These restaurateurs bravely opened new eateries amid COVID pandemic: 'Determined' to succeed

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The COVID-19 pandemic — so deadly for so many — proved a perfect time to open a new restaurant for a select group of entrepreneurs who bravely chose "hope" over fear. 

"One way or the other, we were determined to succeed," celebrated Boston-area restaurateur Leo Keka told FOX Business.

He audaciously opened a sprawling 7,500-square-foot Mediterranean steakhouse, Alba on 53, in Hanover, Massachusetts, in August 2020, while the state was crippled by executive mandates and many consumers were gripped by fear.

The nationwide twin tornado of politicians and panic tore a wide path of destruction through the restaurant industry — the shocking devastation still seen and felt in many major cities. 

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About 90,000 eateries around the country closed because of the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association.

"You gotta give yourself some hope and this restaurant gave us hope," Keka said of his decision to plow forward with planning, construction and hiring even as the industry collapsed around him. 

Alba on 53, a sprawling 280-seat restaurant in Hanover, Massachusetts, opened in August 2020 at the height of COVID fears and lockdowns. “We were determined to make this place happen,” said owner Leo Keka. (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital / Fox News)

He’s among a few brave restaurateurs who dared to double down on the future at the height of COVID fears. 

International celebrity chef Daniel Boulud opened Le Pavillon in Midtown Manhattan, in the towering new One Vanderbilt skyscraper, in May 2021, while city streets were still empty of tourists and office workers.

“One way or the other, we were determined to succeed.” — Restaurateur Leo Keka

"We were determined to go on with the project the whole time," Boulud told Fox News Digital.

"The project was already designed. It was a question of being able to finish the work."

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Newcomer restaurateur Lacey Irby and executive chef Ryan Brosseau opened Dear Margaret in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood in January 2021 while the city suffered under onerous dining restrictions.

"I think, ‘F*** it, let’s do this’ was pretty apropos of our attitude," said Brosseau. 

Chef Daniel Boulud speaks during the New York City Wine and Food Festival Lunch with Daniel Boulud at Le Pavillon on Oct. 16, 2021 in New York City.  (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for NYCWFF / Getty Images)

Added Irby, "Nobody knew how to do this, how to run a restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic. We had to stay as agile as possible." 

The efforts of these restaurateurs came amid angry criticism from some corners — in an era when neighbors were calling cops to report homeowners who were having backyard barbecues. 

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Yet many other consumers were hungry at the time for normalcy and eager to show it.

Success after stress

All three eateries are reaping the rewards today. 

Alba on 53 has proven to be one of the toughest tables in New England. Keka is knocking down walls this week to add 40 more seats plus entertainment space to his beefy steakhouse. 

The eatery already boasts a 240-seat dining room and a 40-seat patio for seasonal outdoor dining.

Dear Margaret opened in Chicago in January 2021 while the city was still gripped by COVID mandates and consumer concerns. Pictured are executive chef Ryan Brosseau and restaurateur Lacey Irby.  (Photo by Neil Burger / Fox News)

"We've been filled every night since we opened," said Keka, first with capacity restrictions that were eventually lifted. 

"It honestly has to do with our customers. They wanted us to be busy. They wanted some sense of normalcy and opening a restaurant when so many were closing."

Those guests covet Alba on 53 for its decadent gnocchi with red wine-braised short rib and its stunning double-cut bone-in pork chop with housemade mustard. 

“We were almost able to use the pandemic to our advantage.” — Chef Ryan Brosseau

Le Pavillon just earned a Michelin star, a prestigious honor reserved for only the world’s best restaurants. 

"The elegant dining room, with its soaring ceilings, plate glass and warm palette, makes the well-heeled feel right at home," said Michelin of Le Pavillon. 

"You'll rub shoulders with many at the bar, a prized perch crowned by a dramatic blown glass chandelier." 

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The restaurant offers dramatic views of New York City landmark Chrysler Building towering over Grand Center Terminal. 

Le Pavillon's signature dish is Chef Boulud's oysters Vanderbilt, a tribute to the tycoon who built Grand Central, featuring poached oyster, herbs, hazelnuts, seaweed and a splash of clam chowder in the shell.

Dear Margaret has enjoyed widespread critical acclaim for Chef Brosseau's modern interpretations of homestyle French-Canadian fare — most notably a rich duck liver mousse.

Acclaimed Greater Boston restaurateur Leo Keka opened his first eatery, Alba Restaurant, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and his second, Alba on 53, amid the COVID crisis. Both restaurants are thriving today. (Kerry J. Byrne/Fox News Digital / Fox News)

Chicago Magazine earlier this year named Dear Margaret one of the city's best new restaurants; Plate magazine named Brosseau a chef to watch in 2022; and Michelin put Dear Margaret on its 2022 Bib Gourmand list, denoting high-quality affordable restaurants. 

"We were almost able to use the pandemic to our advantage," said Brosseau, nothing that they opened first for take-out only. 

"We could postpone a lot of the expenditures of opening a restaurant, do it on a small budget and make a little money before investing in things like tables and chairs."

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The team also found a landlord willing to structure a deal with them that reflected the reality of the times. 

Keka of Alba on 53 is no stranger to dire circumstances. 

He fled the poverty of communist Albania in 1991 by swimming across a lake to Montenegro, before being captured by, and escaping from, Serbian militants. 

He arrived in New York City later that year, unable to speak English. 

Chef Ryan Brosseau’s French-Canadian charcuterie plate is highlighted by his signature duck liver mousse, bottom left. (Photo by Neil Burger / Fox News)

He landed a job washing dishes in Boston while learning the language. 

He opened his first eatery, Alba Restaurant in Quincy, Massachusetts, in the fall of 2001, just 10 years after arriving in America. But the opening came in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, which stifled the nation's hunger to dine out for months afterward. It's thriving today.

Those personal and professional challenges, and a grave concern for his employees, gave Keka the fortitude to battle through COVID, said one business colleague.

“We made a beautiful restaurant.” — Chef Daniel Boulud

"There was a time [in 2020] when Alba on 53 was our only client and he kept us afloat," restaurant designer Jessica Smith of Studio 59 East told Fox News Digital. 

All her other business dried up amid COVID fears.

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Keka employs 110 people at his new restaurant, in addition to the 80 who work at his original location.

Daniel Boulud’s Midtown Manhattan restaurant Le Pavillon opened in May 2021 next to Grand Central Terminal, while offering amazing views of the NYC landmark Chrysler Building.  (Photo by Eunji Paula Kim / Fox News)

All three restaurants — Alba on 53, Le Pavillon and Dear Margaret — have thrived in cities still reeling from the pandemic. 

The number of people eating out in New York City this summer was down 38% compared with the same time in 2019, according to data from online restaurant reservation service OpenTable. 

Chicago was struggling through a 23% decline, and Boston a 17% drop, according to the same source.

"It was difficult — we had no idea if we would survive," said Boulud, who in addition to Le Pavillon operates several other high-profile eateries in New York City and around the world.

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All would have been lost, he said, without the loyalty of his customers and his staff. 

Opening Le Pavillon amid the challenges of COVID, and winning raves from Michelin, "is a wonderful accomplishment, for the team and for all of us. We made a beautiful restaurant."

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