Sweet N Savory Café
Serving the community with exceptional eats during a challenging time
By BRIDGET CALLAHAN » Photos by KELLY STARBUCK
With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping Wilmington’s streets empty, many local businesses have shuttered for what would normally be the beginning of their busy season. Those that have not closed find themselves adapting to the new conditions by focusing on delivery and take-out options, which can present business owners with an entirely new set of challenges.
For Rob Shapiro, owner of Sweet N Savory Café, adapting has meant figuring out what the community needs and changing the menu to fit the new demands.
“There’s a lot of lessons from 2008,” Shapiro says. “People are extremely financially uncertain right now. They still want to eat out, but a lot of people lost their jobs, a lot of people saw their retirement fund cut in half in five days. So we said we’ll run efficiently and cut our costs enough so we can do this. We have to figure out what the market wants right now with all this change and all the fear, everything that’s out there.”
Initially, the restaurant started by offering a very limited take-out menu based on what they had in stock already. However, as supply chains have started to return to normal, the menu has expanded. The biggest and most successful change has been the addition of the Family Meal menu.
“The family meals are a twenty-five dollar price point to feed a family of four, and even in lean times you’re gonna spend that much at the supermarket,” Shapiro says. “The steak and shrimp skewers are popular; people love that. It’s got sesame teriyaki, some yum yum sauce, fried rice. The shell baked bolognese has really taken off, and you can probably feed four teenage boys with that one. People love the pork chops with apple chutney and sweet potato mashers. Real comfort food like chicken pot pie, or the pulled pork dish with mac and cheese, baked beans, coleslaw, dinner rolls, that all sells really well. We’re making clam chowder four times a week, thirty quarts at a time.”
Unfortunately, like most service industry businesses, not having a dining room meant most of the front of house staff had to be laid off, bringing the staff down from 56 to 11 key kitchen staff. It’s a move that hurts, but a necessary one to keep the café afloat so they can hopefully bring that staff back when they are able to fully reopen. It’s one of the reasons Shapiro has lobbied Wilmington City Council to put a moratorium on evictions during the shutdown. And when it comes to the staff that is left, Shapiro says there’s an understanding that, “Hey, not everyone is going to be “on” every day.”
“It took a few days to build our prep system and get everyone used to it. But, we’re a close knit family, and we’ve decided to take this as a joyful challenge instead of a burden,” Shapiro says. “After work, the staff usually hangs out for a bit, like a family would, just to check in with each other and make sure it’s all good. We keep ourselves centered. We’re grateful we get to come to work and still have a daily routine when so much of society can’t anymore.”
“We haven’t been through this kind of crisis before, but as a brand I’ve always had the intention of being adaptable. When everyone else is panicking, we took a day or so of feeling sorry for ourselves, you know get mad at the government, get mad at the situation. But, that isn’t productive. When times become uncertain we can choose to follow the energy of fear, of all of the bad things that may happen. Or we can instead choose to follow the energy of love and have faith that amazing things are on the horizon. The choice of how we view our current situation is our own free will,” Shapiro says.
The Sweet N Savory take-out and delivery menu is available on their website, with many favorites making an appearance. The Family Meals which have been their best sellers are updated every night by 10pm for the next day based on what supplies are available. And regular customers will see that menu prices have been lowered on average 30%. For customers picking up their orders, the staff is able to deliver it curbside, safety gloves and all. Though many customers want to take the opportunity of a trip out of their house to hang out and chat, social distancing rules apply at all times, not just for the customers’ safety but also
Shapiro is optimistic no matter how long the quarantine goes, the café will survive by being flexible.
“Our sales are down about 60% of seasonally what it would be right now, but they’re only down about 40% of our winter take, so we’re really grateful for that. Breakfast sales are gone, lunch sales are 75% gone, but our dinner sales are up about 30%. We’re getting deliveries from Edward Teach and selling their 4 packs for $12.99. We’re getting a lot of good quality closeout European wines, some for $12.99 a bottle that would normally be $30-35 a bottle,” Shapiro says.
“We all live our lives thinking we can control stuff, and now we can’t,” he adds. “And we never really have control. But, it’s okay. Whether you believe in God, the Universe, Nature, Buddha, ourselves, our country - you’ve got to have faith everything is going to be okay. That’s the core of what we talk about with our staff, and try to share that with our customers. If not the express thought, then at least the feeling; everything is going to be okay.”