June 3, 2021
By Michelle Farnham
SOUTH WALTON – As the impact of 2018’s Hurricane Michael was finally settling down here on the Emerald Coast, a new storm rolled in, one no meteorologist could have predicted: the Covid-19 pandemic.
With safety concerns for both patrons and employees at an all-time high, many restaurants were shuttered and beaches were closed just as the spring break rush was beginning. In an industry that relies on swift business in the warmest months, and rental homes ordered closed by the governor, the South Walton restaurant industry had some scrambling to do.
But as the old saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
All together now!
Restaurants that long-prided themselves on beachfront views, elegant dining rooms, live music, and fun experiences, suddenly had to shift gears. Takeout menus were quickly developed, offering the best of the kitchen, to-go. Eateries that previously enjoyed lines out the door during the season scrambled to implement delivery service and curbside pickup.
In the spirit of togetherness, locals and the few visitors in town encouraged an #EatLocal attitude like never before. Some restaurants pledged proceeds would be earmarked for the employees, while programs like the Save Florida Business Initiative sold special gift cards that worked like bonds, usable when businesses resumed operation.
With several restaurants in the area, Spell Restaurant Group approached the pandemic in different ways. Edward’s Fine Food & Wine and the former Grits & Grind were fully closed from March 20 to May 3, due to the state’s temporary closure of indoor dining. Sister restaurants George’s at Alys Beach, La Cocina (now LaCo) and La Crema Tapas & Chocolate switched gears and were able to operate by offering takeout, according to co-owner Christy Spell Terry.
Famed Chef Emeril Lagasse shut down operation of all his restaurants from March to August, including Emeril’s Coastal Italian in the Grand Boulevard complex of Sandestin.
“It was the only decision available to ensure the safety of our teams and guests,” Lagasse said, after his local eatery reopened as “Emeril’s Coastal,” with an increased focus on seafood.
South Walton restaurateur Jim Shirley closed all six of his businesses for about two months.
“As the chair of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, it’s important to me that our establishments are all shining examples of safety and health,” Shirley explained, adding each staff member is screened daily before work, they all wear masks, and they’ve added multiple layers of sanitation. “Implementing new procedures and changing our business model allowed us to stay in business, serve people safely, and keep our staff employed all year.”
Inventing the new normal
Even as government regulations relaxed, restaurateurs and their staffs continue to do business differently. The popularity of outdoor dining has surged, causing some locations to turn parking lots into seating areas. Orders are frequently taken and prepared from behind face masks, and live music gigs now involve extra extension cords and tents.
“The pandemic forced us to open our business model to things we haven’t previously done or considered doing, because what we were doing had always worked,” Chef Shirley said. “We now take reservations at Great Southern Cafe and The Bay, and offer online ordering at all establishments. We also added a tent in front of Great Southern when Seaside closed Central Square and one at The Bay so people can really spread out.”
Shirley said the response has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
“We are in the hospitality industry, so we do all we can so that people are comfortable, safe and have a good time,” Shirley added. Each of his locations offers outdoor eating space, giving diners a little fresh air and peace of mind. Indoor seating is socially distanced as well, and his Meltdown on 30A food truck and b.f.f. walk-up bar are ideally suited for grab-and-go.
Lagasse said his team strives to meet expectations of a good meal out, while remaining steadfast in following local and state guidelines and best practices.
“We are still driven by the foundation of hospitality,” Lagasse said. “Our passion for bringing people delicious food made with the best ingredients and served in a comfortable and enjoyable setting has not changed.”
“Coastal,” as Lagasse often calls it, has offered an outdoor patio area from day one – complete with fire pits – that are now an even hotter commodity than before.
“The patio has been a great extension of our dining room and guests love it,” he said. “On Sundays, our jazz band guests play out there, which really creates a great energy and vibe. The patio has fans, umbrellas, misters and heaters, so we designed it to be functional in year-round weather. We are so pleased to see the response.”
Over at the Spell locations, they are still seeing a dramatic increase in takeout business.
“While we have always offered to-go orders, we have never experienced the volume we are now,” said Spell Terry. She admitted it was challenging to fill these orders during the busy season, but they added more staff and even began offering online ordering.
The Spells have staff members in masks at all times during their shifts, which Spell Terry said has been well-received by guests, and allows team members to feel safe.
“Locals and tourists alike have been so supportive and understanding during this challenging season,” Spell Terry said. “With many feeling more comfortable spending time outside rather than inside, the beach remains a popular destination, and as a result, our restaurants do too because they all have varying degrees of outdoor seating.”
George’s offers equal amounts of indoor and outdoor space, and this winter they added an overhead covering to the outdoor area, offering protection from weather. More than 50% of La Crema’s seating is outdoors, Edward’s boasts an outdoor patio in the new streetside dining area, and LaCo has a front patio that seats 30.
South Walton is often considered America’s next great culinary destination, and the drive and determination shown over the past year help solidify that title. As we settle into “the new normal,” we’re all hungry to see what 2021 has in store.
Editor’s note: The Covid-19 pandemic has caused many changes in the restaurant industry over the past year, with rapidly evolving guidelines. All information presented was current as of press time.