all sick, STAY HOME.”

Adler followed up with an email that expressed his two overarching concerns: “the health of our staff and our community and the impact on our business levels.” 

Within five days, about three dozen Burlington businesses had joined the digital discussion. Participants include the owners of Pingala Café, Hen of the Wood, Trattoria Delia and Pizzeria Verità, Barrio Bakery, and the Farmhouse Group.

“The tone of the collective group is that we feel we have taken all the steps that we can to keep our staff and our customers safe,” said Jed Davis, owner of the Farmhouse Group. “And we feel we are doing a good job.”

Elisabeth Wirsing, food and lodging program manager at the Vermont Department of Health, said the agency is in communication with restaurants and other businesses about extra and appropriate measures to take during the disease outbreak. These include handwashing and “environmental cleaning and sanitizing.” Guidance can be found here.

As of March 13, there was no official advisory requesting that people refrain from eating out. “We are recommending that people stay tuned,” Wirsing said. “If the department and the state indicate that certain activities should change, it would be posted online, and we’d do outreach about it.”

Wirsing said that restaurant staff and diners alike should follow recommendations. “We’re asking all Vermonters to do their part,” she said. “If people are sick, they should stay home.”

Ryan Bunce, who owns Barrio Bakery with his wife, Jessica, noted that it’s challenging to make a restaurant work “on a daily basis” even in normal times. So a group resource in a time of stress and risk is of particular value.

“Having a collective group to bounce ideas off and share insight with is incredibly valuable,” Bunce wrote in an email to Seven Days. “It also helps eliminate some of the anxiety we are all feeling, knowing that we’re not alone in this.”

Davis of the Farmhouse Group said that if people want to support restaurants but are concerned about social interaction, they can consider buying a gift certificate now for use later. But he said the most significant help needs to be at the federal level.

“We hope the federal government gets its act together soon with plans of meaningful assistance directed to those who will need it most,” he wrote in an email.

 The Farmhouse Group, the Skinny Pancake and the Hen of the Wood-owned restaurants together employ about 660 people. Full-time employees receive paid sick time, as required by a Vermont law which states that most employers must provide 40 hours a year of paid sick time to employees. (Hen of the Wood also offers paid time off to part-time staff, according to the restaurant.) 

There are some exceptions to the Vermont law, but there is no “small employer” exemption, according to Dirk Anderson, general counsel of the Vermont Department of Labor. “Time is accrued at the rate of 1 hour of sick leave for every 52 hours worked,” he wrote in an email, “and the law allows employers to impose a waiting period of up to one year from the date of hire on the USE of the earned sick time, even through ACCRUAL starts at the time of hire.”

Several restaurant owners said they will work on an individual basis with employees who are not entitled to paid sick leave. In an email to his staff on Thursday, Adler wrote: “If you are sick, do not come to work. It is our collective civic duty to slow the rate of transmission.” 

He continued in boldface: “For anyone who faces financial hardship for missing work: We will work with you on a case-by-case basis to help deal with that financial hardship so you do not choose to come to work sick.”

At Pingala Café, owner Trevor Sullivan said he hasn’t noticed a slowdown in business. But he added that the restaurant got a recent bump in customers from its appearance on the television show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

“At the end of the day, we’re all humans in this together,” Sullivan said. “Whatever it takes to have a mindfully aware, collective headspace around this, let’s do it.”

With the situation developing rapidly,  Bush, who started the group discussion, decided on Friday afternoon that Butch + Babe’s will commence a delivery service. She plans to spend the weekend delivering food.

In a surreal twist of fate, Hen of the Wood-Burlington was penalized five points in a routine health inspection Friday afternoon by the state health department, according to a Facebook post by owner Eric Warnstedt. The reason: They didn't label the bottles of sanitizer placed throughout the restaurant.

The post was later deleted.

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