By Chris Mohney
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Chase Sapphire®. Photo: Gracie Belle
Through the difficulties of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve pivoted to takeout, provided meals to essential workers, and so much more. The Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest is awarding $50,000 business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide COVID-19 pandemic recovery assistance. Zagat Stories is featuring interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.
Joe Lipovich is co-owner of Lilo’s Streetfood and Bar in Lake Worth Beach, Florida.
Before the pandemic hit, we were on a pretty fast growth rate. Going into peak season—St. Patrick’s Day and Spring Break—the pandemic news was starting to scare us. Before we knew it, we had to go to 50 percent capacity. A few days later, they closed everybody.
We were pretty bummed out because we were on a roll. We were beginning our fourth year. Usually in a restaurant business, if you survive three years, you should have a big enough base. We really should have been making good money and not having to struggle for business. The 10 weeks of closure was one of the toughest times in my life.
Fortunately, we were able to make an arrangement with our landlord where I paid him 10 percent of the receipts until business picked back up. Initially, we furloughed anybody who was part-time. I made a commitment to my managers and full-time staff that we would keep them on.
We started bringing people who could work back within a couple of weeks. Some people were in bad shape financially, so I brought them in to stand around. Down here, the waitress wage is below minimum wage, but instead of paying them $7 an hour, I paid them $13 to make up for their tips. I tried to find them something to do.
We applied to several small, local grants from the South Florida community. I used a big chunk of this money for one of our longtime cooks—she was probably in her mid-60s—to get her bills caught up and get into a new place. She had been evicted shortly after everything went down. Instead of using the grant money to pay my utilities and stuff like that, we used it to help our employees. We figured that the utility companies could wait.
We were constantly preparing for the next step, for the next thing that might happen. That’s what really kept us going. Even during the closure period, everybody thought, well, you’ve got to do family meals. You’ve got to make meatloaf. After a couple weeks of trying to sell that along with our reduced menu—kind of like our Top 20—we found out that chicken wings were really cheap because none of the bars were open.
So we came up with the “binge box” and started putting a bunch of food in pizza boxes—from baked nachos to 50 wings in a box. Next thing we know, we got pizza boxes pouring out of here because everybody was sitting at home bingeing their shows. One box had 40 tacos in it. We still get people asking for it. We were also offering a local’s discount of 30 percent for pickup. We figured we would give it back to the community instead of the delivery guys.
There were shortages at the supermarkets, but I could get toilet paper from commercial sellers because all the restaurants were closed. So I ordered 50 cases of toilet paper and started selling it to my customers. That and other things that the supermarkets were short on, the food services guys had a ton of. I just sold it at cost. Customers were calling in an order of binge box chicken wings and four rolls of toilet paper. We were selling anything that we could out of the kitchen. We made a little bit of money, but not like restaurant money. It was more to serve the neighborhood.
Somewhere around late May 2020, we were allowed to go to 25 percent. We had to social distance everything, of course, but basically we moved outside. We’re on a corner, so we were able to occupy the parking spaces on the side street, which added about 40 or 50 seats to our patio. We made a point of always being ready to reopen our doors to customers. Thankfully, we didn’t miss a minute.
We probably created 75 or 100 new items during COVID. My chef has a 780-item recipe book from being with us for three and a half years. We do two dozen new appetizers every football season just to try new stuff. The stuff that sells well ends up on either the happy hour menu or the main menu. It goes into rotation. We’re pretty well-known for our tacos—they range from authentic to fun. Some of my favorites are the Peking duck and the ahi tuna. My wife’s fave is the spicy beef.
This restaurant is all I have. It’s my family’s livelihood. You’ve got 37 people you’re worried about, plus your own family. So it was a 24-7 situation for me. It got to the point where you almost forgot that you took days off in the past. But it was better than sitting at home.
Fortunately, I never had to quarantine. Even though we were closed for public seating, we were considered essential workers, so we were in here every day—making food, giving away free lunches, and selling our favorite margaritas in deli containers. I was even out there delivering food in a Taco Man costume just to have some fun!
When you have a restaurant business where your employees want to hang out, that’s usually a pretty good sign. The playback I always get from my staff is that people realize what we’ve been doing. You feel the respect in the community. People know who I am. I was very active on Facebook, especially during that time. I would walk into a place and someone’s like, “Hey, you’re that guy.” I was trying to make sure that we were doing everything we could to help. And why not? We can’t do much about the situation, but we can try to have fun.
One of our customers—he was kind of a new customer at that time—bought $400 worth of stuff because he was trying to make sure he helped us. It was pretty touching to me. There were plenty of situations where we would see somebody out on the street or driving in a car and they were like, “I don’t have any food to feed my kids.” Helping them is very gratifying as well. But when you’ve got customers coming in to make sure you’re okay? I thought that was pretty cool.