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Delmar Loop restaurants work to stay afloat after loss of dine-in services and WU student customers

Samra Haseeb | Contributing Writer

Right about now, you might be watching your fourth Netflix episode of the day, or you might even be in the middle of a Zoom class. When it comes to local St. Louis restaurants like Mission Taco Joint, Corner 17 or Salt + Smoke, however, no time is being wasted as they continue adjusting to this era of quarantine and social distancing.

Courtesy of Adam Tilford

Almost two weeks ago, officials in St. Louis city, St. Louis County and St. Charles County announced that starting Thursday, March 19, all bars and restaurants in the area were required to terminate dine-in services until further notice but could stay open for delivery, carryout and other to-go services. For the owners of restaurants near Washington University, who already lost much of their customer base when the Danforth Campus closed, this meant exploring options and getting creative.

Doubling down on traditional sanitation procedures and health protocols were a given: Gloves, hand sanitizer and frequent disinfection of surfaces are now more essential than ever. But these businesses are going much further to ensure the safest experience for everyone. This starts at the ordering stage, where many eateries have made the transition to curbside pick-up and virtual ordering.

Coordinating the switch called for great effort of its own, as restaurants have sought to minimize interactions between customers and employees at pick-up. Mission Taco’s CEO and co-founder, Adam Tilford, explained how, upon getting very busy around dinner time on Friday, March 20, the restaurant team was “not satisfied with the way people were social distancing and how [the team was] able to take care of them.”

To combat these concerns, Mission Taco utilized waiting rails to create barriers and pathways outside their store, as well as put down tape every six feet to provide guidelines of where arriving customers should stand and wait.

Corner 17, the Delmar Loop Chinese restaurant popular for its noodles and bubble tea, has tried to eliminate in-person monetary exchanges altogether; owner Cher Wei shared how the restaurant “did not used to do over the phone payment for security reasons,” but has now made that an option in response to health risks.

Tom Schmidt, the owner of St. Louis-style barbeque joint Salt + Smoke, admitted that the curbside model took some tweaking before they achieved their current operation. He noted that the restaurant now has “tables set up outside with guests’ orders for the guests to come and get them” in order to avoid employees having to reach into customers’ cars.

It’s no secret that these restaurants are facing a good deal of loss in this time of uncertainty. Sales have been down immensely, and many businesses have had to let go of much of their hourly staff. College students have been sent home, removing that entire portion of consumers from the area.

“Wash. U. students are one of our biggest demographic[s],” Wei said.

Still, she also went on to emphasize that, as a restaurant team, they “are not too worried because [they] understand things are different…and that the situation is out of [their] control.”

Wei shared that the restaurant did not have to lay off any of their employees, as individuals opted not to work for their own safety.

“I have to be here all the time, but it’s okay,” she said. “It’s what is necessary and best right now.”

Of course these restaurants cannot account for everything, but their practices are evolving daily as they strive to stay proactive. Mission Taco and Salt + Smoke have both adopted “DIY kits” of sorts to bring the restaurant experience into the comfort of people’s homes.

“We had to adjust the model and try to still give people a sense of normalcy in their lives,” Tilford said about Mission Taco’s introduction of family taco kits.

Along the same lines, Schmidt talked about how Salt & Smoke is starting to offer grocery services as an alternative to high-traffic grocery stores, which will include kits for cooking your own Salt + Smoke-style barbeque at home. This way, families can enjoy meals together while also having some fun with the preparation amidst their social distancing.

The owners of these local businesses expressed that they, along with others in the St. Louis region, tremendously appreciate the outpouring of support coming their way. Yet they are not negligent of this outbreak’s widespread impact.

“The reality is that everybody is going to be touched by this financially and socially and emotionally,” Schmidt said. “So we’re trying to expand our services and drop our pricing—which we’ve done significantly—because we also want to be a good partner to people that aren’t going to have the same amount of income they previously had.”

You’ve heard it everywhere, you’ve read it in every email: These are unprecedented times. But hopefully someday after all this, students can again find themselves on the Delmar Loop on a Friday night ordering a Salt + Smoke brisket, some of Corner 17’s handmade bao or a couple racks of $2 Mission tacos.

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