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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Elise Armstrong, owner of the Black Cat Tap Room, prepares to open during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the very best of times, opening a successful new restaurant is a herculean effort requiring unlimited energy, patience, organizational skills, adaptability and an ability to laser-focus on the things that have to be done yesterday.

And, unlike a chef following a recipe to ensure that Tuesday's entree tastes the same on Wednesday, there is no fixed way to open a restaurant. No two openings are the same.

Throw in a pandemic, and even some of the things you thought you knew have changed. Yet area restaurateurs are still opening new places.

Like the rest of us have found, the one thing they say is key in these times is a positive attitude.

"You can go into a deep dark hole and it is hard to get out," says Erik Niel, co-owner of Main Street Meats and Easy Bistro, which relocated to the West Village in September after 15 years on Broad Street near the Tennessee Aquarium.

"I have too many people relying on me right now, so I can't be that person."

Main Street Meats has 24 employees and Easy Bistro will have 25 when it opens, he says. Both numbers are lower than they were pre-pandemic. In addition to adjusting staffing, Niel says any restaurant successfully operating today and in the coming months will need to have a shared focus on takeout and/or delivery options.

"I don't think any restaurant can be successful without to-go food and beverage as a possibility," he says.

He and his staff worked hard to make those options function better and online ordering easier, says Niel. But finding ways to do it cheaper continues to be an issue as costs related to packaging continue to rise.

"I've been through this upside down and backwards at MSM [Main Street Meats]. What used to cost me $500 a week now costs $1,800 a week. I keep thinking, 'Wow, maybe there is a better way,' but for every $50 order, $3 is in packaging. It's not just throwaway money anymore, it's a real piece of the business."

Food costs have also risen, meaning menu prices have risen.

"That's tough because people have the notion that a burger should cost $8, when the actual cost should be $14," Niel says.

Like Niel, Elise Armstrong says she had signed her lease and begun planning to open Black Cat Tap Room months before the pandemic closed things down. The idea of not opening was not an option.

"It's either go bankrupt or continue," says Niel.

Armstrong is a veteran of the service industry, most recently working in bars and restaurants in Louisiana. When Black Cat opened on Brainerd Road last month, it marked her debut as an owner.

"This was definitely a situation in which I'd already invested enough money and time and energy," she says, agreeing with Niel that the only real path is forward.

Like Niel, Michael Rice is a veteran restaurant owner. He opened The Mad Priest on Cherry Street in 2015 along with Matt Sears. He also opened a coffee roasting facility on Wilcox Boulevard in an old dry cleaners space, and after months of planning, opened it as a drive-thru shop selling coffee last month.

He had been planning the new drive-thru for almost a year.

"Actually, if anything, the pandemic helped us fast track this," he says. "This — takeout — is the way of the future."

Unlike Niel, both Armstrong and Rice are opening their ventures with minimal staffing, in part because their operations are relatively small. Black Cat has a seating capacity of around 40 people without social distancing. Armstrong will be her sole employee.

"I don't feel right hiring anybody with this virus," she says.

Rice will add one full-time employee to his staff of roasters. That person will handle making the coffee and handling orders.

All three say COVID-19 presents new challenges on top of the usual process of getting permits and renovating spaces to meet standards.

"The challenges are obvious," says Rice. "Sales are down and people don't want to go out. But I have great workers. I actually have the best team I've ever had. We are all on the same page, which is, 'Hey, we gotta make this work.' They know it's not about just lining my pockets. ... I'm excited about making this happen."

Even opening a restaurant, as in the actual opening day, is different.

"In the past, we'd close off the street and throw a huge party," Niel says.

For this opening, they invited individuals in small groups, set up the restaurant as if for a full house, served a meal, closed for a day to clean and did it all over again.

For Armstrong, in addition to converting the space into a friendly neighborhood bar, she says her biggest challenge has been the mental aspect of opening. Her mission is to create a place where people in the community want to come to meet their neighbors. Obviously, that is complicated in a time when distancing is required.

"The biggest challenge is more on the mental and spiritual side and knowing what my responsibility is," she says. "To be honest, I haven't come down on a hard answer yet. I'm still talking to people and seeing where their headspace is at. I want to cater to their needs."

She plans to offer her craft beers as a takeout option, including a six-pack of mixed labels.

"How do I lead by example and also stay in business?" Armstrong muses. "I'd rather be smart and conscientious, still, in the midst of a crisis. It's a marathon, not a sprint."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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