Normally, restaurant owners decide when to open and when to close based on customer demand. But these are not normal times, and the operating demands being placed on restaurants are coming from state government now. Jon Hepner, the owner of Aroy-D, The Thai Elephant, has had to make multiple changes to his business since COVID-19 came to New Jersey. These changes haven’t been easy, and they haven’t been as good for the bottom line as the old way of doing business.
Before the pandemic, The Thai Elephant operated a casual indoor restaurant, takeout service, catering and a food truck. The business opened on Grove Avenue in March 2014 and expanded to the corner of Montrose and Bloomfield
Avenues in September 2017. Its food truck roamed all over northern New Jersey, particularly the high-traffic business districts of Hoboken and Jersey City. All that changed on March 16, when the state ordered restaurants to close except for takeout or delivery.
With the shutdown, Hepner was forced to reduce his staff of over 20 employees to five: a main chef, an appetizer chef, a receptionist to take orders over the phone, his wife, who helped with deliveries placed online and curbside deliveries, and Hepner, overseeing the main operations.
“Our main chef and appetizer chef lived across the street from our restaurant, so we felt safe having them come in to resume work. However, most of our other staff, including waiters and servers, live in New York City or other towns spread across Essex County so it would involve mass transit and other risks that would put our business at risk,” Hepner says.
Three weeks into the shutdown, The Thai Elephant’s sales were down 60%. A large part of that was because the food truck could not operate.
“With sales dropping at first, our small staff had to stick together and creatively put our heads together on how to conduct business smartly and safely,” Hepner says. “We realized early on that we needed not only the support of the community but also a strategy upon reopening that would separate us from the pack, since so many other small businesses were facing the same obstacles as we were and still are.”
The Thai Elephant was on social media before the pandemic, using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to tell its devoted clientele–”Elefans”–where its food truck would be parked. During the shutdown, it used social media to promote its takeout and delivery options. A 50% reduction in rent during April and May also helped the bottom line, as did getting federal assistance through the CARES Act.
In mid-May, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that restaurants could re-open in June for outdoor dining only . The Thai Elephant doesn’t have a patio like other Verona eateries, so Hepner and his staff came up with an alternative: 10 individually tented tables on the parking lot behind the restaurant, all six feet apart. The tables were set on artificial turf under a jazzy display of lightbulbs and lanterns, to evoke a Thai garden. Hepner finds his idea creative and fun, showcasing the originality of The Thai Elephant and its desire to make this difficult time enjoyable for as many people as possible. But since the parking lot is hidden along Montrose behind the restaurant’s front on Bloomfield, Hepner and his staff put a banner on the front of the restaurant to alert passersby.
“Being cooped up for months, we are trying to spread the word to people crossing one of the main streets in Verona that we are open for outdoor dining in a unique way,” Hepner says. “The tents provide an intimate setting for parties to relax, escape their realities into an outdoor dining oasis and enjoy food. For this reason, we also do not require reservations.”
On June 15, The Thai Elephant began outdoor dining at a socially distanced, maximum occupancy of 40 patrons. That’s far less than the indoor restaurant, which has seating for about 75 in the main room and side party room. In addition, the food truck went back in operation on Monday, June 22, providing another source of income. While the food truck normally operates about six days a week, it has only served three events since reopening, including the beer garden at Pier 13 in Hoboken, an apartment building in Summit, and a charity event for medical responders in New Brunswick.
Hepner implemented new safety precautions for outdoor dining. Guests must wear face masks when they enter, there is a Purell dispenser at the main entrance, single-use menus are printed on paper, and all food is being served in disposable containers to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus. Hepner and his staff wear face masks and gloves at all times, as required by state regulations. The Thai Elephant is operating on a regular schedule, which is 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 2 to 8 p.m. on Sunday.
Late last month, Gov. Murphy announced that indoor restaurant dining could resume on July 2 with sharply reduced capacity, but the state almost immediately reversed that decision. For once, the change didn’t affect The Thai Elephant because Hepner hadn’t been planning on reopening indoor seating. The state’s rule would have limited him to operate at just 25% of capacity, and the cost of doing so would have been greater than any revenue produced. Hepner also believes that the risk of spreading the virus indoors, which is greater than outdoors, is a cost that outweighs any other because a COVID-19 case connected to the restaurant would force it to close all operations, and quarantine staff and possibly diners.
“Overall, what we have has been working better than we initially envisioned would be at this point, so we do not want to alter this combination of high takeout, delivery and outdoor dining,” Hepner says. “Even when the state allows for 50% of indoor dining capacity to resume, we may not wish to resume at that time. We plan to re-evaluate the situation this fall.” Takeout and delivery still accounts for more than 50% of The Thai Elephant’s sales.
Hepner has started to add back some staff. There is a new cook, and Hepner and his wife were able to find her housing in the same apartment building near the restaurant as his main chef and appetizer chef, so she doesn’t need to commute on mass transit. Hepner also has rehired a worker to help with curbside delivery and a food truck driver.
Hepner says that the response to his outdoor dining strategy has been very positive, which has helped boost business and raise enthusiasm among diners and employees, and attracted many people to try Thai food for the first time.
“The best part of the day is viewing guests’ expressions when they see our outdoor dining lit up at night,” Hepner says. “Several patrons have told me that they have never even tried Thai food but just wanted to experience the Thai Garden, which is a huge support to our business. Not only do they get a break from the stress of the pandemic, but so do we, and we believe that this will inspire our business for the future.”