With decreasing customer foot traffic and plummeting sales amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many of Denton’s restaurants and small-business owners are entering uncharted terrain as they retool services to meet the new needs of customers.
At the Chestnut Tree Teahouse & Bistro, a quaint, family-run restaurant specializing in brunch and lunch classics and homemade baked goods, the pandemic’s impact has led to an operational restructure after 26 years. Suzanne Johnson, owner of the downtown establishment, said that as the extent of the outbreak worsened, she knew the world would be different.
“Technically, we are still a restaurant, but when everything started to happen with COVID-19, we realized that the whole world was going to change,” Johnson said. “So we are really not functioning as a restaurant anymore — but more of a market.”
On March 24, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order authorizing restaurants to sell bulk retail products from distributors to the public. The guidance allows for packaged meat, fruit and vegetables, including dry goods, to be sold directly to consumers.
Johnson, who was a chef prior to becoming the owner of Chestnut Tree about four years ago, said the pandemic and the rollout of restrictions against businesses and mobility have been a blur. She said that as public gatherings dwindled under county mandate, many of her customers had been unable to find certain items from grocery stores.
“I said to myself, ‘I can get a delivery truck five days a week, and I can still get a lot of this stuff,’” she said. “So it just made more sense for me to revamp what my business was and to not focus on what we were originally doing.”
Denton resident Shelly Tucker, owner and operator of the Ghosts of Denton tour company, said she has been purchasing items from Chestnut Tree, such as fresh fruit, salads, chicken and bread. Tucker noted that while she is unsure whether her downtown ghost tours will continue after the pandemic, she would continue to purchase from Chestnut Tree’s market — if it’s available.
While the wholesale market aspect of her business has been conceptualized for several years, Johnson said that when normalcy returns, her hope is for the Chestnut Tree to return to being a restaurant and catering business. However, because she had already been planning for a market approach, she said the business transition was easier — despite challenges.
For other Denton-based eateries, the novel coronavirus outbreak has resulted in similar but temporary restructuring. At Greenhouse Restaurant & Bar, a casual neighborhood pub offering American, Tex-Mex and mesquite-grilled food, the implementation of a wholesale market service was borne out of a necessity, owner Ken Currin said.
“Our goal, as soon as this started, was to be a reliable, safe and consistent link in the food chain,” Currin said. “We were nervous that larger grocers were behind the curve because of volume. We wanted to find the basic staples that people need.”
However, Currin said his restaurant of nearly 22 years was never designed to operate on a to-go-only basis. As well, he said that despite an increase in take-out orders under the county’s mandate, orders of grocery items represent only about 5% of Greenhouse’s sales.
“We wanted to supplement items from grocery stores like butter, flour and sugar,” Currin said. “But we are not a take-out or to-go business. … Even if those sales were to double or triple, it’s still unsustainable.”
He said he does not anticipate the wholesale market will continue once the pandemic is over. Currently, wholesale deliveries are scheduled for Fridays; however, with an increasing number of to-go orders and a limited number of staff, he said grocery pickups likely will move to Saturday.
At Chestnut Tree, Johnson said her storefront’s market has partnered with local businesses such as Salted Sanctuary Soaps and Painting With a Twist. She said that because of her alcohol and liquor license, the restaurant also has partnered with Armadillo Ale Works to sell beer.
“Everybody is sheltering in place and it’s tough — everybody is living day to day,” Johnson said. “We are just trying to strengthen our community by taking care of each other and representing each other as best we possibly can.”