The understatement of the year is that independent restaurants are going to have a hard time surviving this pandemic. For those that aren’t already closed, the threat of having to do so looms large.
Irena Stein, owner of Alma Cocina Latina in Baltimore, Maryland, isn’t afraid to face that fact. “What are the chances for us to survive truly? Very little,” she said over the phone recently.
Like any other full-service restaurant, Alma Cocina Latina was forced to close its doors when the pandemic went full swing in the U.S. But instead of completely shuttering the place, as others have done, Stein has transitioned her fine-dining establishment into a hub for two brand-new areas. “Instead of thinking we’re going to close forever, which is a possibility, we’re asking, ‘How can I transform myself into something else?’” Stein said on the phone. The answer, for now, seems to be half-restaurant for takeout orders, half relief kitchen for those in need.
Alma Concina Latina has been around for five years now. Prior to the pandemic, the Venezuelan restaurant was better known for serving up squash tartare and high-end arepas than it was for filling to-go boxes. In fact, the restaurant has never, up to now, even considered doing off-premises orders.
“One of the most important experiences for us to share with our guest is the whole experience,” Stein said, adding that Alma Cocina Latina “is a place that is full of education, it’s a very warm environment, very beautiful, accents of museum-type pieces. So for us, coming into our place is coming into our culture.”
Which, obviously, is impossible to replicate in a plastic to-go container.
But like everyone else, state-mandated dining room closures have forced the restaurant to offer some kind of to-go menu, though in it’s not just a case of offering the existing menu in a box. “From a very very beautiful menu we decided to do a few items from appetizers and the arepa bar.” Since arepas are best eaten immediately after cooking, those that live farther away can order theirs half-baked, then follow instructions on the Alma site for finishing them at home.
Takeout is available Thursday through Sunday from 5 p.m. to 7.30 p.m. Users can call the restaurant to place an order or buy items online directly through the Alma site.
Offering takeout has given some of the Alma staff work to do, but as is the case with many other restaurants, going takeout-only has meant there’s less need for a full staff. Rather than furlough or fire them, Stein and her team started a relief kitchen.
That’s meant partnering with an organization called Mera Kitchen Collective, which provides a place for refugee chefs to cook. Since Mera was mostly a catering organization before the pandemic, it needed new business, and the two entities teamed up to provide meals to the Baltimore community. Not long after, José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen rang up and offered to sponsor the food they were giving away. Stein told me that as of now, Alma and Mera’s combined efforts, along with the sponsorship, allow them to give away about 450 meals per day. Recipients are individuals with limited access to food who would, under any other circumstance, never have a chance at tasting Alma’s food.
She noted that Baltimore has a lot of food deserts, and that down the line, she would like to do more work in the area of food justice, such as buying excess food from farmers and redistributing it around the community.
“I would like to transform part of Alama’s future activities into [helping] food professionals that support different food policies, and then provide the food, really really good food to them,” she said.
As for the restaurant itself, Stein says it will keep doing takeout for now, while they are still in survival mode. She is quick to add, however, that she wants no part in a future that is only takeout. Hence, looking for ways Alma can reinvent the kind of food business it is.
The pandemic has been especially hard on full-service restaurants, and even tougher on fine-dining ones, that, like Alma, have never had a need for any strategy other than dine-in service. But with reduced capacity mandates, stricter guidelines, and decimated savings accounts, the recent reopenings have made abundantly clear that the fine dining industry isnt’ going to boune back from the pandemic full force anytime soon. Possibly never.
“We were a restaurant and we were a beautiful restaurant. That past isn’t coming back anytime soon. Why not think in reimagining the future?”
Stein has taken that as her cue to rethink the point of her business — what full-service restaurants are and, more importantly, what they can do for the larger community. No, that attitude doesn’t lead to immediate profits, or even survival, but it hints at yet-another avenue restaurants can take to let the world know they are out there and still serving up good food.
Or as Stein says, “This is no time for champagne and caviar. Food is food, so let’s work with that.”