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Stomping Ground Owner Offers Intimate Look at Keeping the Del Ray Cafe Running During Pandemic

Fresh off a recent expansion into Tysons, Nicole Jones was ready to expand her Del Ray cafe Stomping Ground (2309 Mt Vernon Avenue) into a neighboring space with a new bagel shop next door called Bagel Uprising.

That was last fall, and as spring came around, the nationwide pandemic now has Jones and her staff scrambling to them afloat.

“Staff looks to me for leadership,” Jones said in a blog post titled A Day in the Life of an Essential Business. “On the inside, I am sick, nervous, and totally unsure if I am doing the right thing. I do not get the benefit of processing what is happening in the world around me or what is happening to my dream that I spent the last five years, countless personal sacrifices, and more elbow grease than you can imagine to build. I do not dare show them how scared I am.”

Jones, like small business owners across Alexandria, has struggled paving a new path forward. For Bagel Uprising, that’s meant a smaller staff and abbreviated menu.

“At Stomping Ground, I immediately thought about adding dinner so that we would be able to service an additional need and provide hours for staff,” Jones said. “On paper, these seem like logical and obvious changes. In reality, these changes took tremendous effort, demanding flexibility, and grit on all parties involved, including confused customers. Restaurants are all about systems, and when one system is changed, inevitably another one breaks. Our operation is now entirely different.”

A dinner menu had been in the works at Stomping Ground, but the pandemic has meant adding menus, changing them and “overloading the fryer” all while simultaneously trying to balance the books with loans.

“[I’m] trying to read loan information, applying for loans, getting rejected for loans – all while trying to maintain a level of quality and customer service,” Jones said.

Jones isn’t alone. Other businesses in Alexandria that usually survive month to month have been faced with mounting difficulties as the customer base drops off.

Jones said the goal of the post wasn’t to get people to feel sorry for her or other business owners, but to give them insight into the behind the scenes struggles.

“I’ve been so touched by the support of this community and our staff,” Jones said. “Diners have gone above and beyond to do their part to help restaurants as we fight to survive the economic strife of this pandemic. Every act of commerce feels like a gift of support. All of the restaurants are doing their very best, some are doing to-go food for the first time because it’s their only option.”

To help out local restaurants, Jones asked the community to keep a few things in mind as they order take-out or delivery:

  • If you encounter a restaurant with a long line, or pausing orders because they are overwhelmed, do not assume they are “crushing it.” They are trying to service prime time hours with reduced staff and in a new system. If you can order and pick up early, or late, do so! It helps.
  • Try not to make special requests unless absolutely necessary. We are working with skeleton crews and it is harder than you think to “just put the sauce on the side.”
  • Try not to rely on third party delivery systems and apps like UberEats, Grubhub, and Postmates. These companies have a commission that typically hovers around 30 percent of a sale – beyond the margin of revenue for most items. Using these apps helps the companies that own them, not the business you think you are supporting.
  • Above all else, this is a time that calls for patience, compassion, and empathy for everyone involved. Yes, our website is probably confusing. Yes, we are probably going to forget one of your bagels. Yes, we really did run out of espresso. Yes, we are really doing our best.

Staff photo by Vernon Miles

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