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Richmond restaurants reflect one year after initial COVID closures: 'We found our way together'

Posted at 5:50 PM, Mar 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-16 19:26:15-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- One year ago, many Richmond-area restaurants began to voluntarily shut their doors in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

March 16, 2020, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney urged establishments to begin limiting their on-site service and shift to takeout or delivery options.

The year since has been a constant barrage of adaptation, job loss, uncertainty, and forced creativity for the restaurants in the region that made it through.

By the end of 2020, more than 50 restaurants had closed permanently, according to a tally by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

CBS 6 spoke with two local restaurant owners to capture their reflections on the anniversary of having to initially close their doors because of COVID-19 and everything since.

In a social media post on Tuesday, the chef/owner of Alewife in Church Hill included words like “resilient, flexible, creative, and especially grateful.”

Lee Gregory said those words were intended for the staff and customers who helped keep them going through a full year of constant change.

“We found our way together,” Gregory said. “As we have people back in the restaurant a little more, I certainly find myself like, 'holy-moly, would we get through that?'”

“There was weird pop-up after pop-up, stuff that was out of the box, things that we were doing that was just any harebrained idea to drum up excitement and make it, let’s call it a challenge for ourselves,” he said.

While the creative piece helped keep the days feel fresh, every change came with the constant anxiety of whether they were potentially exposing their employees to a situation that could expose them to the virus, Gregory said.

“We’re putting people’s literal lives in danger by asking them to do certain things, so maybe we need to take a step back and figure out if this is the right thing or not. So, that was the constant theme throughout the whole year,” he said.

Either because of their model, location, space, or financial situations, dozens of businesses had to close their doors forever.

Restaurants like FW Sullivan's in the Fan.

Jake Crocker owned Sully's and the restaurant one corner over Lady Nawlin's. Both shut down initially on March 16, 2020.

“We were actually working on a plumbing issue that morning. That’s when the world sort of woke up to everything,” he said.

Crocker called his two restaurants examples of how the pandemic affected different business models.

Lady Nawlin's is now back open with limited seating because they focus more on serving Cajun-style cuisine, whereas Sullivan's was the traditional bar setting.

“Bars are social centers. Social centers didn’t work in the time of social distancing, and it still doesn’t work,” Crocker said.

As far as when or if the Richmond restaurant scene can bounce back to the level of attention and notoriety it enjoyed prior to the pandemic, both Gregory and Crocker were not concerned because of a positive sign they recognized over the past year: loyalty in the region to locally-owned spots.

“I think there is this appreciation that will sink in that some of the places you’ve come to be attached to might not always be there. So, support them,” Crocker said.

“We’re going to see, hopefully, an explosion of supper creative food in town. Hopefully, we can all just be there to just keep up and enjoy it. It’s a new day,” Gregory said.

Both warned that people should not expect protocols for dining establishments to change with a “flip of the switch,” despite improving metrics and vaccinations. They urged patience as restaurants continue to adapt to the landscape of changing health guidelines.