Baltimore, MD

Surviving the pandemic: How a Baltimore restaurant pivoted its focus after opening in February 2020

Kaleah Mcilwain

(BALTIMORE) R and B artist Rihanna's “Umbrella” playing over the speakers, customers laughing and chatting at their socially distanced tables, and employees behind the counter wearing masks as they stamp white paper bags with their logo, pack them and place them on the counter to their respective third-party ordering service for pick-up.

This is the typical atmosphere when walking into RegionAle, a lunch spot that features regionally famous sandwiches with local craft beer.

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RegionAle's "Nashville Hot Chicken" sandwich(Lisa Paddy/Wrapped in Clover Photography)

The business prides itself on its attention to detail, customer service, and quality food and drink selections. Pairing its core values with the innovations they made during the pandemic allowed a business that was open for just three weeks to last through the pandemic and see its doors reopen. All of which they did with little to no government aid.

RegionAle’s Canton location opened on February 18, 2020 and had to close its doors three weeks later when the world shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Constant challenges, constantly pivoting, constantly adapting, all year.” This is what RegionAle’s managing partner Joshua Kraft said 2020 was like for them.

While all restaurants had to make the switch to carryout only, RegionAle took it a step further and wanted to make sure they had the best carryout packaging.

Kraft said he wanted their carryout to be better than everyone else's. If packaging was the main way people would see them, he wanted to make sure it showed what RegionAle was all about.

He ordered stamps with their logo on it and they use that to brand the white paper bags their food comes in. They also have stickers that they use to cover the seal on the food containers and make sure they staple the bags closed.

“Any way that we can try to provide something to our guests that let them know how much we care about the service that we’re providing, that’s what I’m about. If that means we have to make our carryout look better, then that’s what we’re going to do!” said Kraft.

They have received great reviews on their carryout packaging, which has been a pleasant surprise for them because they did not expect it to resonate with customers so much.

Unfortunately, one of the first actions they had to take was to lay off all of their front of house staff members, cashiers, and over half of their kitchen staff. Front of the house was entirely run by Kraft and his assistant manager.

Another thing they did that was completely new for them during the pandemic, was create a ghost kitchen called “Ginger’s Hot Chicken.”

A ghost kitchen is a restaurant that does not have a location; it is only available for online ordering. It’s one restaurant or brand preparing another restaurant or brands food. Kraft along with Kevin Curley, the owner and founder of RegionAle, developed the brand based around their “Nashville Hot Chicken” sandwich, which is very popular on their menu. They thought of and rolled out the concept in a matter of months in 2020. It played into the rise in demand for delivery, while following all COVID-19 restrictions and protocols.

Something that presented a challenge for them was figuring out how to make their self-pour beer wall available to-go, which was not something they did prior to the pandemic. The process could have been easy because they just needed growlers. However, due to the pandemic growlers were in high demand and low in stock.

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RegionAle's pour yourself beer wall(Lisa Paddy/Wrapped in Clover Photography)

Canning was the answer to their problem, but then they faced a different challenge: cost. Canning machines can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

A canning machine is an automated system that helps the makers of alcoholic beverages clean, rinse, and fill aluminum cans. Luckily for Regionale, they were able to introduce their canning machine once they received a little grant money in 2020.

Getting a grant was not easy because they opened in 2020 and did not have tax information from 2019. They did not qualify for the majority of grants being offered to business owners during that time. Due to this, a lot of the adjustments and changes they made to keep the business running came from creative ways to find funding on their own.

Kraft said it became a fulltime job trying to research places and ways to get money to help them stay open. “Why a new business doesn’t deserve to have money for the same problems that everybody else is having, especially when your new business is already at a loss? I don’t know why.” Kraft commented.

Despite the odds against them they were able to keep their business afloat through the pandemic and began to resume somewhat normal operations recently when Baltimore City restrictions allowed indoor dining at fifty percent capacity.

A large part of that was due to partnerships they have with third party ordering services DoorDash and Grubhub. They also offer online ordering for pick-up on their website.

The pandemic forced people to find them on those platforms and Kraft commented that not having a name for themselves did hurt them somewhat when it came to online ordering.

Kraft also does not like how much of a percentage the online ordering services take, but he understands it is what everyone else is doing. He said the percentage they take unfortunately, does not reflect the service that they provide. He has had to tell DoorDash and Grubhub drivers he has to have the meal remade because it sat for too long and he will not serve cold food to a customer.

“Luckily I think that customers now know that the service that’s being provided, other than making the food, we have nothing to do with it,” he said.

RegionAle has two locations, the other store is located in Ellicott City and has been open since 2016.

Curley said the business was built for togo and due to their online presence from their other location they have done well with carryout.

He describes Regionale as a “fast casual” establishment, “[it’s] better than fast food but not like a casual dining brand.”

After being able to open their doors for indoor dining they have continued to find ways to make the business better.

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RegionAle(Lisa Paddy/Wrapped in Clover Photography)

They have a ton of square footage and room, more than they need so Kraft had the idea to turn the back area of the restaurant into a gaming area. “Instead of having the space have one kind of feel which is just having tables, chairs...we have the room to be able to break up and provide different types of environments. The back area seemed perfect for more like a lounge.” Kraft said.

They had to consider how cost effective it would be to convert the space into a lounge since they did not have lines out the door. For them, partnering with the local breweries they feature on their beer wall was the way to go. The breweries donated the wheel barrels they use as tables and some of the games they have in that space.

For Regionale, prior to the pandemic they used to have customers who ordered leave their mobile number to be notified when their order was ready to come to the counter themselves to get it.With the way business has been slower this personal touch is something they can manage but once things pick up again Kraft foresees them switching back to the old method they had.. “Being able to have just a little more personal touch by somebody bringing your food out to your table and serving you that way was helpful.” Kraft said.

They have also started hiring back their old staff who were willing to come back and hiring new people to start as business picks back up.

Stephanie Keyaka, a cashier and server who helped them open in February 2020 but was laid off due to the pandemic has returned to work.

Keyaka said she felt they did really well in their first few weeks, but since it was a new business in a new area, they did not get the chance to build clientele so she did not foresee them surviving through the pandemic.

She feels the third party ordering services and offering carryout alcohol really helped them throughout the pandemic.

“Our beer wall has been a hit, we get a lot of people coming in to drink--they are dealing with a pandemic.” Keyaka jokingly said.

Even with the changes and adjustments they have made during the pandemic, Regionale’s customer base is not where it used to be. Curley said their customer base dropped eighty percent when the pandemic hit and is now only around fifty percent of what it used to be.

Curley feels brand awareness plays a big part in how well restaurants are doing now. He has noticed other restaurants that have been around longer fare better than his. They are working on getting in front of people more to let people know they are here.

He is not sure if he foresees business getting back to the way it was, he hopes so but only time will tell.

“Half are about to fail, 5% are like killing it and I don’t know where we fall in between. So it’s just hard to get a feel,” he said.

Looking forward, he's interested in how the vaccine will play a role in things changing but ultimately it will just be something they have to watch month to month.

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Journalist with a background reporting on local communities, now living in and reporting on the Baltimore area. Find me on twitter!

Baltimore, MD
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