Café 44: Among the Survivors
Café 44 of Arlington, VA, a successful breakfast, lunch & brunch hotspot, doubled its business after doing a “massive pivot” in its food service and customer outreach.
They completely retrenched in May; re-opening from forced government closure to a social media favorite with an upscale dinner menu.
“When we reopened in May we had to pivot strongly,” says owner Jula Jane. “Before the shutdown we were serving breakfast and lunch to a customer base that were tenants in our building. We also had a very strong brunch service. But all our tenants were suddenly working from home and making their own meals.”
Unwilling to give up, Jula Jane applied for and was granted a Paycheck Protection loan, brought back her team, and created an outrageous menu with her chef Nicki Schmelzer. And then she struck gold when Café 44 was discovered and “put on the map” by grassroots Facebook Page Alexandria Curbside Dining. Jula explains: “Mary Wadland of Zebra Magazine created a Facebook group to help uplift restaurants. It was amazing! That Facebook group literally put us on the map.”
In a Q&A with Boxerbrand’s blog Recipe for Success, Jula Jane describes the odyssey during the pandemic.
BB: How did Alexandria Curbside Dining help Café 44 pivot?
JJ: Before the pandemic we were a super-local restaurant primarily serving tenants in our own building. But the larger neighborhood didn’t know us that well. Then I was discovered by the Facebook group Alexandria Curbside Dining, which was created by Mary Wadland as a positive platform to bring the community and restaurants together. That group made all the difference in the world for us! I was able to take pictures of our food and run them for free on the social media group, and right away started to attract all new customers. I got all these customers from our own neighborhood who said they didn’t know Café 44 was here until they saw it on Facebook. This page was the only reason I was able to come back the way I did.
BB: How did curbside pickup work out, and how did indoor dining change?
JJ: We tried the curbside dining experiment, but it didn’t pay the bills. But once the indoor dining restrictions were eased, right out of the gate, we were fully booked. Our menu, which is far more substantial and upscale, was really attractive. And I was able to post pictures on Facebook of our chef’s creations, like our shrimp & grits, our five-hour short ribs, and our crab and lobster ravioli. Another huge help was our outdoor space. We have this amazing outdoor terrace overlooking the Potomac river. So, all through the summer, we hummed along busier than we’ve ever been. We actually doubled our business, in spite of the six-foot social distancing, and with all the other safety mandates.
BB: Unfortunately, business has been sliding recently. Why is that?
JJ: A big reason is that if you turn on the TV you’re told restaurants are the devil. Even though not one of my employees has had the virus, and not one positive case has been traced back to my restaurant, the politicians are telling everyone to stay out of the restaurants. And that hurts my heart a little. I felt a loss less safe sitting in an Uber than I do sitting in my restaurant.
But people have been convinced to stay away. I just invested $20,000 in outdoor heaters and came up with a ski theme for people to come sit outside, enjoy dinner and a cocktail, and dress up in cute winterwear.
I think it’s tragic to see what’s happening to many restaurants. They’re one of the largest employers in the US. There’s a nonprofit charity based in DC called the Independent Restaurant Coalition. They’re working tirelessly to try to help restaurants, but I think many won’t survive after this.
BB: How do you stay positive and survive?
JJ: I have a motto, which is: ‘The difficult we do every day, the impossible takes a little longer.’ Right now, this is the impossible phase. So, it’s going to take a little longer. But Café 44 will be among the survivors! — Café 44 is one of Boxerbrand’s awesome customers! We wish you and every restaurant the best of luck!