How Bar Bombón Owner Nicole Marquis Is Helping to Save Philly Restaurants
And the ways she’s pivoting to keep her own businesses afloat.
Nicole Marquis only had mere hours. On March 16, Philadelphia restaurants were ordered to shut down in a drastic attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19. Her businesses -- along with more than 6,000 dining establishments in the city -- had to break the news to staff, clean out fully stocked walk-ins, and lock the doors.
“It was just tears all day,” said Marquis. “I went into every single restaurant, and let the staff know, one by one, ‘I can't believe the words I'm saying, but I have to let you go.’”
Overnight, all but 35 of 250 employees were out of work between her Latin-inspired Bar Bombón, cocktail bar Charlie was a sinner., and nine outposts of her fast-casual concept HipCityVeg in the Philly area and Washington DC.
Now, nearly seven months later, the founder and CEO says she’s been able to bring back everyone in the group who’s able to work, more than 80 percent of her staff. Even more surprising? Her bars aren’t just surviving, they’re outperforming 2019 numbers by five to 10 percent. Like so many restaurants, Marquis and her team pivoted, investing in digital marketing, creating takeout offerings like value meals for couples and families, and transforming Bar Bombón into a bodega stocked with vegan staples and deli items made in-house.
The team also leaned hard into delivery, expanding the number of platforms they worked with from one to four to get orders to customers who couldn’t or wouldn’t travel for takeout. And they applied for and received PPP funds, which went to paying rent and bringing back staff in April, May, and June. But Marquis knew that to make it through the pandemic, Philly’s independent restaurants would need more than that.
“A lot of people around me were saying, ‘Well, the government is going to do what they're going to do, we can't really change what happens,’ but we had to try something,” Marquis said. “Coming together was central to advocating for solutions for the Philadelphia restaurant industry. Together, our voices were so much louder.”
In April, she co-founded Save Philly Restaurants, a campaign signed by 50 independent restaurateurs representing more than 220 establishments. Sent to representatives at the local, state, and federal level, the petition advocated for industry support like immediate unemployment benefits, rent abatement and eviction moratoria, emergency loans for small businesses, and a sales tax holiday on the takeout and delivery orders that were suddenly restaurants’ only source of revenue.
“I'm not just advocating for the restaurant industry because it’s my industry, but because it's one of the largest industries in the nation, and it provides millions and millions of jobs,” Marquis said.
“The renaissance of Philadelphia happened because of small restaurants.”
Marquis also pushed for the expansion of outdoor dining -- not just on sidewalks, but into the streets. With Bar Bombón located in the downtown neighborhood of Rittenhouse Square and Charlie was a sinner. in nearby Midtown Village, she and fellow restaurant owners were able to take over parking spaces and even close small and side streets for outdoor dining several days a week. Now, Bar Bombón has 50 outdoor seats, which is more than its dining room holds at full capacity. Another key moment was getting approval for bars to sell pre-mixed cocktails to go -- unheard of before the pandemic, as anyone who’s ever dealt with liquor boards will tell you.
“Seeing the [board] adapt in this emergency to help restaurants, and really help the state in general, bringing revenue and helping families continue to work, was a big win for us,” Marquis said. “A lot of businesses are open today because they’re able to sell alcohol to-go.”
In addition, she leveraged the power of social media to promote Save Philly Restaurants, sent letters to politicians, and testified on behalf of the industry at hearings. She said it was important to make the pandemic personal.
“We got in front of our elected officials on a daily basis during those first few weeks,” she says. “I told them about James, my line cook who I've been working with for six years. I walked into the restaurant and he broke down in tears thanking me that we were keeping the doors open, because he doesn't know how he would be able to feed his children on unemployment. So being able to tell them that, I think did have an impact.”
Despite the success of these changes, Marquis knows her businesses and thousands of other restaurants are running on borrowed time in an uncertain atmosphere. The city of Philadelphia allowed restaurants to reopen indoor dining at 25% capacity on September 8, then upped capacity to 50% on October 2. But even as they’ve cautiously begun reopening indoors, owners are hedging their bets, investing in equipment like heat lamps to make outdoor dining palatable to customers for as long as possible in the event that cases surge and dining rooms go dark again in the fall.
“I think people will eat outside even when it gets colder,” Marquis said. “I want to embrace what European cities and warmer-weather cities do with outdoor dining, and do this permanently.” Her team recently launched a menu of wintry cocktails, each one served with a complimentary thermos and logo-emblazoned fleece blanket for guests to take home, as a fun way to keep patrons feeling cozy outdoors.
But Marquis is also realistic about what it will take to keep her restaurants open, an uncomfortable but necessary risk when government guidance and support has fallen short of what businesses need to ride out the pandemic safely. “We know that we have to be at least at 50% capacity by November in order to survive the cold,” she said. “That’s a must.”
But indoor dining is just one piece of a complicated puzzle facing restaurants nationwide. While her sit-down concepts have bounced back, business at HipCityVeg is still down 10 percent, and the situation for many of her fellow restaurateurs is far more dire. With so much uncertainty in the future, Marquis is pushing representatives for more regulatory changes and relief industry-wide. That could look like working with the city to make some street closures for outdoor dining permanent, or state-level changes like getting the go-ahead to offer mixed drinks for delivery.
But the biggest hurdle, she says, is getting Congress to pass the HEROES Act, which includes the $120 billion Restaurants Act. That legislation would fund grants to foodservice businesses with less than 20 locations to get their 2020 revenues up to par with 2019’s and potentially offer additional PPP and EIDL loans. Unfortunately, the much-needed bill will likely remain in the House until after the election.
Ultimately, Marquis hopes that the pivots made by restaurants, with the help of local government, could serve as a case study for how to keep the industry afloat as the pandemic drags on: “It shows us that if we -- cities, business, government -- all work together, make changes quickly, and get really creative, we can get through this.”
Alexandra Jones is a writer based in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, USA Today, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and the James Beard Foundation’s blog. She’s also the author of Stuff Every Cheese Lover Should Know. Follow her on Instagram at @arockjonestown.