From Surviving to Thriving

By Andrea E. McHugh

While there’s much Newport County’s restaurant community wants to leave behind, the pandemic did spark changes that led to present successes

“I think this summer is going to be outrageous for Newport…we’re blowing our numbers out of the water from previous years, even before Covid-19,”said Rich Willis, owner of Caleb & Broad in Newport. “I think it’s a really good tell of what July and August are going to be, and it’s going to be bonkers.”

While Willis is enthusiastic about the local business climate, he said that getting here — after navigating the pandemic minefield during the past two years — has been a hard slog.

Willis, who grew up in Newport’s restaurant industry, said nothing could have prepared him — or any of his hospitality colleagues — for the tidal wave of pandemic challenges they’ve navigated.

Like those in other industries, they had to find solutions on the fly to stay afloat. But the “pandemic pivot” also created a number of sustainable changes that have improved the way they do business moving forward — and all for the better.

Rich Willis is the owner of Caleb & Broad in Newport. | Photo by Jessica Pohl

“Out of nowhere we had to be a take-out restaurant,” Willis said. “We did to-go food, but to the amount we were doing was something I never could have imagined.”

During the initial March 2020 lockdown, Willis worked on streamlining Caleb & Broad’s website — so customers could order and set up delivery or pick-up entirely online.

“I was fortunate enough to have a system called Toast, a cloud-based POS [point of sale] system,” Willis said. “They’re one of those things that made it so that we could pivot really easily — and immediately. Having them through the pandemic made life easy.”

Delivery decisions

Like many of his restaurant colleagues, Willis got on board with popular food delivery apps, including Uber Eats, Grubhub and DoorDash, which were available to Aquidneck Island businesses before the pandemic struck in 2020. However, many restaurants were slow to embrace food delivery services before the pandemic, as their fees can top 30 percent of sales.

“I would have never done those previously. It was something I never felt was conducive to our food,” Willis said. But Willis noticed at his other business, Point Wine & Spirits, that the pandemic changed people’s buying habits. “

[Food delivery apps] take a good portion of the percentage, but in my eyes, they’re doing a good amount of the work too,” Willis said. “I also look at third party platforms as a tool to be found, and hopefully people will come into the restaurant after trying us through DoorDash or any of them.”

Then a new delivery app, Middletown-based Dine Out Life, appeared during the pandemic.

A new local app delivers the goods

Major app-based delivery services charge weighty commissions and service fees, resulting in significant local revenue loss. Dine Out Life simply charges a flat $5 delivery fee plus 6% of the order price — and the customer pays both fees.

“If the customer wants to support the local restaurant industry, we’re 100% the way to go,” says Anthony Spiratos, Dine Out Life founder and CEO. “We’re free for the restaurants and always will be.”

Marc St. Laurent, who bought The Fifth Element on Broadway during the late summer of 2021 with business partner Derek Savas and an ownership group, also found success — and solutions — with Spiratos’ venture.

“We work solely with Dine Out Life because we’re extremely happy and satisfied with the way our product gets to the consumer,” St. Laurent said. “The food’s not driving all over the place to 10 different stops before it gets to our customer’s house.”

Jumping back into the business

St. Laurent was happily enjoying a restaurant management sabbatical when The Fifth Element came on the market.

“It had to be a very special and unique place, which this was, to get me off the couch and back into the restaurant game,” St. Laurent said with a laugh. “The Fifth had a phenomenal brand, a good following, and they’ve always been really well respected in the restaurant community, so for me to hop in in the middle of a pandemic, with mask mandates and staffing issues and all of that, it was the perfect storm of adventure for me.”

St. Laurent says the popular, locals driven restaurant had already made significant changes to adapt to the pandemic before he and Savas came on board.

Most notable was the creation of The Outer Element, a beer garden-style seasonal patio with seating for 54 at picnic tables with disposable plates, cups and utensils. As soon as they get the city’s blessing, likely this summer, St. Laurent and Savas plan to return the space to a parking lot — with a thoughtful, sophisticated design.

“The cat is out of the bag with our vision for that space,” St. Laurent said. “We are going to give this upper part of Broadway what it needs, and we will be able to park 35 cars out there.”

Similar to Caleb & Broad, The Fifth Element worked quickly to offer online ordering via its website when the pandemic started, making pick-up and delivery a critical part of the restaurant’s revenue stream.

Drinks on the go

Another source of revenue born from outside-the-box pandemic thinking continues to be to-go cocktails. In February of this year, the Rhode Island General Assembly agreed to permanently allow alcohol-to-go with restaurant takeout orders.

“We make our craft cocktails and out the door they go. It’s not a tremendous business, but it’s another angle that we didn’t offer before,” St. Laurent said. “We tend to be doing it more for our locals; those within walking distance.”

For in-house guests, St. Laurent says a newly developed printed cocktail menu has stirred considerable conversions.

“Our clientele tends to still want a printed menu,” he said, although QR codes are available for customers who prefer to access the menu directly from their smartphones. This spring, the restaurant also introduced 88-ounce beverage towers filled with mimosas, Palomas, margaritas or draft beer.

“They really took off,” says St. Laurent, adding he thinks The Fifth Element is the only restaurant in Newport offering these towers, which also gives staff a little breathing room because they don’t have to repeatedly visit tables for drink orders.

Making food and making a difference

Taking care of their staff was a huge concern for Christopher Bender and his colleagues at Stoneacre Hospitality Group, which includes Stoneacre Brasserie, Stoneacre Garden, Stoneacre Picnics and Stoneacre Events. Within a week of laying off their entire staff — and themselves — in March of 2020, they realized just how critical an issue food insecurity was in the local community, and the pandemic only made the problem worse.

“Coupling the growing need with our relatively voluminous stock of food, we initially started a program preparing and delivering three-course meals to out-of-work hospitality workers in need,” Bender said.

The outdoor patio bar at Stoneacre Garden in downtown Newport.

Later, they partnered with the International Tennis Hall of Fame to support underserved youths and their families via the TeamFAME program, serving about 500 meals per week through the end of 2020.

As the pandemic climate shifted, the Stoneacre team took another look at how to make a sustainable impact within the community.

Early this year, Stoneacre Hospitality Group established a formal relationship with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Newport as well as Westerly-based Farmer’s Community Food Hub, a consortium of partner farms in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York that sell USDA-certified grass-fed beef, GMO-free grass-fed lamb, organic pork, organic poultry and organic produce to restaurants in conjunction with the AYERS Foundation.

“We are now back to (donating) 125-200 meals weekly and are seeking state and federal grants to continue this work, significantly increasing its volume and impact to repurpose and deliver as many meals as we can to those in need by further collaborating with a growing list of community partners and vendors,” Bender said, adding the Stoneacre team wants to prioritize helping the elderly and supporting school lunch programs.

During the pandemic, the company opened Stoneacre Garden in the heart of downtown Newport at a property with a long history of restaurant closures.

In response to the widespread warnings against dining indoors, Stoneacre Garden capitalized on the property’s ample outdoor patio, rooftop overlooking the harbor and cavernous interior flanked by wide garage doors that allow the salty air to pour through the building.

Stoneacre Garden became a community hub by welcoming a variety of pop-up markets and holiday bazaars. The restaurant also hosted charitable events, eventually establishing a lasting partnership with Aquidneck Community Table by hosting its winter farmer’s market.

“It seemed a natural fit to have a downtown market given all the extra parking in the off season and the desire to keep downtown populated and with a distinctive buzz,” Bender said.

Adjusting to a new reality

A leader in Southern New England’s hospitality industry, Newport Restaurant Group operates seven restaurants in Newport County — in addition to Foodlove Market, which opened in Middletown at the end of August 2021.

“Prior to Foodlove, Newport Restaurant Group operated all full-service restaurants and didn’t have a concept that could meet this new reality that we were in,” said Jeff Tenner, the company’s director of concept development. “The question was, ‘How do we meet the world where it is today, and how will that continue in post-pandemic life?’ Meaning let’s not just build something for the situation that we are in, but this is an opportunity to diversify the portfolio.”

Tenner says that Foodlove is an opportunity to leverage the company’s culinary firepower and serve customers the food the company’s restaurants are known for — just in a different format.

“Now that we are in this new reality, this business is seeing both Newport Restaurant Group loyalists as well as folks who never patronized (us) before; all of them really appreciating this new style… We have all these different methods that can meet you where you are in your day-to-day life,” Tenner said.

And now that the world is slowly getting back to normal, the company will identify which parts of Foodlove Market should be expanded.

Two lasting changes at other Newport Restaurant Group restaurants: advance online reservations and take-out.

Foodlove Market in Middletown.

“We didn’t do too much take-out business before, but we got really good at getting food into people’s homes in good shape — both through dish engineering and our packaging,” said Shawn Westhoven, the company’s beverage director.

Although more people have returned to dining out, the take-out business has remained at pandemic levels, creating a new, lasting revenue stream.

“Tens of thousands a week,” Westhoven said.

But running a successful take-out business at a traditional restaurant forced its own set of adjustments.

“We had to reallocate space in our kitchen and at our host stands because all of this technology comes with its own software and its own tablet, so our host stands look like the Millennium Falcon now,” Westhoven said with a chuckle. “You have a tablet for DoorDash, a tablet for OpenTable, a tablet for online ordering… the software got really good — and quickly — during the pandemic for things like DoorDash and online ordering, but they are still working on consolidating and streamlining.”

Managing increasing demand

While reservations have always been encouraged at most Newport restaurants, now they’re practically required if you want a table, especially in the peak summer and fall travel season. In 2021, Newport experienced a record-breaking tourism season, despite uncertainty about the pandemic.

“If you don’t have a reservation in Newport, not just in our restaurants but in any restaurant these days, you just can’t get in,” Westhoven said. “The demand is definitely exceeding what we can do right now.”

Bar ‘Cino on Newport’s Washington Square opened just shy of a year before the start of the pandemic and did not accept reservations pre-2020.

“But they were required to by the state at one point during the pandemic and they’ve continued to do so ever since because we found it made a more efficient use of the restaurant,” Westhoven said. “It helps to flatten out the business curve each day.”

When diners did make reservations at Newport Restaurant Group establishments prior to 2020, about half were made online and half were made by phone. Today, nearly all reservations are made online via the online restaurant-reservation service OpenTable.

“Guests are more comfortable using technology as it relates to dining,” Westhoven said.

There’s an electric optimism throughout Newport County’s restaurant industry today, despite continued labor shortages and supply chain inconsistencies. The rising cost of goods and services has presented new challenges but restaurateurs, including Willis, say they are better prepared and can react quicker; adjusting prices and/or taking an item off the menu with the push of a button thanks to the technology they’ve embraced.

While local restaurant owners stop short of calling pandemic adjustments a silver lining, the bulk of Newport County’s restaurant industry has persevered — and thrived.

Open an eatery during a pandemic? Challenge accepted

While the pandemic derailed the business plans and growth of many local restaurants and artisan food makers, it gave others the opportunity and inspiration to realize long held dreams.

“I’ve always wanted to own a small business, but I didn’t really know what it could be until I had a lightbulb moment during the pandemic,” said Jackie Connor, a 26-year-old Salve Regina University graduate. Connor was working at a luxury travel company specializing in trips to France until she was furloughed at the start of the pandemic. This prompted her to return to Newport to finish her MBA. “I realized that I could create my dream small business out of something I’m already so passionate about,” says Connor.

Jacki Connor, owner of Bellevue Boards. | Photo by Jessica Pohl

Already familiar with fine wines, cheeses and charcuterie from her experience in French culinary tourism, she felt Newport was the perfect place to launch her charcuterie board business, Bellevue Boards.

“This area is such a hub for entertaining,” she said, citing the plentiful boat tours, weddings and social gatherings.

Needing a commercial kitchen, Connor turned to Newport Cooks in Middletown to get started. As demand grew due to word of mouth and social media, Connor thought bigger.

“Like any new small-business owner, it’s such a dream to picture your sign above a storefront,” Connor said.

When a space on Broadway became available, things got real — real fast.

“I had a lot to consider. Was I ready for this jump? Is opening a storefront a good idea with Covid still lurking? Could I afford all of the bills that come with my own shop?” Connor said.

Nevertheless, she persisted, opening the brick-and-mortar Bellevue Boards earlier this year — and thriving.

A side hustle no more

Wally’s Hot Dog Cart was a side hustle that Brad and Morgan Head launched in 2016.

When the pandemic hit, Wally’s was already a familiar spot in Newport’s Washington Square. While nearly all area food business had to pivot, Wally’s was in a unique, advantageous and unlikely position.

“It was actually a game changer, in a good way,” Brad said.

Brad Head, the visionary behind Wally’s Wieners. | Photo by Kristen Ross.

As restaurants slowly navigated state guidelines for reopening, Wally’s Hot Dog Cart became a trusted place where people could be outside, stay socially distanced and experience a little bit of normalcy.

“We were able to offer something the town needed in terms of a quick serve spot where people could get quick bite to eat,” Brad said.

When Harry’s Burger Bar on lower Thames Street announced that the business and building were for sale, the Heads saw an opportunity to realize a long-held ambition of opening a hot dog restaurant.

“We ran with it,” Brad said.

Backed by local investors, Wally’s Wieners opened its doors in February of this year with a menu featuring all-American comfort foods including Cranston’s own Saugy hot dogs, smash burgers, fried chicken sandwiches, French fries with copious creative toppings, onion rings, milkshakes, and more.

The restaurant was an immediate hit. Wally’s has just opened “The Copper Club” on the second floor, a bar-meets-lounge with live music that captures a
New Orleans-style speakeasy vibe.

A fresh start

The pandemic and its related shutdowns also provided an opportunity for several spots in town to renovate their interiors — a benefit of not being able to host patrons for a time.

Closures in spring of 2020 allowed La Forge Casino Restaurant to restore the original floor tiling designed by famed architect Stanford White — long hidden under more recent flooring — and made to match the entrance of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Along with that restoration came a major cleaning that led to fresh paint, a redesigned front bar, rug removal and new wood flooring throughout the restaurant.

“It was definitely a snowball effect that started out as a deep cleaning and ended up a complete renovation,” said manager Ashley Lemire. “It was fun to be a part of.”

Now, live music has resumed, with David Manuel returning to his spot at the renovated pub.

“We have plans this coming off-season to do even more with the porch and to update furniture and install new fixtures,” said Lemire. “We are continuing to make La Forge ‘Where Newport Eats’.”

Around the corner at Cappy’s Hillside Café, known most simply as Cappy’s and tucked into the same Memorial Boulevard spot since 1938, improvements were also made. The bar reopened last June to much fanfare. Among the updates were new flooring and new bathrooms, along with new high-top tables in place of the old pool table.

This summer, the bar will once again offer a limited food menu, available Fridays through Sundays. According to longtime manager Joe Lalli, the renovations, along with a new green awning, have already increased foot traffic.

Some things, though, have remained the same: “A friendly attitude up here, everybody is smiling, and the bartenders are great,” said Lalli with a grin.

Across town, Parlor Bar & Kitchen on Broadway also reopened with a new spin on things.

Kristen Mashaw, the current owner, bought the building from her stepfather in 2014, transforming what was once Café 200 into a live music venue serving cocktails and classic bar food.

When the first wave of shutdowns arrived in 2020, and live music was no longer an option, Mashaw made the decision to pivot from an entertainment bar to a restaurant.

“We couldn’t wait for entertainment to come back,” she said.

With the help of family and friends, she took three months and transformed a dark music venue into a brighter, more stylish space. Among the changes are new windows along the Broadway side of the building, where the main entrance has also been relocated from the corner. The kitchen also got an upgrade.

Another addition: A colorful mural on the Gould Street side of the building, painted by Chris Wyllie.

“It’s a stunning statement,” Mashaw said. “I feel like that’s what Broadway needed — a little color.”

Some things have stayed the same. “The pool table will never leave. It’s the heartbeat of the café,” Mashaw said, adding that live music is returning this summer.

“In some weird way, Covid has pushed our business outside our original business model,” Mashaw said, “and now I feel like we’ve turned into something so much better.”

One of the specialty charcuterie board from Bellevue Boards. | Photo by Jessica Pohl