A global pandemic isn’t stopping customers from picking up authentic Italian pastries at La Bella Sicilia Bakery & Gelateria in Hampden Township.
Over lunch, they buy Sicilian cakes and cookies, too beautiful to eat, and savory items such as ham and cheese calzones and brioche crust pizza made with imported Italian flour.
Originally, owners Giampiero Faraone and Sheri Tolomeo had hoped to open late last year. Plans were derailed and held up yet again due to the coronavirus pandemic, but by spring the pair took the plunge.
“We’ve got to pay the rent anyway, so we opened,” Faraone said “But since the first day, we have been busy. We can’t complain about the business. We are doing good.”
He admits the higher-end bakery gives them an advantage because there’s nothing like it in the area. In six months, he noted they grew the business page’s Facebook audience to 5,500 followers.
“The people know it’s really good food. It’s the food that talks, not just the place and the looks, it’s the food,” he added.
As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, a handful of restaurant owners are forging ahead with openings or expansions in hopes for the best. It’s counter to the headlines painting a bleak picture of the restaurant industry marred by closings and a cloudy future.
In Pennsylvania, 63% of restaurant operators say it’s unlikely they will be in business in six months under the current levels, according to the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association. On top of it, 78% say they don’t expect their restaurant’s sales to return to pre-coronavirus levels within the next six months.
Still, a smattering of restauranteurs are cautiously pressing forward as they navigate health and safety requirements and ever-changing guidance from Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration. Openings range from large, multi-seat establishments to coffee shops, ethnic eateries, bakeries and brewery tasting rooms.
Over the weekend, Highway Manor Brewing in Lower Allen Township opened a taproom, a plan owner Johnnie Compton III said was accelerated during pandemic downtime and designed to boost retail sales.
On the beer front, Englewood arrived in Hershey this summer in a massive refurbished barn, and beer drinkers are awaiting openings this week of Rubber Soul Brewing in Hummelstown and The Watershed Pub in Camp Hill. SpringGate Arcona in Lower Allen Township, a spinoff of the popular Lower Paxton Township winery and brewery, is hosting a sneak preview Oct. 3 with alfresco seating only and food trucks. The main building will open in April 2021.
Several ethnic restaurants, including House of Vegans and Dania’s Kitchen, both in Harrisburg, and Nalan Indian Cuisine in Lemoyne, have opened in recent months.
Chains also have arrived in the form of Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen in Lower Paxton Township and a Teriyaki Madness in Swatara Township. Blaze Pizza is en route to the Capital City Mall in Lower Allen Township.
Meanwhile, Carlisle-based Redd’s Smokehouse BBQ is expanding later this year with a 160-seat restaurant in Hampden Township, and Blue Sky Tavern eyeing an end-of-the-year opening in Fairview Township, northern York County.
Reasons behind the openings vary with some having to follow through on pre-COVID plans and others in needs of a boost to cash reserves. Still, others are confident about their establishment’s offerings or are taking advantage of prime real estate during a downtime.
Owners like Blue Sky’s owner Eric Fee admit to having some reservations about the timing but remain optimistic.
“I’m definitely nervous. It’s out of my own control,” he said. “I feel like if we were at 100 [indoor seating capacity], we would definitely do well. The concept we’re going to bring is going to be great.”
Fee, who worked at Wilsbach Distributors Inc. for 15 years, said he has been in talks for over a year to open the restaurant at the former The Fieldhouse All American Sports Bar & Grill. He’s rolling his love of craft beer into Blue Sky’s format.
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When the doors open, the restaurant will offer an approachable 42-tap beer selection, a combination of craft and domestic beers along with a menu of steaks, sandwiches and burgers. Entertainment in the form of live music such as southern classic jam bands and country and bluegrass will add to the atmosphere.
Similar to Fee, Liz Albayero, a partner at the soon-to-open The Fix Cafe in Harrisburg, said owner Lakshmi Tanniru had no choice but to open after months of planning. It was time to start generating some revenue, she said.
Plans were in motion for the coffee and crepes shop long before COVID-19, and Albayero said they signed a lease in August 2019 and planned to open this past February. When the pandemic hit, some last-minute construction was delayed.
Fix Cafe is opening Oct. 1 and will specialize in latte art, high end coffee and sweet and savory crepes including vegan crepes.
“The biggest concern is how good are we going to do?” she said. “Last week it was still like an empty town but this week for some reason it’s a little more busier.”
She said they are confident that once state employees return to offices, they will support Fix Cafe and surrounding businesses. But at the same time she’s worried private companies will continue to operate under work-at-home models to save money.
“If I were to have my financial security and a restaurant in development, I would continue because people are always going to eat out,” said John Longstreet, CEO and president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association.
He noted there are some benefits to opening now, despite the fact it feels like the government is working against the restaurant industry and consumers are being told false information about dining out.
Since the start of the pandemic, restaurants and taverns in Pennsylvania have had to operate under a host of rules including capacity limits, no bar seating and food orders with all alcoholic beverage purchases. Some owners have been vocal that the restrictions have made it difficult to operate and continue to make a profit.
Playing in the favor of newcomers, Longstreet pointed to the pent up demand from diners once the pandemic ends, and he noted new establishments will face less competition as other restaurants close. In addition, Longstreet said as time passes, diners are more confident the risks of contacting the virus while eating out are low.
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported dining out is one of the riskiest activities to contract the virus, citing the fact masks are not worn while people are eating and drinking.
Longstreet is counting on relief for restaurants in the form of a bill headed to Wolf’s desk that would end many of the restrictions placed on restaurants and taverns. House Bill 2513 would set a minimum capacity for restaurants and taverns of 50% and even beyond that if their premises allow.
The bill would further allow them to permit patrons to sit at the bar provided they socially distance and would eliminate the requirement that a meal must be purchased to buy an alcoholic beverage. However, Wolf has said he will veto the bill.
“It’s the best lifeline they have right now and it really is a lifeline,” Longstreet said.
Not all new restaurants had pre-COVID plans in place.
In the case of Nalan Indian Cuisine, partners and “brothers,” Mohan Raj Devarajulu and Hari Haran Karmegam, took advantage of an opportunity to take the lease at the former Namaste Indian Cuisine in Lemoyne. Nalan is a spinoff of their popular Philadelphia city restaurant, Thanal Indian Tavern.
Nalan’s dishes use coconut milk and flavors of tamarind, ginger, curry leaves and garlic. The owners are confident the restaurant will do well, despite the timing. The Southern Indian food, Devarajulu said, sells itself.
“It’s risky but still we want to expand the South Indian cuisine. We always wanted to expand our presence outside the Philadelphia area,” he said. “We had an opportunity to come to Harrisburg and spread our South Indian specialties.”
Nalan’s owners are not the only ones to recognize the type of food hinges on the success of an establishment. Larson Casey recently opened a Teriyaki Madness franchise at the High Pointe Commons in Swatara Township and has been pleasantly surprised by the response.
“It has been going really crazy. It was a high demand yesterday,” Casey said, adding waits stretched to between 45 minutes and one hour.
He said the made-to-order menu of Asian-inspired bowls like teriyaki chicken and spicy tofu with rice or noodles and vegetables is something new for diners in a world of burgers, burritos and pizza takeout. The price he said, is right, too, with chicken teriyaki bowls priced at $5 and meals including a drink and egg roll under $10.
Originally, Teriyaki Madness was supposed to open in March.
“The pandemic slowed me down completely,” Casey said. “But it made sense [to open]. You can’t stop because of something like that.”
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