“We’ve All Been Through It This Year”
Survival stories and silver linings from one of the restaurant industry's toughest years ever.
Gabe and Katherine Thompson
Husband-and-wife chefs Gabe and Katherine Thompson owned a series of successful restaurants in Manhattan before moving back to Arlington (Katherine’s hometown) in 2015. Seven months before the pandemic arrived, they opened Thompson Italian in Falls Church, where Gabe specializes in house-made pastas and Katherine does the desserts. In April of 2020, they closed their dining room and shifted the entire operation to takeout. The dining room remains closed, but the patio reopens the week of April 19 for outdoor dining.) They live in Arlington Forest with their two kids.
Gabe: Letting go of at least two-thirds of our staff early on was tough. Most of them have landed somewhere, thank God. All have said they would come back.
Katherine: We’ve always had the dream to open more than one restaurant here. We don’t want to lose the people we need to grow.
G: Takeout wasn’t in the original plan. Before Covid we had done maybe two orders to go. Then it became the only revenue stream. We had to tailor the menu. For instance, the Bolognese sauce we previously served with tagliatelle? We knew tag noodles would be like a brick by the time they got to someone’s house, so we’ve been offering the Bolo sauce in trays of bake-at-home lasagna or rigatoni instead. Whenever we test a new item, we put it in a box and let it sit there for 30 minutes. Then we go and taste it.
K: We’ve now been open longer as a takeout restaurant than we were as an eat-in restaurant. We’re still making adjustments. On busier days we have too many orders coming in at the same time, so we’re trying to stagger carryout orders every 15 minutes—kind of like making reservations, except for food to go. Watch us have that all figured out by the time we reopen the dining room.
G: We are not doing the same amount of revenue as before. On the days we offer special boxes, we do more sales than we normally would on a single day of restaurant service. But the weeks when we don’t do anything special, sales are a half to a third of what we would have done when we were busy.
K: This strange time has given us license to try new things and experiment. We started doing holiday-themed boxes. We did a couple weeks of Tex-Mex food. For the Super Bowl, we did nachos and wings. Our general manager, KC [Kristen Carson Hamilton], organized a few virtual wine-tasting dinners. We did the first one in partnership with The Italian Store. It’s been fun. We’ve made mistakes, too—like pretzel rolls for an Oktoberfest box. Never again. They were so much more labor intensive than I anticipated.
G: When we make a mistake, we do whatever we can to fix it. We did a Mother’s Day box, and all of these boxes are cook-at-home-type things where you assemble the pieces. Some guests didn’t realize they had to heat it up. One said, “Well, you ruined Mother’s Day.” We comped the entire meal for the guy because it wasn’t what he was expecting.
K: All of us are anxious. Every day I look at my phone—can food service people get vaccines yet? What is that timeline? Do we wait to open outside until all of our staff is vaccinated? Are we confident that outdoor dining is a safe environment for everyone? I feel like it’s endless decision fatigue.
G: We lost a member of our staff. He was our busser. He was one of those dudes who, whenever he was working, you knew the night was going to go well because he was so awesome. The last time we saw him was in November. He came in to let us know he was ready to come back to work whenever we reopened. He had been growing his hair out, and had this wonderful swagger. He got Covid a couple weeks later and never recovered.
K: He was a healthy guy, too. With this virus, you just don’t know. We didn’t even know he’d been sick when we found out he passed away. He had worked in almost every restaurant in Falls Church, so everybody knew him. He always went the extra mile. One night he brought a leaf blower in the back of his car and cleaned the leaves off the patio, unasked. He just noticed things that needed to be done and he did them. It still hasn’t really hit me that he’s gone. When we reopen, it will hit me—when he’s not there.
G: The entire staff knows our kids. We have to bring them to work often. We try to have family quality time whenever we can. We had some fun snow days this winter, sledding and tubing. But our kids have spent way too much time here.
K: It definitely takes a village. I was super busy over Valentine’s Day and we were like, Oh, do we have children? Thankfully another member of our team was feeding them in the dining room, checking in on them while they did their homework. It’s humbling.
G: Falls Church City—the location has been huge. We are in an actual neighborhood that humans live in. If we were in downtown D.C., where you really rely on corporate business, it would be so much harder. We have guests who dine every week at the same time. One guy orders every Thursday at 7:45. He always gets rigatoni, extra sauce.
K: So many of our repeat guests had never dined in our restaurant before Covid. When we were open, there were people who wanted to check us out but couldn’t get a reservation, which they found frustrating. With takeout, our food has reached a wider audience, which is really kind of cool.
G: The first thing I want to make when we reopen for on-site dining? I am looking forward to doing those long, supple egg noodles—pappardelle, tagliatelle.
K: I want nothing more than to serve a warm dessert with a scoop of ice cream on top. I’m keeping a notebook of “when we reopen” ideas.