David and Ann Alenik opened the Pasta Shop Ristorante and Art Gallery in Henderson 31 years ago. David didn’t live to see the COVID-19 pandemic, but Ann is still operating the casual-dining restaurant with him as, she says, her “guardian angel.” It’s taken more than a benevolent spirit to get restaurateurs through this trying time; food service had to make a major pivot to keep serving customers in the new reality of dining room closures and social distancing. Ann Alenik talks about how she and her staff — including her and David’s three kids — altered operations to survive, and keep feeding a hungry, nervous public.
When did you start to think things were going to have to change?
Sunday and Monday before last (March 15-16). We said, People are panicking, the grocery stores are out of pasta, and we make it daily, so we can make fresh pasta for them. Our suppliers make an abundance; it’s not limited like a grocery store. So, we don’t have the shortage issues that others are having.
How did you figure out what you were going to do?
We had several conversations among ourselves, and we knew we could produce anything we wanted to. We have the equipment and the ingredients coming in, and I knew a lot of my customers don’t like to cook — they’re busy, and it’s an inconvenience. So, we decided to keep going.
Who in the family is involved?
I have three kids (ages 22 to 30) and they all help me out. They’re Bianca, Trenton, and Clayton, and they’ve all grown up in the restaurant.
What did you start doing differently?
We didn’t do anything differently online; we’re still using Postmates and Uber Eats, but we’re promoting people picking up their own food. And we’re doing what we’re calling a quarantine kit, which includes pasta; fresh sauce with meatballs, sausage, or vegan meatballs; Caesar or balsamic vinaigrette salad; and ciabatta garlic bread. You just have to boil the water to cook the pasta and put the bread in the oven. (It costs $24.95, and serves two.)
Did you have to institute new sanitary measures?
Yeah, everything is ubered-up on all that. Restaurants are pretty sanitary to begin with, much more so than grocery stores, where so many people are touching the food before it gets to the customer. Our food health and safety rules were already strict. In a restaurant, there’s one person touching your food — who now has gloves on — and it’s cooked, heated, and then wrapped. There’s no contact with outsiders. In the kitchen they wear masks, and out front, it’s just me and my family, and we’re all quarantined together.
Did you start Clorox-wiping everything that comes in the door?
Yeah, it all (food containers) gets totally sanitized when it comes in. All the surfaces and equipment are sanitized multiple times daily. When someone signs with a pen, we sanitize the pen when we’re done — just every precaution we can take.
Anything else you had to change?
Just getting everything done super-fast. Normally, when the dining room is open, orders are lining up while people are enjoying their food, but now, the phones are ringing constantly, and orders are coming in online, and … we’re just turning things around as quickly as we can. There’s no leisurely wait. We want the food to get to people when it’s fresh and hot.
Also, we used to mainly sell our pasta wholesale, but now we’re turning to retail.
What are you hearing from your fellow restaurateurs about how they’re faring?
Honestly, a lot of my friends with restaurants have just closed down. But being a family business makes it easier for me to stay open, which also means I can keep some of my staff working. I have three cooks working, and normally six waiters, but only a few of them now, and the bad thing is, there’s not enough hours and normally they’re making a lot in tips. So, that’s been a struggle for them.
How are you holding up, emotionally, physically?
It's definitely trying! Every day: “Do we order food? Will we be shut down?” So many rumors! Tonight was busy, so who knows? But I have a guardian angel that looks after me.
Note: Members of the public who’d like to donate a quarantine kit to a family in need can do so by making a $25 donation when they pick up their orders at the Pasta Shop. The program is being administered through Marty Hennessy’s Inspiring Children Foundation.