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Photo by Emily Unkle / Proof Bar and Incubator debuts its innovative downtown patio space, which it shares with Chatt Smokehouse, Memo's and Uncle Larry's.

This story was originally published on Oct. 1, 2020.

Michael Robinson thrives in chaos — likely a result of his upbringing.

"My father was a restaurateur. I was essentially born in a dish room," says Robinson, now a veteran of the food and beverage industry.

After a 22-year career that has included co-founding North Shore's Brewhaus and acting as Chattanooga Whiskey's chief operating officer, Robinson says he's found his niche: foundation work.

"Startups and mentoring; that's where I'm best suited," he says. "It's exhausting. It's emotional. I love the challenge."

This February, Robinson partnered with Mia Littlejohn, a culinary consultant, to launch Proof Bar and Incubator located on East M.L. King Boulevard. Their goal was to create a resource center for food and beverage startups, providing a commercial kitchen for new businesses and a dining area to showcase their brands.

But, after a series of soft openings, Proof was forced to temporarily shut down in early March due to the mounting COVID-19 crisis.

"We called it our 'grand closing,'" Robinson says.

In the following months, as the pandemic raged on, causing more closures and social-distancing mandates, Proof — along with the entire food and beverage industry — had to rethink how it did business.

For both startups and established institutions alike, innovation has been critical, says Robinson. In order to survive the industry's new landscape, restaurants have had to think outside the box, which, for some, meant thinking inside the box — specifically, the to-go box.

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In mid-March, carryout orders became many restaurants' only source of revenue after Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke ordered the end of dine-in services to protect against the coronavirus.

St. John's, which opened in 2000, and its sister restaurant Meeting Place, which opened in 2004, have long been recognized as two of downtown Chattanooga's premier fine dining restaurants.

"People come to us for special occasions. We're food of the moment — it's best straight out of the kitchen and onto your plate," says owner Josh Carter.

"I'm not sure people were ready for our carryout model."

Not all foods travel well, he says. Like, for example, St. John's signature vanilla bean crème brulee.

"That was a mess," he admits.

From March to May, Carter and his team decided to close both restaurants. During that time, Carter says, he noticed that the restaurants specializing in comfort foods seemed to find the most success with carryout.

In early May, St. John's and Meeting Place reopened, debuting a new curbside menu which Carter describes as a "greatest hits" mix featuring familiar foods from both of his restaurants. "Everything from a great fillet or seafood plate from St. John's to fried rice or spaghetti and meatballs from Meeting Place," Carter says.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / St. John's is relying more on carryout orders to help carry it through the pandemic, adding family-style meals to its menu.

The new menus were successful, but the kitchen crew faced another challenge: how to present the food.

"When you put beautiful, rare foods in a box, it feels almost, I won't say 'wrong,' but presentation is a huge part of what we do," Carter says.

The solution, the team found, was to get creative with color — slices of orange and sprigs of thyme tossed into the purple beet salad, for example.

"It may not quite be the art you'd get in the dining room, but it's still art," says Carter.

Though St. John's and Meeting Place have now reopened their dining rooms with limited capacity, Carter says he suspects carryout will long remain an important part of the industry.

"We're getting good at it," he says.

Before the pandemic, Carter says, carryout accounted for less than 1% of his restaurants' sales. Now, they comprise 15%. And when it comes to keeping restaurants open, "every percentage point matters," he says.

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Taco Mamacita, which specializes in "fresh-Mex" dishes, has also found success through carryout, which it offered exclusively after closing its dining room from March to September, but the North Shore eatery didn't end its safety precautions there.

"We posted QR codes all over the building. They're on walls, patio tables and our front doors," says Tenley Brown, director of business operations.

A QR code is a type of barcode easily read by a smartphone. At Taco Mamacita, the code functions as a digital menu. When a person uses their camera app to scan the code, the restaurant's menu instantly appears on their screen, saving them from having to search online — but more importantly, says Brown, "cutting down on the amount of surfaces [walk-up] customers come in contact with."

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / QR codes are seen outside on the patio at Taco Mamacita on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

QR codes have been around since 1994 but experienced a rebirth this summer after the Centers for Disease Control called for more contactless options amid the COVID-19 crisis. The touch-free technology has especially been utilized in the hospitality industry. Hotels use them to minimize contact with the staff. Airlines use them in lieu of check-in kiosks. And restaurants, of course, use them in place of physical menus.

Since Taco Mamacita posted the codes in late March, analytics show they've been scanned thousands of times, Brown says. And while Taco Mamacita still offers paper menus, QR codes, she says, are likely here to stay.

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In regards to operational changes, QR codes are an inexpensive tweak — unlike complete menu overhauls, which, says Carter, "felt like starting over." But big or small, the changes to the industry go beyond the brick-and-mortar.

"We knew [the shutdown] was going to be a nightmare situation for the food and hospitality industries, but the silver lining for us was that we could re-focus on the [industry's] biggest needs," Robinson says.

In early June, Proof launched a series of "Restaurant Recovery" classes via twice weekly teleconferences to help businesses get through the pandemic. Since then, it has helped more than 30 regional restaurants navigate a myriad of pandemic-related issues, from understanding paycheck protection loans to building outdoor dining spaces, which have become an important ingredient in dining out amid a pandemic.

In mid-June, Proof finally opened to the public, debuting its own innovative outdoor dining space.

Located next to Chatt Smokehouse, Proof partnered with its neighbor to expand its downtown patio. The two restaurants now share the outdoor space between them, which can accommodate 50 people while still practicing social distancing, says Robinson. Moreover, outdoor diners have the option of ordering food from one of four neighborhood restaurants: Chatt Smokehouse, Memo's, Uncle Larry's and, of course, Proof, which currently hosts five startups, including a patisserie, a pizzeria and "an incredible cocktail program," Robinson says.

"We wanted to open the space up to everybody," he explains. "We're a mission-driven business. We're about more than the bottom line. What's most important to us is the impact we leave on our industry."

But first, Proof must adapt, again — this time to cold weather.

"When storms are in the forecast, it cuts our sales by 40%. Wind screens, fire pits, that might be doable. We've priced trying to enclose [the patio], but that might not be doable," says Robinson, who admits he enjoys the challenge.

Still, he says, "I can't wait for the day we can look back and say, 'Can you believe the things we had to do!'"

Photo Gallery

Chattanooga restaurateurs share pandemic survival stories

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