It’s hard enough to keep a fledgling new restaurant up and running in normal times. Imagine running one during a pandemic. That’s the reality for one Reno resident, whose business opened just as the coronavirus began spreading across the country. This entrepreneur is trying to make the best of bad times, with the help of some unexpected business partners.
If you’re walking around Reno’s MidTown neighborhood, you might come across an unusual sign taped to the door of a restaurant on Saint Lawrence Avenue: “No customers allowed inside. I love you, but also, no.”
That’s how business owner Aaron Foster communicates food + drink’s new curbside pickup-only policy, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But it’s not just Foster’s sense of humor that is helping him get through these tough times. His parents are, too.
“We do some prep work,” his mother, Wendy Ward, explained. “Chop up tomatoes, pick out the basil leaves, wash dishes, run the pizzas to the curbside with our masks and our gloves and... ” Ken Ward, Aaron's stepfather, jumped in to finish her thought: "[We] hand ’em off."
Back in December, the Wards didn’t plan on leaving retirement in Maine to work at their son’s new restaurant, nor did they plan on leaving their cabin in the “Pine Tree State” for an extended stay at their son’s bachelor pad in “The Biggest Little City.” In fact, they only visited Aaron to celebrate Christmas and to help him set up the restaurant, which was under construction at the time.
“We were putting together some of the interior, getting ready to hang his art, and so on,” Ken said. “The coolers and the freezers and the ice machines and all of that stuff. All the electricity and the plumbing, of course, was done by the contractors.”
But construction dragged on and on.
“I didn’t open for five weeks after Christmas,” Aaron said. “And then [my parents] kept helping and they kept helping. And, finally, I said, ‘I love you guys, but, you know, you gotta go home.’ And then it’s like, yeah — nobody’s going anywhere for a while.”
That’s when COVID-19 made its way to the U.S. It wasn’t safe for Wendy and Ken to fly back home to Maine, and they still don’t feel it’s safe, but that’s okay: they’re happy to ride out the pandemic in Reno.
“We came out December 17, so we have been here a long time…a long time to have your parents living in your house,” Wendy says with a laugh. “He gave us up his master bedroom and bath, and he's a very gracious host.”
“We have become enamored of Reno,” said Ken. “Reno is a nice little city — it really is. And the community is pretty active, especially in the MidTown area — or at least, it has been. I hope it will be again, for everyone's sake.”
Aaron sent all of his employees home because of the pandemic. At the moment, it’s just him and his parents behind the counter. Aaron hopes to bring his staff back on after COVID-19 subsides, though he’s still paying them partially in the meantime.
“About a third of my income is just going to pay staff that’s not here, which is fine,” said Aaron. “I’ll do that as long as I can, but I don’t know how long I can do that. I’m not going to be surprised if I don’t have a restaurant in 90 days — or 30 days!”
He’s not alone. Countless other restaurateurs are hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst — and that’s assuming their businesses have managed to make it this far. An estimated 40% of restaurants in the U.S. have shut down since the pandemic began, according to a recent survey of restaurant operators conducted by the National Restaurant Association.
In that same survey, 60% of restaurant operators say that whatever federal assistance their businesses receive will not be enough to prevent future layoffs.
As for Aaron, he still doesn’t know what federal relief he might get for the restaurant. At the current rate of business, he says he’ll soon need the restaurant’s landlord to lower the rent if he wants to stay in MidTown. It’s unclear whether that will happen, but to Aaron, at least one thing is clear: his restaurant, food+ drink, wouldn’t have made it this far without his parents.
“He says, ‘Well, I couldn’t have opened it without you,’” explained Wendy, “but we’re just kind of the errand runners, gophers and stuff. I think he feels bad sometimes that he doesn’t have something more exciting for us to do, but I tell him, ‘That's what we do.’ ”
Aaron appreciates his parents’ support, even when it starts to feel like there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Asked what it’s like having your parents work for you, the food entrepreneur laughed for a few seconds as he thought of his answer.
“It is wonderful and terrible at the same time,” Aaron said. “I mean, it’s amazing, but we’re, you know, we’re family and we’re cooped up together, and it’s been four months, so we have our moments, for sure.
“But I’m certainly glad that they’re here, as opposed to not being here,” he continued. “Lots of people are stuck far from family and unable to spend time with them. So, you know, we’re making the most of it, for the most part. My mother bought a ukulele online. My mother does not play the ukulele. So, folks: please stay at home so we can get this over with.”
Uncertainty abounds for Aaron and the fate of his new venture. No matter what happens, though, his parents will be with him every step of the way at what has become — at least for now — a family restaurant.
This story was produced in collaboration with The Hitchcock Project for Visualizing Science at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Reynolds School of Journalism, where Benjamin Payne is a graduate student.
Editor's note: a previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Wendy and Ken Ward as “Wendy and Ken Foster.”