Leah and Louise
Camp North End
We opened our new restaurant Leah & Louise on March 20, the same day that North Carolina announced its pandemic restrictions. This announcement made gatherings of more than 10 in public spaces unlawful.
COVID-19 has caused a restaurant crash reminiscent of 2008, and then some. We immediately pivoted to offering curbside dining for pickup, then to a family-style menu, then to midday service from 12 noon to 6 p.m. Then we tried delivery, and then finally, when Phase 2 was announced in June, we were able to open, both for outdoor and indoor dining. It’s hard to understate the cautious enthusiasm we felt.
Leah & Louise is our second baby (Uptown Yolk in Charlotte’s 7th Street Market being the first). Here, we have been elated to show people our rendition of a modern-day juke joint. The space is inspired and incomparable; the music, Delta blues, and the food match to tell our story.
Our second opening day, in June, was great, and so was the next. But things in this new era of dining are very different from how they were before. We wear masks. We try to make things as contactless as possible. We can’t fill our dining room like we would be able to before. Everything is different, not just for us, but for our diners, too.
So, for diners, here are a few guidelines for COVID restaurant engagement:
This allows the restaurants that you love to seat you in a socially distanced and safe way. It also allows us to staff properly to make sure we have time to put those pretty herbs on the left corner of the “best scallops you ever had.” Every week, we look at the reservations and we decide how to schedule people. Our kitchen does everything from scratch and we prepare and order everything according to the reservations.
Please don’t make a reservation and not keep it. Or, if you know you won’t be able to make it, please hit us up a day in advance to let us know. Here is the thing: Most restaurants operate with very small margins. We’re talking 8% to 10% profit if you’re doing it right. Industry standard labor cost is 30%. Food cost is 30%. Rent, utilities, taxes, et cetera are 30%. So for every dollar the restaurant makes, as the chef/owner, I take home about eight to 10 cents. Our restaurant has 50 seats, but with COVID restrictions and our priority on health and safety for staff and diners, we are social distancing and so we’re seating only 25. That cuts our earning potential in half, which means that everything we do is based on the number of reservations we get in a given day. If we order five sides of locally caught tilefish and half our reservations cancel, we are left with inventory that can spoil. That translates to lost profits and bumps that 30% food cost number up to 35%, and cuts into, you guessed it, the profit. So now, we actually lose money. This is one reason why so many of your favorite restaurants have been closing.
Keep in mind that most of your front-of-house staff — servers, bartenders, hosts, and even bussers — are partly compensated through your gratuity. Fifteen percent is substandard in normal times, 18% is OK, and 20% is good. More than 21% is great.
In North Carolina, tipping also helps your favorite restaurant with food costs. We price our menu and pay our staff on a model that includes tipping. Our labor and food costs are about 65% of our normal revenue and, with COVID seating restrictions, they account for 80% of our current revenue, thanks to a tipping model that allows our service staff to be well paid. Without great tips from our great guests, we would have to charge 25% extra to pay our servers what they currently make. So we appreciate you helping us and your favorite restaurants around the country. And know that our service staff appreciates it more. And, 12 times out of 10, better tipped servers give better service.
We plan for our reserved guests, plus a few walk-ins, so we will have cost allocated and will need those sales. Like I noted before, we have to plan everything out in advance. We order food based on the number of reservations we receive. We schedule our servers and cooks based on the number of reservations we have. We’re depending on those reservations to keep us in business. If you really can’t come in on that day or time, consider buying a gift card so you can spend that money with us for the next time.
Our entire staff is braving the world because we hospitality folks love y’all.
It makes us happy that you’re happy and, contrary to popular belief, we won’t get rich off this. Most small, independent restaurant owners — especially the chef-owners — have found their calling in hospitality and we want to share that with you. Now is the time we need y’all most. Get online, pick your time and date, and we will be at your service.
Gregory Collier is the chef and co-owner of Leah & Louise and Uptown Yolk in Charlotte. Follow him on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.