Courtesy Becky Hostetter
It’s a theme that many restaurateurs and chefs have been echoing for the last two months: that the margins in restaurants are so slim that even a short disruption of service can bring them back to square one or starting over. And while Hostetter’s landlords at her three Duos Indy locations (Indianapolis City Market, Eskenazi Health, and International Medical Group) have been especially gracious in offering extensions and letting Duos gain its footing again, the ongoing closure has been devastating for her staff, as well as her food truck and the catering arm of her culinary group. “To come after the winter slow season was particularly hard,” Hostetter says. “We’re missing what should be one of our busiest times.” That, coupled with the usual ups and downs of the business, has left Hostetter with a particularly steep climb ahead of her in saving her business.
[pullquote align=”left” caption=””]“We’re missing what should be one of our busiest times.”[/pullquote]For a growing handful of independent and corporate restaurants, that’s an obstacle they have already failed to tackle. The recent news that several bars and restaurants (Old Pro’s Table, Morton’s the Steakhouse, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, DiBella’s Subs, and Bravo! Cucina Italiana) have permanently closed in the Indy area leaves many wondering how many others will succumb to the Coronavirus crisis. It’s a mood of fear and confusion that extends even to well-meaning relief efforts. Like many restaurant owners, Hostetter and her partners applied for funds through the national Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). But weeks-long delays in receipt of funding and a short timeframe (just eight weeks) for using the funds before they turn from grants to loans that businesses will eventually have to pay back, has been frustrating for Hostetter. “It’s another effort by the government that had promise but wasn’t thought through all the way,” Hostetter says.
Add to that confusion the new guidelines about Indianapolis restaurants opening to outdoor seating, then partial occupancy by later in June. “If you look at the number of cases, we’re not in a downward trend,” Hostetter says. “The number of infections goes down a day, then it spikes up again. We’re not young 20-year-olds. Why would we want to put our staff and our customers at risk? This rush to open feels like it’s based in fear. And that’s no place to operate from.” Hostetter, who is 65, and husband David, who will turn 69 this year, have been lucky to have stayed safe from the virus. But at least one staff member tested positive without symptoms, and the Hostetters have been touched by the pandemic. “We’ve known five people who have died, and some of our dearest friends are dealing with it right now.”
“The number of infections goes down a day, then it spikes up again. Why would we want to put our staff and our customers at risk? This rush to open feels like it’s based in fear. And that’s no place to operate from.”
Why not carryout, a means that some restaurants have used to maintain a revenue stream while keeping a profile among local diners? “We tried it for a couple of weeks,” Hostetter says. “Micah [Micah Frank, longtime Black Market chef and partner who now works for Duos Indy] was a miracle worker. He used whatever we had left in such creative ways. And our customers were absolutely loyal in tapping us for big carryout orders and buying gift cards. But we don’t have a viable storefront that people are looking for, and it wasn’t worth it for just a couple of hundred dollars a day.” When might Duos open again? “We don’t know yet. Maybe July. Maybe late summer. In many ways, our 30th and Meridian commissary has the space to allow staff to be socially distant. But we’re not there yet.”
[pullquote align=”right” caption=””]I hope that customers will come away with an appreciation for their local independent restaurants.[/pullquote]What does Hostetter hope will come about because of this crisis? “Of course, from a sanitation point, I hope that happens and stays. And I hope that people are able to dine again without fear. More importantly, I hope that customers will come away with an appreciation for their local independent restaurants. We take it for granted that a growing city like Indy will have a good food scene, but that has only come with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. For example, at Duos, we work to have a price point that’s accessible to a wide range of customers. I hope that people will understand what a tricky formula that is, especially when we’re trying to make homemade, delicious food utilizing as much local farm produce as is feasible for us. If I have to raise the price on an item by 50 cents, I hope that they know I’m not just doing this willy-nilly.”
Beyond her own restaurants, Hostetter misses eating the creative, well-made food of her friends in the Indy restaurant scene, restaurants she would have visited in the past at least twice a week. “Running into people I enjoy, being able to bask in the comfort of a beautiful restaurant, and eat the food that a peer has thoughtfully prepared. That’s priceless, and I miss it,” Hostetter says. “But we’ve had some long discussions at home over the last few weeks. We’re just now getting to the point where we can enjoy life, our awesome friends, and our grandchildren. Why chance that?” Hostetter is especially angered by the news from other states about people rushing to crowd into long-shuttered restaurants. “I think my age gives me more pause and a sense of seriousness about our current situation. I try to approach what I’ve been given in life with gratitude and not with the attitude that nothing will touch me.”