RESTAURANTS

What's the recipe for restaurant survival?

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Craig Callen played for the Providence College basketball team during the “lean years” just before coach Dave Gavitt groomed Marvin Barnes, Ernie DiGregorio, Kevin Stacom and the team that went on to reach for the stars.

You can tell he’s smiling, even though he’s wearing a Patriots mask, as he recalls those times. Callen went on work for Waste Management, a company run by brothers Dave and Charlie Wilson. He was a member of the Warwick School Committee, was involved in the city Democratic Party and worked in state government. Then, 27 years ago, he took a jump shot from the end of the court. With no real prior experience in the restaurant business, he went out on a limb and bought the Governor Francis Inn on Warwick Avenue.

It was the right play at the right time.

Callen credits Tommy Ruggieri, who had worked as the chef in other area restaurants, with showing him the ropes – and more importantly, because of his following, bringing in the customers. There’s more to it.

“It was a great location and it had developed a family restaurant with family meals,” Callen said Friday afternoon while sitting in the darkened corner of an empty bar. He’s kept to the Ruggieri plan, still using some of his recipes and offering traditional favorites like baked stuffed shrimp and chicken marsella served with soup or salad in generous proportions at modest prices – most entrees are under $18.

Like the rest of the world, Callen could have never imagined four short months ago where he would be today. And looking ahead, he surprisingly doesn’t see the shuttering of family-owned restaurants like his – although margins will take a hit as distancing of customers becomes the norm and sales drop.

“I think people are going to stay home,” Callen said. Even with the relaxation of travel bans and the size of gatherings, he doesn’t see people flying to Disney World, no less driving to Providence to eat out. Rather, he expects they’ll frequent their hometown establishments.

Even so, dining out is going to be a different experience. With the capability of seating 150, Callen calculates with the projected spacing being advanced by the governor he’ll reduce seating to 75. That’s going to shut out a good portion of his regulars.

“Where are all these people going to go?”

Callen’s answer is that they’ll try other local restaurants and that could even result in the opening of new restaurants and the revival of those that look to be on the ropes today.

Callen doesn’t pretend that it’s going to be easy. He considered means of increasing his seating, although it wouldn’t be anywhere near the 150, with some outdoor tables, but quickly dismissed it as impractical and not the kind of experience his generally older and family clientele would enjoy. He believes preordering so that customers would find their meals ready when they arrived – and in the process reduce the time they spent in the restaurant, thereby allowing for greater turnover – would be impractical. He wants to ensure customers get the freshly cooked, hot meals they expect.

It was on the eve of the traditional St. Patrick’s celebration that the governor issued her stay-at-home order and the closure of non-essential businesses. Callen converted quickly to all take-out service, and remarkably, as he recalls with a sigh of relief, the inn sold all the corned beef they had. He’s been able to sustain scaled-back operations with take-out. He’s reduced the menu and callers are prompted to go online to check out the menu and place orders. Customers are prompted to call when they arrive at the restaurant and a member of the staff – wearing a mask, of course – makes the delivery.

There’s more to contend with than the reduction in business and the impact that has had on paying the mortgage, insurance and other bills. Callen said before the pandemic, he could count on placing a food order and getting the delivery in a day. Now, with the shutdown of some meatpacking plants because of the virus, it can take three and four days for a delivery and it may not be complete. When he learned his supplier had veal – the inn pounds its own cutlets – Callen beefed up the order so he could freeze some when supplies ran low.

Callen has applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan/grant but hasn’t yet heard whether he will get the funding, 75 percent of which must be sent on salaries over two months for it to be considered a grant. If not spent on salaries, the money is treated as a loan and must be repaid.

Indeed, there are many uncertainties. He anticipates restaurants won’t get the green light to reopen on a limited basis until June. That’s the governor’s call. He can’t say whether he can sustain an operation when only he can only fill about half the seats. And there could be other issues like that of suppliers not being capable of fulfilling his orders.

Callen’s daughter Audra regularly works the restaurant and his son, Ross, assists with bookkeeping.

One certainty is that Callen will be there.

“I’m here night and day,” he said.“This is my social life.”

And the “big” uncertainty, COVID-19?

Callen said that’s up to the scientists to address. He doesn’t foresee anything like the good old days that weren’t all that long ago until there’s a vaccine.

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