Bardea Food & Drink in downtown Wilmington turns two years old on Saturday, but owners Scott Stein and Antimo DiMeo aren’t pausing to celebrate just yet.
They’re too busy rolling out a new menu, relaunching the family meal program and creating a heated outdoor garden for alfresco dining for Bardea, 620 N. Market St.
“We’re making big updates,” said Stein, who was so excited about the new dishes that the Italian eatery debuted the new menu before the anniversary date. “It went over really well. We’re really excited.”
Not to worry, loyal customers. Octopus, lamb skewers and fried calamari are still on the menu.
Eggplant parmesan is another staple, but it’s now in the vegetable category, which also includes a “wedge,” made with cabbage and topped with guava Bearnaise and puffed amaranth. Fennel has also proved popular.
“We’ve been very plant-forward in 2020,” Stein said. “The oakwood-shiitake mushroom tart is to die for. We do a take on potato-leek soup — a tartlet. It’s a nice, composed bite.”
The tartlet is in the “snacks” section. There are also categories for pizza, small plates and dishes meant for sharing, which now features whole, crispy-skinned Rohan duckling dry-aged on site.
DiMeo, the executive chef, and his team are taking a lighter touch with the pasta dishes to offset such hearty dishes. Take, for instance, the reimagined pasta Bolognese.
Most versions have a meaty sauce with ground beef, pork and veal. Bardea, however, purees the meat, incorporates it into the sauce and then cooks the pasta in it.
“When people get the dish, it blows their mind because they expected to see the meat,” Stein said. “But it has this great, robust flavor of meat, but it’s very light. It has a nice bright red color. Antimo did a great job with it.”
Fans of Bardea’s family meals will be happy to learn that they are returning this month. “Some guests aren’t comfortable yet coming out to dine,” Stein said.
To make it easy, there is a set calendar for each day of the week, from Tuesday through Saturday. For instance, shepherd’s pie is available on Tuesdays.
The meals, available in limited quantities, include a composed snack, salad, vegetable or starch, dessert and house-baked bread with cultured butter. “For $75 for two people, you’re getting a five-course experience,” he noted.
Those who want to dine alfresco will appreciate Bardea’s outdoor café, which will include a heated tent with open sides, spaced seats and planters. Stein hopes to area complete in the next two weeks.
The additions and changes are as much about the staff as they are the guests.
“Our staff is everything; they’re depending on us,” Stein said. “Antimo and I are going to fight to the last.”
A long-planned facelift of Branmar Plaza has begun, and when it’s set to be finished next year, there will be a 21st century look, plus a new Kid Shelleens.
“You always need retail, a grocery, a pharmacy and services,” said Phil Schneider, director of commercial properties for Capano Management, which operates the 150,000-square-foot shopping center in Brandywine Hundred. “It needs to be updated to stay competitive.”
The updates include repaving the parking lot, reconfiguring parking spaces to improve traffic flow, changing to “lighter, brighter and more energy-efficient lighting” and relandscaping.
The center has four buildings, roughly shaped like an L. The first work, which began this summer, is changing the facade on the center’s western end, including adding a tower, one of several planned.
That space, once occupied by WSFS Bank and Branmar Liquors, will become the home of Walgreens. Schneider hopes the drugstore can open in its new 10,000-square-foot site by November.
Work will then move to reconfigure the space where Walgreens is now into space for Branmar Liquors and Action Hardware. The liquor store will grow from about 6,500 square feet to 9,000, he said, and the hardware store will remain at about 9,000 square feet.
Then Action’s space will be reconfigured for a second branch of Kid Shelleen’s, the popular Trolley Square restaurant and bar. Shelleen’s will have about 6,000 square feet, Schneider said.
Schneider said the firm will “push as hard as possible to get as much exterior work done before winter,” with the project being completed next year.
“I’m excited that the renovations have begun,” said Xavier Teixido, who with partner Kelly O’Hanlon runs Harry’s Hospitality Group, which counts Shelleen’s as one of its three restaurants.
“I’m still very excited about opening a Kid Shelleen’s in Branmar Plaza,” Teixido said. “As you can imagine, it’s been relatively turbulent times, but we hope to open sometime next year.”
The new Shelleen’s will be about the same size the original, he said, “but it will feel a little more spacious.” It will also have a patio, and he said there’s a potential of live music.
The design will echo the original as well, with exposed brick, dark woods, an open kitchen and what patrons have nicknamed “comfy chairs” in an elevated seating area near the bar.
Some design elements will also reflect a coronavirus sensitivity: “very clean, with some personal space, yet it feels like a happening place.”
Teixido said he has been attracted to Branmar Plaza for years – he used to live two blocks away – because “it’s a great town center for the community” of about 160,000 people living within 5 miles.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on many Delaware businesses, the restaurant and food service industry lost $700 million in three months, a Delaware Restaurant Association report says.
“We are still operating at a significant loss, and, according to our survey, we expect to be operating at a loss for at least the next six months,” said Carrie Leishman, CEO of the association. “Restaurants are the state’s largest small business employer, so that’s also affecting the state’s revenue.”
While many people have resumed routine activities, some consumers are still skittish about dining in a restaurant.
Leishman maintains it’s one of the safest public environments if you look at contact tracing data from Maryland and Michigan. Those numbers say that most people’s illness is traced back to a family gathering, house parties or outdoor events.
Between March 16 and June 1, Gov. John Carney limited restaurants to takeout. But it was not enough to keep many restaurants in the black.
“I don’t think people truly grasp how much money we’ve lost doing it,” said Scott Stein, co-owner of Bardea in downtown Wilmington. “But we felt a responsibility to the community. Even if we only served 50 people a day, we were providing a service.”
Today, dining rooms are restricted to 60 percent capacity but with social distancing requirements, many can’t take in that allotment.
The shutdown and limited opening have had a devastating effect, reports a DRA membership survey:
Ninety-six percent of respondents experienced a sales decline from March through and July.
On average, operators had a sales loss of 60 percent.
Seventy-five percent of restaurants spent from $1,000 to $10,000 on COVID-19 gear, such as personal protective equipment, disposables and plexiglass dividers between booths.
More than 23,500 Delaware restaurant workers lost their jobs—two out of every three employees.
As of August 2020, restaurant unemployed nationwide hit a high of 35 percent.
Stein, whose business earned a James Beard Foundation nomination in 2019 for best new restaurant, puts a face on those statistics.
Bardea is one of the busier Market Street restaurants. Still, “we’re drained,” he said with fatigue in his voice. “We’re drained every day. We’re fighting for our life over here.”
The trickledown effect
A loss in revenue affects the state’s coffers. After showing gains in January and February 2020, restaurant gross receipts plunged more than 50 percent compared to 2019 figures.
“A healthy industry is important if you’re going to have a healthy economy,” Leishman noted.
Stein would agree. Restaurants on Market Street have helped with the area’s renaissance, and he’s worried about the movement’s momentum if they close.
State revenue from income wage taxes is also down. Industry lob losses have helped propel Delaware’s unemployment rate to 12.5 percent—which is higher than the national average of 10.2 percent.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Delaware lost 66 percent of the jobs in eating-and-drinking establishments between February and April 2020, placing it third behind Vermont and New York.
“It’s pretty telling to see that nationally we lost more restaurant workers in the state of Delaware but for two states,” Leishman said.
The sector expected to have 50,800 people working in it — 11 percent of the state’s work force — but now has only 30,200 jobs filled.
The loss of restaurant jobs resulted in fewer summer jobs for teens and entry-level positions. The state’s youth unemployment rate is 18.5 percent as of July 2020 compared to 9.1 for the same period in 2019, she said.
More than 80 percent of the DRA survey respondents expect to continue operating at a loss for the next six months, and up to 30 percent may permanently close.
“It isn’t about profit anymore,” Leishman said. “It’s about survival.”
Restaurateurs says their expenses because of COVID continue to rise, including having to pay $70 for a case of 1,000 gloves for the staff. The case used to cost about $22, said Joe Van Horn of Chelsea Tavern. The restaurant runs through two cases a week, he said.
The industry will need the support of state and federal governments to cope, Leishman maintained.
Said Stein: “There needs to be some kind of package that that provides relief.” Certainly, the government has helped other industries in the past, he pointed out.
And some help seems to be coming.
On Aug. 19, Gov. John Carney, New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer and the Delaware Division of Small Business announced a grant program of at least $100 million to assist Delaware small businesses and nonprofit organizations affected by the COVID-19 crisis.
The program is expected to reach more than 3,000 small businesses and nonprofit organizations with grants of up to $100,000. The grants are based on the size of the company’s revenue.
Businesses can use the grants for a variety of COVID-19-related purposes, such as purchasing PPE and plexiglass, refinancing debt, advertising, paying fixed expenses and even catching up on rent.
Leishman called the grants “a good start.” She’s also glad that the state has allowed restaurants to sell carryout wine and cocktails, and municipalities have made accommodations for increased outdoor dining space.
But in January, when the Legislature is back in session, she plans to leave “no stone unturned when it comes to other forms of relief that the Legislature might be able to provide.”
Gaining consumer trust
Meanwhile, the restaurant association is on a mission to show that restaurants are safe. Even before COVID-19, eateries were heavily regulated by multiple government entities and inspectors.
The organization recently sponsored an independent study to determine if establishments throughout Delaware were complying with the COVID-19 guidelines from the Delaware Division of Public Health.
Individuals trained in safety protocols visited 75 restaurants throughout Delaware, from large chains to independent eateries. Some had bar service; others did not.
The inspectors looked to see if the staff and guests were wearing masks. Were the tables properly distanced? Was hand sanitizer available?
According to the results, at 84 percent of the targeted sites, guests and staff wore face coverings. Tables were correctly spaced at nearly 94 percent of the locations, and COVID-19 signage was on display in 87.1 percent of the sites.
“Most restaurants are doing all they can to ensure the safety of the customer,” Leishman said.
Stein is in no hurry to increase the dining room’s capacity. He is relying on guidance from health professionals and legislators. So far, he said, the rules in Delaware have been fair.
But the situation is dire.
“We can’t possibly operate the way we are operating for very much longer,” he said of the industry. “Soon, you’re going to see places close.”