Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Recipe for Survival: How did Harrisburg’s restaurants fare through two years of pandemic?

Illustration by Rich Hauck

Save the restaurants!

In the spring of 2020, such was the call around Harrisburg, as the fledgling pandemic looked like it might stick around awhile.

Spoiler alert—it did.

Two years and four surges later, I think we can begin to assess the damage, looking across the landscape as one might do following a devastating storm.

Most restaurants survived, but we lost a few good ones, too (I may forever be in mourning for Bricco’s Kennett Square mushroom pizza).

To discover the secret sauce of survival, I spoke with several Harrisburg restaurateurs to ask them one question—how were they able to make it through this unprecedented catastrophe? It seemed an appropriate query for this month, as May is our annual dining-focused issue.

Even in the best of times, restaurants are among the toughest businesses going—and these certainly were not the best of times. In fact, with apologies to Charles Dickens, they may well have been the worst of times.

At Yellow Bird Café, co-owner Stephanie Perry credited their survival, in part, to a well-placed window that allowed food to be passed from the kitchen to customers waiting outside on Sayford Street.

“We immediately transitioned to the window, and, fortunately, all of our food is takeout-friendly,” she said.

More importantly, though, the Harrisburg community stayed loyal, seeing the snug eatery through the toughest weeks and months. Yellow Bird sits smack-dab in the middle of the Midtown residential neighborhood, so regulars working from home often strolled up to the window to get breakfast, lunch or a snack.

“We already had a good customer base built, plus people really wanted to get out,” Perry said.

A strong customer base was vitally important in getting through the lean times, agreed Beth Taylor, director of operations at Cork & Fork. So was a loyal staff.

“Our team is super-dedicated and stayed with us throughout,” she said. “That alone allowed us to survive. Do you have a good culture to retain your team and can you keep them motivated through this really terrifying moment?”

Like other restaurateurs I spoke with, Taylor described Cork & Fork’s survival strategy as “multi-faceted.” They pivoted quickly, making greater use of their outside seating area and then, when the weather chilled, setting up heated, plastic tents along the sidewalk.

“We had to constantly think of ways to survive,” she said.

But that’s nothing new for the food industry, she added. Even in “normal” times, restaurants need to stay light on their feet, as they’re faced constantly with unforeseen complications and challenges—from staffing problems to supply snags to food costs to customer issues. This experience served them well when the ultimate crisis hit.

Still, the ever-changing pandemic and health instructions required Gumby-like flexibility.

“At first, it was like—just wear a mask, don’t touch this, and don’t do that, and Plexiglass will save you,” Taylor said. “Then it was like—actually, none of that will save you, and, oh, here are a bunch of new variants.”

Over at Deco Grab & Go, owner Callie Alvanitakis was in a unique position. She opened her downtown eatery in early 2021, after a couple of COVID surges had passed, with several more yet to arrive.

Therefore, she started with “pandemic volume in mind,” intent to stay lean and highly adaptable until better times.

“Someday, I’ll have an employee, but right now is not the time,” she said.

In some ways, Alvanitakis considers herself lucky. By beginning when she did, she was able to avoid the cruel rollercoaster ride faced by many other restaurants—shutting down, reopening, scaling up, scaling down, laying off staff, trying to hire them all back.

Still, she did have one unique challenge. Located across the street from the PA Capitol, her business relies greatly on the hunger pangs of state workers, who fled the city en masse and still haven’t returned to full complement.

But even here she’s optimistic. Before starting Deco, Alvanitakis worked at several other downtown spots, and some folks she once served now are discovering her new place.

“Volume is picking up,” she said. “I’m beginning to see some familiar faces again.”

So, then, what’s the bottom line? How did some Harrisburg restaurants survive the culinary cataclysm when others didn’t?

After interviewing these intrepid restaurateurs, I credit their survival to some combination of flexibility, community support, local ownership and sheer hard work and willpower.

So, the next time you’re happily ensconced in your favorite local haunt, I hope you’ll ponder this mini-miracle. Maybe you’ll look around and think to yourself—wow, how did this place survive—and then delight in the fact that it did. Recall what it was like, two years ago, when all seemed lost, when there appeared to be scant hope for the restaurants we love so much.

Compliment the owner, the staff. Savor your meal. Be patient. Tip extra.

Lawrance Binda is co-publisher/editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

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