Creation from chaos
How local chefs took the PAUSE head-on
When New York State–mandated restaurant shutdowns were put into effect the evening of Monday, March 16, local hospitality operators had a difficult call to make: shut down or takeout?
For the type of restaurant usually reviewed in this section, a move to takeout is daunting; few even offer takeout under normal circumstances because they are meant to provide an experience, and the food is a form of art. If someone wants a takeout burger, there’s a nearby drive-thru for that.
But with the normalcy of life (and the economy) on the line for an undetermined amount of time, many (585)-area restaurateurs had to consider livelihood. Laid-off staff needed jobs to return to, and, as of the writing of this article, there was no approved government relief specifically for restaurants and bars.
(585) spoke with three local chefs at well-known spots who have been behind the line on the frontlines, so to speak, since COVID-19 closed restaurants in the region.
Owner/chef Tim Caschette, Avvino, Brighton
Staying open for takeout was a quick decision for Avvino executive chef Tim Caschette, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife, Janine.
“We went into basic survival mode,” he says. “There was fear of losing the business, our employees, and product.”
First priority was ordering plastic sealed to-go containers, bags, extra cleaning supplies, and personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves for all staff; then the restaurant developed a no-contact method of pick-up and delivery. The kitchen staff was reduced by half, and they changed to a more focused takeout menu.
“I’m doing the prep of three chefs; my schedule is different—though I do enjoy it because I get to control every aspect of what is going out to the customer,” says Caschette. “Not that my staff doesn’t do a great job—it’s just kind of refreshing for me to see every component of a dish from beginning to end.”
And while it’s a smaller crew in the Avvino kitchen for now, Caschette says morale has been positive, and he’s enjoyed the time to get to know his staff better, as well as being able to work with his wife every day. Caschette has also added items like frozen chicken, peanut butter and jelly, canned tuna fish, ground meats, and oatmeal to his supplier order to help support Avvino staff and families with food and limit grocery store trips.
Overall, he says the biggest challenge is anxiety and emotional distress over taking care of staff and keeping the business alive.
“I hope we can all return to some sense of normalcy and that most restaurants can survive,” he says. “I hope restaurants have a better strategy in place for their employees, customers, and purveyors in the likely chance this happens again. We can all work together to create a plan.”
And most of all, they’re grateful to the local community supporting takeout week after week.
“There is no way we would have come out on the other side without everyone’s continued support,” he says. “We cannot wait to see everyone’s faces and be back to serving our community again.”
Chef Tim’s favorite takeout item: The “Hot Fire” chicken sandwich (Nashville-style fried chicken) has been fun.
Biggest seller on your takeout menu? Burgers, steaks, pasta, and our rotating korma (curry) dish.
If you could go back to the first week and give yourself any advice, what would it be? Learn to plate in a to-go box!
Owner/chef Gino Ruggiero, Fiorella, Public Market, Rochester
Since the restaurant shutdown began, Fiorella chef Gino Ruggiero and his co-owner and wife, Alison, almost feel like they’re running a new restaurant.
“All of the unknowns were terrifying,” says Ruggiero. “Everything has turned upside down and been completely changed—ordering, staffing, how service flows, closing procedure, paperwork, you name it!”
Ruggiero immediately scaled down the menu to make it both approachable and transportable, keeping favorites like classic pasta dishes, pizzas, and the chicken cutlet. In terms of staff, Fiorella has been able to keep most people on because it’s an already small crew.
“Everyone is grateful to still be able to come to work,” says Ruggiero. “It’s nice to see people other than our immediate family, roommates, or pets. Morale has been high because there’s an even bigger sense of community and we all feel like we are in this together and we all just genuinely love working together.”
He added that figuring out the safest way to do takeout took some tweaking, but he and Alison take the safety of staff and customers very seriously. The biggest challenge has been the change from a sit-down establishment with a few takeout orders to a takeout-only model.
“We were never set up for that,” says Ruggiero. “It’s difficult to explain to [a frustrated customer over the phone] that we can only put out so much at a given time. But for the most part, everyone has been understanding and patient with us.”
The Ruggerios also have a five-year-old—Fiorella, the restaurant’s namesake—and are homeschooling and keeping her happy and healthy while working with a whole new business model.
Overall, they are grateful for the local community during this strange time.
“It’s been amazing to see the response from the city,” says Ruggiero. “We still see so many of our regulars and people who never ordered or visited us before. We can’t even begin to explain how much we appreciate everyone’s help; we feel so blessed to be a part of a community that shows up so hard for their local small businesses.”
Chef Gino’s favorite takeout item: The tagliatelle with broccoli-walnut pesto. It’s a versatile dish that is hearty but still fresh and light. Also, it can be made vegan!
Biggest seller on your takeout menu? Chicken cutlets all day, every day.
If you could go back to the first week and give yourself any advice, what would it be? Have faith in yourself and the people of this community.
Chef Brent Williams, Good Luck, Neighborhood of the Arts, Rochester
The decision to pivot Good Luck’s large operation to takeout was a relief for Chef Brent Williams.
“I thought, ‘Thank God, I have a family to provide for,’” he says.
Williams sat down with the restaurant’s three owners and his sous chefs to decide the most optimal items for takeout, keeping product availability in mind. As he put in orders for mass amounts of to-go containers and figured out what else was needed step-by-step, he also worked to establish social distancing in the kitchen.
“[We] need to now run a kitchen with six feet and masks between my fellow teammates,” he said. “How do you rewrite your program to fit a crew that is so used to being tight in the trenches?”
For the skeleton crew still reporting to work, he says there is an unmistakable level of camaraderie established. But they miss their coworkers.
“We had to lay off my brothers and sisters,” says Williams. “This place is a family to me, [I still come in and think] where is everyone else!?”
Good Luck’s kitchen often orders from farms, and Williams is thinking a lot about supply, demand, and outlook overall in the months to come.
“What are the farms doing; what can the farms do? What can we do? What will we do? Recovery, however redundant, that’s what we want and need,” he says. “No one asked for this to happen, but it did. We need to pick up, be strong, and remember who we were before the pandemic and who we need to be after.”
And at the end of each day, there are some similarities remaining between takeout and dine-in service, from the kitchen’s perspective.
“Items have altered, my prep load has shifted, but the same goal remains,” Williams says. “Feed people that are hungry, use proper technique, and make them happy.”
Chef Brent’s favorite takeout item: Our food is created to fill a craving. You like the burger, of course, but our menu is always evolving to embrace the loyal patrons that miss Good Luck and what we do to encompass the dining experience.
Biggest selling takeout item: You don’t have to ask. [Good Luck Burger.]
If you could go back to the first week and give yourself any advice, what would it be? Stay positive, smile when you can’t, control what you can, and embrace what you have.