By Dominic Rosetti
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
While the National Restaurant Association reports that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced more than 110,000 restaurants across the country to close permanently or long term, one popular Baltimore County chain touts success with “doing different things like wine dinners to go.”
“We’re doing well during COVID,” said Allison Tracey, proprietor at Carrabba’s Italian Grill in Overlea, Maryland.
“Luckily we have not had any health scares,” Tracey explained. “We have been up in sales and the reason why we are doing so well is because of our regulars and doing different things like wine dinners to-go and trying to become innovative with sales ideas for our to-go business.”
Carrabba’s is one of the four restaurant chains owned by Bloomin’ Brands Inc, a company that is one of the largest casual dining restaurants in the world with more than 1,450 restaurants in 47 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and 20 countries.
At the Overlea restaurant, Tracey explained that workers do self-check-ins that are quick to spot someone with a temperature when they report to work. Tables are spread apart following social distancing protocols. She added that most of the restaurant’s business is to-go so there are fewer servers in the restaurant. However, the number of to-go employees has increased, she added.
“No, our customers have not changed because it is mainly regulars that are dining in,” Tracey said. “The number of customers dining in has changed because we are doing mostly to-go as of now.”
Pointing to positive sales for the third quarter, Carrabba’s CEO David Deno said in an Oct. 23 statement, “Our priorities remain unchanged as we are focused on taking care of our people and serving food in an environment that protects both team members and customers.”
“Maintaining a motivated, well trained, and engaged employee base that is committed to providing a safe dining experience is critical to our long-term success,” Deno continued. “The decision not to furlough any employees during the pandemic reinforced this principle. This decision is paying off and has been a big part of our success in driving results throughout the pandemic.”
Carrabba’s originated in 1986 with a partnership between Johnny Carrabba and Damian Mandola in Houston. The two shared an immense passion for food and their family’s tradition of wonderful hospitality, officials said. Two main influences that Johnny and Damian were surrounded by growing up were delicious food and bringing together extended family. Spending hours in the kitchen gave both men the understanding and love for real home-made Italian food as well as learning the original Carrabba family recipes.
When the idea of opening Carrabba’s formed, the men decided to do something different.
“They went to a restaurant in New York called Mezzaluna and that is where they got the idea of having an open kitchen concept,” Tracey said. “When Carrabba’s branched out, it was called Outback Steakhouse Inc. from the founders of Outback when they joined together.”
The other three founder-inspired brands are Outback Steakhouse, Bonefish Grill and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar.
Carrabba’s is well-known for its wood-burning grill, which is influenced by many of the delicious tastes of Italy. Menu items that intensify Carrabba’s grill baste and the smoky flavor of the wood grill are the Chicken Bryan, Pollo Rosa Maria, Chicken Marsala.
Officials also point to signature pastas as house favorites and the sauces that are made from scratch every day and sautéed for more flavor with each bite. The calamari, lasagna and Rigatoni Campagnolo are the traditional dishes that feature recipes passed down from generations, officials said.
Despite the pandemic, the restaurant design has not changed. An intimate large, round family table in the back is still available. The only thing that has changed is the bar, which has been shut down.
Recently when coronavirus cases began a second surge in Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan reversed an earlier decision to allow restaurants and bars to operate with fewer restrictions. Hogan issued a new edict that restaurants close at 10 p.m. and not exceed maximum capacity of 25% while bars that do not offer food must be shut down.
Again, the business in Overlea continued to thrive.
“I still see a lot of the same faces, but less foot traffic,” said server James Long Jr. “I do not like that the bar is closed, but we have to deal with what we can. I’m glad that people are taking more of an initiative to washing their hands because before, I did not see as much as I should.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported preliminary data that showed eating and drinking places lost a net 17,400 jobs in November on a seasonally adjusted basis. Officials said that the restaurant industry remains 2.1 million jobs below its pre-coronavirus level.
Long said he is happy he still receives his regular business but stressed he has learned to compensate since COVID-19.
“Keeping my distance when people are coughing,” Long listed as one of his compensations. “I just get that worry when I hear a table coughing. They’re eating dinner so it is going to happen, probably just went down the wrong pipe, but I am like ‘I have to get out of here.’”
Deno insisted that “customers want to come back to restaurants and they are confident in our ability to provide a safe and welcoming dining experience.” But he added that until COVID-19 infections are contained, “Off-premises remain a priority and we will leverage our strong capabilities to capitalize on this important and growing channel.”