CORONAVIRUS

Iowa restaurants turn to ready-to-cook, family-style meals during coronavirus pandemic

Gennaro Rusciano holds a take-and-bake lasagna at his restaurant in North Liberty on Saturday, April 4, 2020. Rusciano's
Gennaro Rusciano holds a take-and-bake lasagna at his restaurant in North Liberty on Saturday, April 4, 2020. Rusciano’s, like many restaurants, is offering a selection of items for customers to bake at home as they adapt to the changed dining marketplace. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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When restaurants in Iowa were first ordered closed to dine-in service March 17 to fight the spread of the coronavirus, Cherie Guillaume, owner of the Skillet Cafe in Mount Vernon, laid off one of her two full time employees. Now, just three weeks later, she’s planning to bring that person back on her payroll.

She’s able to do that because sales of the take-and-bake family-style pasta meals she added to her menu have taken off.

“Some days, they make the day, as far as business goes. Sales are still below normal, but take-and-bakes make for almost normal days,” she said.

Skillet Cafe normally relies on weekend breakfast crowds for the majority of business, but with people staying home, breakfast sales have plummeted. So Guillaume added weekly curbside pasta dinner pickups, designed to feed a family of four for just under $20. She laid off 9 part-time employees as well, and they’re rotating through to help out.

“We figured people were going to want a relatively inexpensive way to feed their entire family,” she said. “Breakfast sales are down, but by the time people get to dinner, maybe they’re like, ‘Now what do we feed them?’ At least that’s what I would be like if I had kids at home.”

Guillaume said she also caters and had been thinking about offering take-and-bake meals for a while.

“I never did it, so this was the time to launch,” she said. “I feel blessed we can still be able to serve some food and keep the doors open. There are some businesses that can’t be open at all.”

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Pivoting to take-and-bake and family-style meals is a strategy a lot of restaurants have landed on, as their owners look for ways to keep their businesses afloat.

“We were doing these because we’re trying, first of all, to survive with a lot of expenses and still have people working for us,” said Gennaro Rusciano, owner of Rusciano’s Authentic Taste of Napoli in North Liberty. “And also we know the time is tough for everybody, so we wanted to have people still be able to get good food at an affordable price.”

He has laid off five people but rotates them through to get some hours and income. In addition to the normal menu of pizzas and appetizers, he’s selling take-and-bake lasagnas, available by pre-order with 24 hours notice.

“It’s a way to have social distancing,” he said. “They do not have waiting time for food, and it’s all premade when we’re closed.”

He has a lot on his mind right now. Though he’s concerned for his restaurant and his employees, he’s also worried about his extended family, who live in Italy, a hot-spot in the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m thinking of my family every day,” he said. “I’m thinking of them, I talk to them everyday to see how they’re doing. I can’t leave, I can’t move, I feel powerless. All I can do is push here and try to survive.”

Brittany Hannah, owner of Bistro 3 Nineteen in Marion, said the strategy is helping her business do just that. She’s only offering take-and-bake meals for now, with 24 hours notice.

“It’s about trying to control all contact we have with people and put resources in the right place at the right time,” she said. “It’s easier to know what you need to provide customers ahead of time. We set up appointments so only one customer is in the building at a time, and we offer curbside pick up.”

She said she has laid off about 10 people, or about 80 percent of her staff.

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“It’s something I never wanted to do and never want to do again,” she said. “We’re trying to hang in the best we can.”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

Take And Bake Options

In normal times, Chew on This focuses on restaurant openings and closings.

These are not normal times, with restaurants ordered to switch to carryout, curbside and delivery. We know these businesses still need support from the community to survive, so each week we are going to highlight five businesses.

These are just a few examples of the many, many places offering these options — please look up your favorite restaurants on Facebook or give them a call to find out what they’re offering.

If you don’t want to leave the house, delivery services like Chomp, GrubHub and MyTownToGo are currently offering special prices or waiving delivery fees.

This week, we’re highlighting places offering take-and-bake meals.

Bistro 3 Nineteen

796 11th St., Marion; (319) 363-0500 or email bistro3nineteen@gmail.com; www.bistro3nineteen.com

Either hot and ready or take-and-bake, family style meals for four, including chicken pesto or smokey mushroom pasta, $35; chicken and mash, Buddha bowl with chicken or maple Dijon chicken with roasted potatoes and green beans, $40. Order 24 hours in advance.

caucho

1202 Third St. SE, Suite 102, Cedar Rapids; (319) 200-2525; facebook.com/cauchorestaurant

Menu may change but includes enchiladas, tamales and taco packs. Curbside pickup available 4 to 7 p.m. Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday with advance order.

Lightworks

501 Seventh Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids; (319) 449-4046, facebook.com/lightworkscafe

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Menu may change but includes lasagna, enchiladas and potpies.

Rusicano’s Authentic Taste of Napoli

710 Pacha Parkway, Suite 5, North Liberty; (319) 665-2761, facebook.com/Ruscianos

Chicken pesto, classic sausage or vegetarian lasagna, with focaccia bread, $28. Order 24 hours in advance.

Skillet Cafe

101 First St., Mount Vernon; (319) 895-8540, facebook.com/SkilletCafe

Take-and-bake pasta pans for four; Alfredo, chicken Alfredo, stroganoff, veggie, chicken cacciatore, teriyaki or Tuscan (add $5). Also offering Easter specials.

Comments: (319) 855-2392; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please subscribe. Your subscription will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.