‘If it works, it works’: Meet the new crop of Philly restaurants doing takeout and delivery to survive

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Jack McShea's is a small family run bar in Ardmore. It has been working with its employees to overcome the challenges businesses are facing due to the virus, Covid 19. March 20th 2020. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Jack McShea's is a small family run bar in Ardmore. It has been working with its employees to overcome the challenges businesses are facing due to the virus, Covid 19. March 20th 2020. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Last Tuesday, the 12-person staff of Jack McShea’s Pub in Ardmore gathered inside an empty bar and mulled their options.

It was St. Patrick’s Day, and the Irish-themed sports bar should have been thronged. Usually, the St. Patty’s Day rush brings in enough green to offset an entire week in the always-sluggish summertime.

Now, all that remained were the green streamers and the shiny shamrock ornaments dangling above upturned barstools.

Owner Neil McShea gave his employees a choice: They could close down and maybe collect unemployment. Or they could try to radically reshape their business model on the fly — and try to soldier on as a takeout and delivery business.

The group decided to keep the doors open — somehow, some way. They’ve completely revamped their menu and are trying to overhaul their website. Neil McShea is whipping up pizzas in the kitchen and delivering them personally when needed.

“If it works, it works,” Neil McShea said. “If it doesn’t — we gave it a shot.”

Neil McShea is the owner of Jack McShea’s in Ardmore, Pa. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Close up? Or shift gears?

Last Monday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the closure of dine-in restaurants and bars in all four suburban Philadelphia counties. The city soon followed suit.

Just like that, an entire industry’s worth of business owners had a decision to make:

Do I close up? Or try to shift gears?

Because restaurants can still legally provide delivery or takeout services, scores of restaurants are suddenly centering their business on services they’ve never offered or emphasized before.

Primal Supply, a butcher shop in South Philadelphia, started a delivery service and online shop. The folks at Tannery Run Brew Works in Ambler will run a six-pack to your door. And some of the city’s highest-end restaurants — like Vernick Food and Drink in Center City — have suddenly become takeout joints.

One list to track many changes

To keep track of these sudden transformations, you can visit the website Dining at a Distance. There, you’ll find lists of restaurants — in cities across the globe — that are now offering takeout or delivery options.

The Philadelphia version of this sprawling project went live on Thursday. By Saturday morning, the Philly list was already 108 businesses long, an indication of all the upheaval and imagination coursing through the restaurant and bar scene right now.

Dining at a Distance has become almost a running diary of this massive shift.

The project began mid-morning Monday in Chicago with about 65 restaurants, according to co-founder Jenn Galdes, an industry lifer who does PR for restaurants and chefs. By mid-Friday, she said, about 60 cities either had lists or were in the process of developing them. She and co-founder Sean Lynch are trying their best to keep pace while holding down full-time jobs.

Galdes said she wasn’t surprised by the number of restaurants trying to reinvent themselves on the fly.

“This is what they need to do,” said Galdes. “There’s so much unknown right now that if they are a place that wants to stay open, I think this is something that they want and need to do to support their staff and their livelihood.”

‘A couple punches in the gut’

One of the chief unknowns right now is how long the ban on dine-in eating will last.

Jack McShea’s Pub in Ardmore is in an especially perilous position.

Family photo in Jack McShea’s run bar in Ardmore, Pa. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

In addition to St. Patrick’s Day, the bar usually gets a huge bump from the now-canceled March Madness basketball tournament. (Owner Neil McShea, it so happens, was a manager on the 1985 Villanova team that won the national championship.)

The pub also relies on foot traffic from the Ardmore Music Hall across the street. But it’s also gone dark.

“March is by far the busiest month of our year,” owner Neil McShea said with a heavy laugh. “It definitely hurts.”

On a typical night, the pub may fill three takeout orders, he said. Now, they’re trying to make that once-marginal part of their business the only part of their business.

Everyone expects to take a hit. Two part-time servers had to be let go temporarily. Bartenders have cut back their shifts.

Neil McShea knows he’ll lose money — he just hopes the losses are small enough and the shutdown is short enough that he can come out on the other side.

“We’re trying to do what we can to keep some people employed, keep the lights on, and get us through this,” McShea said. “I’m hoping it’s two weeks to a month.”

And if it’s any longer? The hard choices may get even harder.

For Neil McShea, the decision to stay open was about more than just money. He runs this place with his siblings. And this is their second rough St. Patty’s day in a row.

Last year around this time, their dad, Jack McShea — the bar’s namesake — passed away.

“It’s so weird, a year after he’s gone and this is the situation in our country,” said McShea. “It kinda hits home — a couple punches in the gut.”

To absorb those blows, Neil McShea wants to stay busy, stay positive, and stay in business. He’s hoping the challenge will help him deal with the grief.

“I believe karma comes around. And if you do good things, hopefully it’ll all pay off,” he said. “I could have closed shop and waited for this whole thing to be over — and try to open up on the other side. But I figure this is better for my people. It’s better for me to be doing something.”

As he finished, a pair of regular customers walked by the bar window. McShea waved and shouted to get their attention, but they didn’t see him.

The couple kept walking, and Neil McShea went back to work.

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