At the outset, the first big decision was, Do we close, or do we try to go takeout-only at the Barn? We decided to go for it. My boss was like, “Let’s give it a week and see what the customer base is like. Can we make any money doing this?” At the end of that week, he turned to me and he’s like, “You got another week in you?”
Fast-forward almost 52 weeks later, and we never stopped. That first week we were still letting people come in, we weren’t masking, we were taking cash. We made a bunch of mistakes right out of the gate — nobody got sick or anything, but we looked at what we were doing and knew we could do it way better.
We reconfigured the entire business. We went takeout only, and we started to streamline pretty much every aspect of the restaurant. Why are we still bringing stuff upstairs to the dry storage, when we are just operating downstairs? So where we would normally have tables and people having dinner, we had mountains of boxes of takeout containers.
It got to a point where it took off, and people really appreciated it.
All of a sudden, we didn’t need all the plates, all the silverware, it was all in the way. My boss is a big fan of innovation, he likes to try new things all the time, so his management style was very well-suited to this pandemic. Also, our physical location is the only business on the street, so we could let cars kind of pile up if we got behind in the kitchen.
Online ordering was essential. It’s truly touchless. The customer puts in their credit card number, we aren’t handing them a pen, they’re not handing us cash. They just pull up, grab their food, and goodbye.
Cutting down staff to a point where everyone can do a little bit of a couple other people’s jobs was also huge, in case something goes seriously wrong. At one point, our phones went down. Something strange happened with Comcast, where we called them and said, We don’t have to have all the bells and whistles. We had this big package where we could get all these different TV channels and Wi-Fi and stuff, and we realized no one is watching the TVs, so why would we pay for all that?
Comcast misunderstood us and just canceled our phones, our internet, everything. So for a couple of days, we used my personal phone as the contact that you would text to pick up food at the Barn.
After a little while, we got really good at doing takeout, because we just didn’t stop. There were really three eras for the restaurant during COVID: There was the curbside-only era, the era where I stopped doing curbside and was the maitre d’ for the outside dining section. Then we moved inside and I went back to the curbside.
During the curbside chunk, we had a night where, in four hours, we did 132 takeout orders.
That works out to one order every few minutes, with no mistakes from the kitchen, no mistakes on the street. You can keep that many balls in the air at one time, if you are good, and you have the experience. You have to be quick, and not let a particular customer monopolize your time. People really want to talk, they want to ask questions.
I’ll never forget, we had a guest who really liked to come sit at the bar and talk. He was among the first to pick up curbside, and he picked up curbside every day for months.
For our hours, we knew we wanted to focus on dinner. Lunch during the summer is usually a snooze, except for on rainy days. When we went six days a week, it was exhilarating, but it was really hard. When you are a maitre d’, you have to do two things constantly: Make decisions, and be positive.
On my one day off a week, during the summer, I found it very difficult to do either of those things.
It was a lot of hard work on everyone’s part, but we totally nailed it, especially with our outdoor section.
I lived in New York City for 15 years — I am so glad I live here, on Martha’s Vineyard, in this community as opposed to the city. I have been a restaurant guy coming up on 30 years, and I have done lots of cool and memorable things over that time. But what we achieved here, during this pandemic, not just as a business, but as a community, is really wonderful. I’ll never forget it.
It wasn’t my dream to be in this industry, and yet I am so glad I am still in it. I have a whole new perspective on what a restaurant can be to a community. The relationship I saw evolve this past year between the business I work for, my industry in a larger sense, and the community has just put it in such stark relief, how important it is for people to have a place to go get food — even if they can only get it shoved in their car.