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Arts & Life

Struggling Kansas City Restaurants Opt Out Of Restaurant Week During Pandemic Or Focus On Carry Out

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
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KCUR
Fatmir Paplekaj, Chef de Cuisine at Le Fou Fog was grateful the owners took the safety of kitchen staff into consideration whien opting out of Restaurant Week.

The food service industry has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Kansas City restaurants are tweaking their fixed price menus during this year's Restaurant Week and focusing on COVID-19 precautions so guests can either feel safe dining in or carrying out.

At Le Fou Frog, a tiny French Bistro in Kansas City’s River Market, owner and Executive Chef Mano Rafael and his wife, Barbara, gathered their kitchen staff and their servers together last year to discuss whether they would participate in Restaurant Week.

"I’m very sorry this year we won’t do it," Mano Rafael said recently. "It’s not because I don’t want to do it. I have to care about the people that work here."

That meant the world to Kathleen Bryant, who said she would have to go find another job if she was furloughed or laid off.

"I don't have a choice," explained Bryant, who has worked at the restaurant for five years. "This place is like a family. Everyone had a say in how we would come back after lockdown. They listened."

A different restaurant week

When Tim Zagat, founder of the influential Zagat restaurant survey, created Restaurant Week in New York City in 1992, his intention was to celebrate the city’s food industry during slow winter months.

Since then, hundreds of cities have adopted the promotion, in which restaurants offer select menu items as a three or four course meal, all for a fixed price. Historically, it's been $35.00. This year they added a $45.00 level.

This is the first year since Kansas City started the program in 2010 that “The Frog,” as regulars call it, won’t participate in Restaurant Week.

Kansas City's Covid-19 mandates require public spaces to limit capacity to 50% and put more distance between tables. For the shoe-box size Le Fou Frog, it's hardly worth the effort. Besides, Barbara Rafael says the adaptation would poison the authentic Bistro experience.

"People are right on top of each other, " she recalled. "On the banquette it (is) really fun because two tops would sit right next to each other and become fast friends. People would try food off each other’s plates."

A serious no-no in the Covid era.

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Barbara and Mano Rafael opened Le Fou Frog 25 years ago and have enjoyed becoming friends with their long-term servers and kitchen staff, but also with many regular guests.

The Rafaels are grateful their patrons returned when they reopened after the shutdown, keeping the business alive through the summer and fall. The couple admitted they still lie awake at night concerned about the future.

Hardest hit

The hospitality industry has seen some of the greatest losses throughout the pandemic. Without travel and tourism, and with restrictions on gathering in public, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) reports 17% of the nation's restaurants have closed since the pandemic began. Kansas City isn't far behind. The Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association reported between 10% to 15% of the bars and restaurants here have also closed, either permanently or indefinitely.

In a November survey of 6,000 restaurants and 250 supply chain providers, the NRA found an industry in "free-fall."

"Eighty-seven percent of full service restaurants (independent, chain, and franchise) report an average 36% drop in sales revenue. For an industry with an average profit margin of 5%-6%, this is simply unsustainable," the report read. It went on to say that 83% of the businesses surveyed project worse sales through the early part of 2021.

Sean Kennedy, executive vice president of Public Affairs for the NRA pointed out that Restaurant Week is more important than ever this year.

"Restaurants represent something people are excited about in their local communities," he said. "It doesn’t matter if you’re in Kansas City, or St. Louis or New York or San Antonio, there are restaurants that define your city, and that you’re proud of."

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Cherven Desauguste hopes to establish Mesob as Kansas City's premium rum bar while offering Caribbean and Ethiopian cuisine(He's Haiten. His wife is from Eritrea.) He's participating in Restaurant Week mainly to get the word out about his Midtown restaurant and bar.

At Mesob, located at 3601 Broadway Blvd., Cherven Desauguste is bringing a Caribbean vibe along with his menu of Ethiopian cuisine from his wife’s native Eritrea and his own family's Haitian recipes.

"The most popular dish would have to be oxtail," he said. "It's braised oxtail with red wine, potato, carrots, collard greens and sweet peas. It’s like a Bourguignon, but our own version of it."

Desauguste added he's not sure what to expect from Restaurant Week this year. He's seen a dramatic drop in guests as they cancelled live music and patrons are choosing to carry out, which is now 80% of their business.

He is concerned their meals don't lend themselves to carry out.

"This (Restaurant Week) will be challenging," he said. "When you have a four course meal, you have four different boxes."

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
At Piropos north of the river, owner Gary Wordon says he put his federal assistance into dividing the once open restaurant into smaller spaces and distancing tables. He once had nine bar stools at the bar where there are now two small tables. He's got a good reservation list for Restaurant Week but his biggest financial hit is from the loss of events.

Piropos, an Argentinian restaurant, is perched above the Missouri River overlooking downtown Kansas City. Owner Gary Wordon wandered through the kitchen and out on to the dining floor.

"How was it," he asks a couple headed for the door.

They reported an excellent meal, great service, and a comfort level with the attention to COVID-19 precautions.

"I'm glad they were happy!" Wordon quipped.

An effusive man with a prominent head of silver hair, Wordon’s jovial nature hid the stress of the last nine months. Revenues are down 40%. He said their biggest losses are the large family birthdays and anniversaries, even weddings they cater in a small chapel downstairs.

Piropos was shut down for two months this spring during which Wordon remodeled the open, airy dining space into small rooms, separated by planters and decorative walls.
He also installed a high tech device that simultaneously tells a guest to put on a mask and takes their temperature.

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Ann Juergensen faces the technology at Piropos that will tell her if she has a temperature, and to put on a mask, if she's not wearing on. This is one of the many modifications the owners made to reassure guests feel comfortable coming back in to the restaurant.

Wordon said that one of the challenges as a small business owner is balancing these necessary precautions with keeping customers happy.

“I was walking in the other night and three people were walking out, and I said, 'Well, how did things go?'" Wordon recalled. He said the group left in a huff, upset they were asked to have their temperature taken.

Wordon said his Argentinian wife, Cristina, a former fashion model from Buenos Aires, was the inspiration for Piropos. Sitting in a secluded nook near the back of the restaurant, she looks the part with her stylish dark bangs, bright red lips and an elegantly starched white shirt under a blue blazer and pants.

Cristina said this first night of Restaurant Week is affirmation people want to return to the community they find around sharing food.

"They want to be together," she shared. " And instead of eight, 10 or 12, now it may be four. But they still enjoy it. As humans, we need that."

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