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Donnie Glass hopes Grisette keeps Richmond happy, well fed

Donnie Glass at Grisette
Posted at 12:59 PM, Mar 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-29 21:38:59-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- When Donnie and Megan Glass opened Grisette in Richmond last year, they had no way of knowing the country's restaurant industry was about to be turned upside down by COVID-19.

They have since adjusted their restaurant and its business model with the times.

CBS 6 created a We're Open to shine a light on small businesses in an effort to support business owners and their work forces.

In an interview with Eat It, Virginia! co-host Robey Martin, Glass talked about how Grisette reacted to the pandemic. A lightly-edited version of their conversation is transcribed below:

Robey Martin
You're probably in a situation you never thought you were going to be just recently opening a restaurant, right?

Donnie Glass
Correct. Nobody knew this was coming when we were planning this restaurant, obviously. I don't think anybody saw this coming at all last summer.

Robey Martin
So, what are you guys doing to stay afloat?

Donnie Glass
Two Sundays ago, when pretty much everyone in Richmond decided to shut down, we immediately went to take out only. And it's been okay. It's been good enough.

It's not what we normally do, but we're being flexible and we're being optimistic and all that good stuff.

So that's what we're doing right now. We're doing takeout orders, to-go food. And that's it.

Robey Martin
How hard is it to transition from a seated restaurant to a to-go venue?

Donnie Glass
Logistically, it wasn't terribly hard because the volume of to-go isn't so much that it can't be handled.

If we were to continue doing this for the foreseeable future, for months and months and months, we would make some changes. We would start doing online ordering and I would reorganize the kitchen to be ready for to-go orders and stuff like that.

But if this is only going to last two months or three months, then for us, we're just gonna keep doing what we're doing.

I think the biggest hurdle to get over was the mental, the mindset and the approach to just not getting to do what you want anymore. And that sounds selfish at a time like this that, you know, oh, boohoo, we don't get to do what we normally do. But it took a little bit for me to just come to grips with the fact that this is it for now.

And you either embrace it, or it's miserable. So we're embracing it.

Robey Martin
And how are your employees doing? Have you had to lay off ?

Donnie Glass
For those that aren't familiar with restaurant economics, there's not a giant pile of money laying around all the time, especially for a new restaurant.

We're fortunate that we were busy when we opened and we had a good first six, seven months before this happened that we have a little bit of money. I mean, if we paid the staff like we normally do, we would be bankrupt in three weeks. And that's just the way restaurants work.

Any money we made in the beginning, we use to pay down debt that was borrowed to open the restaurant. And at the end of the day, there's not a whole lot of meat left on the bone.

So, this week's sales pay for next week's payroll, and that's pretty much how most restaurants operate. It's not an irresponsible business model. It's just the way it is.

So we thought the best decision for our staff was to be laid off, start collecting unemployment, and then get down to figuring out how to keep the business solvent going forward. So that when this is over, there is still a business because that's what I was most worried about, is if the business doesn't survive this several months thing, then nobody has a job after it's over. And that was the scary part for me.

We're very fortunate that we have a very small restaurant.

I only have 11 people to take care of.

The larger restaurants are up against something much different and much more difficult than us. All of my employees are young and have fairly inexpensive lifestyles. Thankfully nobody on my staff has children.

So we're in a unique position that we are luckier than most that this business model is kind of set up to outlast something like this, even if it went six months or something like that.

Robey Martin
So what can we as the dining public do to help you?

Donnie Glass
As a diner, the best thing you can do is to continue to support financially, which is to go and buy food. That's really as simple as it is. The goodwill that we've seen in the first two weeks has been absolutely mind blowing.

There's so much.

Yes we're giving people food, but at the end of the day, to me, it's still charity because when you sit down at a restaurant, you're sitting down and you're paying for the entire experience. For a restaurant to then flip to doing takeout, I feel like I've cheapened the Grisette experience by not letting you in the building. Like at least at our restaurant, so much of what we do is about being here and being with each other.

To answer the first question as a diner.

Just keep showing up and keep buying food that's really the best thing you can do.

I know a lot of people are losing their jobs in this and it's become impossible to go out to dinner, to pay for takeout food because it is more expensive than buying raw ingredients and cooking for yourself most of the time. So if you can't do it anymore, then it's okay. I don't want to come across as us begging for people to come in, because we're not. We want people to do within their means what they can do. And that's it because everybody has to be careful and to look out for themselves at a certain point in this.

And to answer your second question, we're doing a take out and what we're doing changes every week, it changes almost every day, which is nothing new for us. You know, we change our menu every week when we're open. So this is not that different in that way.

The first week, we were doing one thing every night and you could get it or not get it.

And then this week we did three or four different things every night and it was available for the whole week. But it was by the pairs only. So two and four. I think next week we're switching to all full a la carts.

We're going back to kind of the Grisette roots. We're going to do Steak Frites again, we're going to do some savory tarts, we're going to do a mushroom fettuccine dish.

I want to do things that keep supporting the vendors that I've been buying from since the beginning. So that's what we're doing.

And then every week we're picking the nicest day and we're running a series called "Sun's Out, Buns Out" and we're doing a sandwich. So last week, we did burgers and we had a couple of charcoal grills on the sidewalk. It was wildly successful.

We sold a bunch of burgers, but we realized we need to do this thing safer and go completely zero contact. So this week it's all going to be inside. There's going to be a table at the front door. There's going to be somebody bringing people, their orders, all the payments done ahead of time.

Next week, a chef friend of mine who just moved up from San Antonio, we're going to make fresh tamales and do tamales for "Sun's Out, Buns Out." It's not quite a sandwich, but a sandwich enough.

And just keep doing that once a week because it honestly breaks up the monotony of everything.

I think for us being in Church Hill getting the neighborhood outside and walking around, and not necessarily socializing and being close with one another. But, you know, our restaurant has in six months, we have established a sense of community here and I think that keeping people's positivity up is equally important as feeding them. And that's really what we're trying to do with that.

So, we're changing as we go and we're being flexible and we're trying to be innovative without forsaking our concept, I guess at this point, what is it concept like? A concept is fluid and current, but that's what we're doing.

Robey Martin
Very cool. I love it. I'm a sucker for a good tamale.

Donnie Glass
Yeah, I haven't had a good tamale in a long time. So I'm excited. Zach is a great cook. And he's gonna be in here this week, doing a bulk of the prep because he's done it a million times before and I have honestly never made a real tamale with, like, lining my own nixtamal and stuff like that.

He's doing the whole shebang.

So I'm excited to learn and to eat a lot of tamales. We're making 1,500 tamales. I was like, how much do you charge for a tamale? He's was like, well, you buy them by the dozen or half dozen, you don't buy one tamale. So we did a little bit of math and that's what we're doing.

Robey Martin
I love it. Well, thank you. I know you think you're busy doing your stuff today. So I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me.

Donnie Glass
Yeah, of course. Thank you so much. Robey. Take it easy.