A solid, lattice-truss bridge in the iconic Eli Whitney style, which once served only as a beautiful, covered walkway for restaurant patrons, was transformed during government lockdown measures into a means of survival for a 75-year-old destination restaurant.
Festooned in twinkling white lights that shown like fireflies at night, the covered bridge at Bull Run Restaurant had a wait-list every night of the week as soon as outdoor dining was approved, says owner Alison Tocci.
“When the pandemic hit, we lost 50 percent of revenue,” Alison says. “Normally we did $4 million annually. We didn’t want the ship to go down after 75 years, so we began to make changes right away in order to survive.”
It began with the covered bridge, a “lifesaver” that was never intended to do more than serve as a covered walkway from parking lot to restaurant.
In this week’s Q&A with Boxerbrand blog Recipe for Success, Alison Tocci describes the multi-prong approach she and husband and colleague George employed to keep the lights on, and the restaurant open.
Boxerbrand: Tell me about the bridge.
Alison: When my Dad decided to build a covered bridge, it was a means for customers to walk from the parking lot to a 300-seat addition he put on the restaurant. And, because we’re in such a historic spot—our restaurant is at an old stagecoach stop—my mom insisted that the bridge be in keeping with the iconic history. So she insisted upon a truss bridge that looks like it belongs to iconic New England. At the height of the pandemic, when we were serving customers out on the bridge, there wasn’t a night that went by that I didn’t send up a prayer of thanks.
Boxerbrand: How did the bridge help Bull Run Restaurant stay open?
Alison: We set out dining tables and started to advertise it, and we had a waiting list every night! At the beginning we seated about 60 tables to comply with social distancing. But we’re able to seat more than that now.
Boxerbrand: How did your non-takeout restaurant get started in takeout?
Alison: We had never done takeout before. It was a really big deal for us to make the transition. Because we’re a green-certified restaurant, we’re committed to using all products, from our containers to equipment, that adhere to strict environmental protocols.
We managed to source materials, and after that hurdle, we went to work making sure the plating in the container was a beautiful experience. We wanted to make sure our customers got as close to the same plating experience as they had in the restaurant.
Boxerbrand: Bull Run Restaurant also opened a new Provisions Store!
Alison: This was another big change for us. We realized we could sell our meats, cheeses, and seafood, cooked or raw. And our sauces and other prepared foods were a big hit with our customers. At the height of the pandemic, we were selling 300 items consistently, from our house-made sauces to our salad dressings. This taught us something about our product and a way to diversify our revenue stream.
Boxerbrand: And did outdoor dining continue to be a money maker?
Alison: Yes! We had so much property we weren’t doing anything with, which allowed us to expand our outdoor seating. We invested in tents, tables, and chairs and it all helped us do a booming business!
Boxerbrand: Bull Run Restaurant has been more than a restaurant for years. Please explain.
Alison: We’re four businesses in one. My husband George, who previously ran a floating music venue in New York City, created a 300-seat music venue at Bull Run, which draws some serious talent. Our venue hosts all types of performances, from Judy Collins, who is coming this week, to classic Broadway productions like Beatlemania.
We have performances of blues, rock, folk, jazz, bluegrass, and comedy. Comedian Kevin Nealon from Saturday Night Live is also performing this summer.
We’re also a venue for weddings and have a catering operation.
Boxerbrand: How do you staff such an empire?
Alison: We’re a longtime family business, and we like to say we’re run by family, in-laws and outlaws! — Bull Run Restaurant, lauded by the Phantom Gourmet for its excellence in prime rib and seafood stuffed haddock, uses Boxerbrand’s Linen Naturals line in its table presentation. Thank you!