Culinary Crisis: Chef Karen Small’s Flying Fig opens for business as she ponders the future

This is part two of our Culinary Crisis series about the #EatForCLE campaign, in which we talk to local chef/owners and other food entrepreneurs about the impact of COVID-19 on the local dining industry.

 

Like many local restauranteurs, Karen Small, chef and owner of The Flying Fig, 2523 Market Ave., has struggled to keep her restaurant afloat after dining rooms were shut down in March.

 

Karen Small says she’s eager to get back to work and hopes that some good practices evolve out of the pandemic.“I know people on other levels are getting hurt, but I don’t think anybody’s getting hurt like the service sector,” says Small in Muse’s #EatForCLE video “All Consumed.

 

At first, Small offered takeout at the Flying Fig, but by April 11 decided to stop the service. “We starred to [offer takeout], but it couldn’t support itself,” she says. “Everyone’s laid off, which is pretty tragic. There’s just not work for them. I hate the fact I had to lay off 32 people. It weighs on my mind a lot.”

 

But last week, Small again opened the Flying Fig—offering a limited takeout menu with curbside delivery—out of the restaurant’s The Market at the Fig next door, as well as cocktails and retail wine, beer, and cheese.

 

“We had to do something,” she says of her decision to open. “We couldn’t just sit there. It’s kind of how we have to adapt going forward.”

 

For now, Small says she will take the limited opening on a week-by-week basis. The Flying Fig is currently open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. “We’re going to try it and see how it works, and see if everyone’s into it after two weeks,” she says, adding the first week was promising.

 

“We had a pretty solid week,” she says. “The response was pretty good, and people were really supportive. The people who came out purchased food, they purchased wine, they purchased beer.”

 

It still devastates Small that she can’t bring her staff back to work. While she waits for Governor Mike DeWine’s parameters for restaurants and bars to re-open safely, she says she struggles to see a model that will financially sustain any restaurant.

 

Restaurants typically operate with a very low profit margin, Small points out, and she says opening without a full dining room capacity in the future may not be feasible. “We can’t operate at 30% capacity and make a profit,” she says. “I don’t think people realize the [low] profit margins of a restaurant. It’s make your payroll and start again; pay your vendors and start again.”

 

At the same time, Small says those in the restaurant business run their establishments fueled mostly by their intense passion. “It’s what we do, it’s what we were born to do, it’s what we love to do,” she says. “Hopefully, we’ll find a way to change when we come out of this.”

 

Yet Small says she also believes that her customers will be slow to return to dining rooms, even though she says she plans to take every health safety precaution at the restaurant. She says she envisions a more “downsized version” of the Flying Fig.

 

“My gut is people are going to be resistant to going out and resistant to going out in groups,” she predicts. “We will be enforcing that social distance, but right now I’m really focusing on our takeaway program, because it’s the only thing I can grab on to. If I feel it is profitable, I will expand on that.”

 

Regardless of the future of the restaurant industry, Small says she’s eager to get back to work and hopes that some good practices evolve out of the pandemic.

 

“I’m really distracted, I’m used to routines,” she says. “Restaurant people can’t work from home. I have plenty of things to do to help me keep busy, but I don’t feel productive and I can’t do what I do.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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