Mid-Ohio Valley Community Surprises Local Business Owner on Her Birthday; Chris Bender Treated, Socially-distanced Though Close at Heart
Williamstown, WV (RestaurantNews.com) Nestled nicely in Williamstown, West Virginia, population 2800, sits da Vinci’s Italian Restaurant. A Mid-Ohio Valley staple for decades, the dining gem recently had to make the toughest business decision in its history due to the industry shutdown via international pandemic.
One hundred yards away from the Ohio River, da Vinci’s call came down to this: sink or swim.
And though she knew going in it would be an upstream struggle, owner Chris Bender decided that in order to stay open, keep her team members employed and her area fed, she decided to swim, creatively maneuvering in an unprecedented current.
It was March 17 when the state’s Governor ordered restaurants dark. It was the same day Bender decided da Vinci’s would be the community’s light. The restaurant, where she started as a server and later bought, upgraded and expanded, celebrated its 40th anniversary this April. Her team’s actions may very well have guaranteed da Vinci’s will celebrate its 41st.
With 90 employees under her wing and an entire town quarantined, da Vinci’s improvised by the minute, introducing dV2U, a full-scale curbside pickup and delivery service within 24 hours. Her team took orders in advance and the delivery trucks showed up in agreed-to remote areas. Parked anywhere from an empty bank to elementary school parking lot, her team handed out family size dinners to a constant line of cars.
“We changed our business overnight. We never used the word survival. Our goal is to serve,” said Bender. “When serving is the goal, survival follows and not in reverse order. We change almost hourly. We are scrappy and nimble and we have not compromised on our mission to deliver delicious food, just not in the manner we are used to.”
In her 650-seat establishment, the tables are empty yet the town’s hearts and collective bellies remain full. Phones ring nonstop. To-go boxes are folded all day long. Suppliers struggle to keep up. Their signature German pizza has seen a 300% spike in sales. Their local PR person Lisa Collins is renaming items to resonate with those camping out with Netflix (i.e. Shrimp Cocktail is now King Tiger Shrimp Cocktail in reverence to the infamous documentary personality while not paying the cat royalties).
Collins created a spin on Mona Lisa, calling the pictured icon Corona Mona, doctoring the famous image to say and do odd yet uplifting things related to the pandemic. The restaurant’s Facebook followers have nearly doubled its hometown’s population. Even one night when they were simply too busy to perform to her own high expectations, Bender had to make a rare public apology, which was met with complete understanding, a quarter of the town expressing its understanding and support. Gift card sales are through the roof, some as much as $1000, an obvious nod to keeping its restaurant’s spirits alive and well.
Yet, there are concerns moving forward. Curbside and delivery are up 85% but it does not counter the full decline of dine-in short term. Some team members opted to self-quarantine which will pose a staffing issue upon reactivation. Bender says join the line when it comes to challenges.
Chris was so consumed by her calling that she forgot her 54th birthday this past Saturday. Her friends, family and colleagues did not. Welcoming her to work were 60 cars socially distanced with honking horns and birthday banners. She was surprised a little, not a lot.
“The community is our lifeline and we are we have been partners through good and bad for four decades,” opines Bender. “We’ve always relied on karma during tough times and everything we have ever done comes back to us ten-fold.”
Bender is preparing for a new normal, whatever that may be: “We will adjust to everything without being able to plan for anything. It’s one minute, one order, one day at a time but we aren’t even thinking about sinking. We’re here to swim … and serve.”
150PR – pro bono – on behalf of da Vinci’s