Back in November, Daniel Wright of Queen City Hospitality Group was exasperated. He’d been trying to keep his restaurants—Abigail Street, Forty Thieves, Pontiac BBQ, both Senates, and Holiday Liquor Bar—open for safe dining during the pandemic, but surging COVID-19 numbers pushed the restaurateur to, once again, close his spaces.
“Those eight months that we were grinding along weren’t easy,” Wright says. “The old idea of the ‘customer is always right’—well, it wasn’t always the most well-behaved clientele. Ninety-nine percent of people were amazing, but then you have that one percent of people who made things worse.”
And so, on November 28, 2020, Wright shut down all of the Queen City Hospitality Group businesses, announcing they’d be back open in February. And, true to his word, Wright’s ready to get back to business with a slow-rollout reopening. Holiday and Forty Thieves are set to reopen on February 11, followed the next day by Abigail Street. One Senate will open the week after, then the other shortly after. (Pontiac will open at some point in March in a still-undecided reimagined form.)
So why reopen now? “First and foremost, there’s a vaccine,” he says, adding that his entire workforce is registered with the county for eventual vaccination. “That’s what people have been waiting for pretty much since this whole thing began. That’s probably the biggest thing for us.”
Wright notes that the reduced number of cases is comforting too.
“It was one thing last summer when it was 400 cases and we were asking people to come into work,” he explains. “It was a whole other thing when it was upwards of 10,000 cases daily for people to come in. It just wasn’t worth it. There are definitely no regrets on our end of closing for two months and letting this wave pass us. Because it was either going to hit us head-on or pass us over.”
And despite the frustrations that accompanied the November closure, Wright now looks back at the time with gratitude. “Everybody had time to decompress, which is huge, because we all love this industry,” he says. “It became less about hospitality and table service, more about safety. All the mannerisms that come into being a server or bartender fell on the back track to keeping people safe.”
The two-month break gave Wright a chance to re-center his place within his businesses. For the better part of the last two years, he’s been so focused on growing his restaurants’ reach that he hasn’t spent as much time in the kitchen.
“It’s what I love about this industry, so I spent a lot of time cooking,” he says. “That’s been my outlet, and it’s definitely brought a new energy to what it is that I want to do.”
Patrons will see the effect of this in new menu items at all locations. (As of this writing, the final list of new dishes is still in discussion.) Carryout will feature heavily, too, based on adaptations the restaurants executed over the course of the pandemic.
“We’ll start doing meals that aren’t necessarily take-and-bake kind of things, but stuff that are more in that family meal-type setting,” Wright notes. “It could be lamb shanks over couscous or a vegetable tagine or a number of things, like a paella night, that we can do to-go.”
Regarding the sequential rollout, Wright wants to make clear that the approach shouldn’t be interpreted as doubt in his staff’s abilities. In fact, he explains, everyone is “chomping at the bit” to get back to work, and he’s fully confident his teams could pull together for simultaneous reopenings. But Wright wants to get every reopening right so that every person involved, from staff to management to customers, feels as safe as possible.
“To roll it out the way that we want to do it—to make everyone feel really good about it—I feel like it’s easier to slow roll it a little bit,” he says. “As a management team, we’re basically making sure that each one of these is going to get released, then we’ll move on to the next one. There’s a plan, but first thing is getting these places restocked, and up and running.
“There’s no real rush to this. Because we are not shutting down again.”