Like restaurant owners and operators everywhere, restaurateur Chris Campbell of Boston’s Troquet on South has found the past eight months to be full of challenges. He’s increased take-out, retooled delivery and altered his dining room’s seating and layout as a way to adapt to the pandemic’s new requirements. But after watching his private function room sit idle for six months, Campbell figured he had to try something different.
“We had a private dining room, and obviously there's not a lot of private dining going on at this time,” Campbell told PYMNTS in a recent interview. “So we decided to turn it into something a little more useful, a little more conducive to smaller parties.”
That “something a little more useful” is a cozy new watering hole called Offsuit, which opened last week under strict state and local regulations concerning hours, seating and food requirements.
“A month or so ago, when we thought about this concept, we were planning to stay open till 1:00 a.m. like our liquor license tells us we can,” Campbell said. “Then the city of Boston told us we have a curfew of 10:00 p.m., and we had to make ‘last call’ at 9 o'clock and have everybody out of the building by 9:30 p.m. Hopefully that will change in the near future.”
Campbell also said that the 20-seat venue, which has its own back-alley entrance reminiscent of the 1920s speakeasy days, is currently limited to just 12 patrons at a time. To deal with the capacity crimp, the 40-year industry veteran simply shortened guest stays to 90 minutes, which helps turn tables over more quickly and get more customers through.
“We're limited to 12 seats right now, so it fills up very, very quickly,” Campbell said, noting that the nightspot can turn the tables over three times on Saturday night.
Given that the space went unused as recently as September, Campbell said things so far have been “better than expected.”
Not the First COVID Tweak
The addition of a cozy new cocktail lounge behind his main French eatery isn’t the first pivot Campbell has taken during the pandemic.
In an unlikely culinary pairing, he resurrected and put locally famous Speed’s Hot Dogs on his dine-in and takeout menus in June. That honors the 2015 passing of Boston hot dog cart owner Ezra “Speed” Anderson, Campbell’s friend.
At a time when COVID counts are rising and regulations are in flux, Campbell said he’s just trying to stay positive and keep grinding away, joking that he and his staff are doing twice the work for half the money.
“It's just kind of survival mode right now,” Campbell said. “Everybody's on a level playing field, so it's not like anybody's getting any preferential treatment.”
Lucky to Be Little
With thousands of chain restaurant sites closing this year, Campbell feels lucky to enjoy local ownership. “Hands-on owners, I think, are better off than the people that were more corporate-driven,” he said.
Campbell said that although large corporate chains often have better access to capital, they also face a level of accounting scrutiny and inflexibility that smaller players don’t. “I think [that’s why] those corporate entities are the hardest-hit right now,” he said.
And while Campbell said the past six months have felt like 10 years – and the next six months probably will, too – the COVID era hasn’t been a total loss.
“Everything we have done has been beneficial as a learning experience, and we're pretty excited about the response we've gotten so far from our customer base,” he said. “They've been very loyal and very cooperative, and going forward, I think [having been through the pandemic together] is just going to enhance that.”