You all know that pithy adage: ‘When the world gives you a global pandemic, make bagels.’
And fried chicken and cornbread and chocolate butterscotch cake.
I would not dare make light of what continues to afflict myriad people in myriad ways, but over the last two months, Zach Shultz and the team at Cotton & Rye have continually turned a kitchen nightmare into good eats.
"Obviously, the pandemic has been awful for the industry," admitted Shultz in a phone interview a week ago Wednesday. "But what we’ve been able to do has been cool."
The Memorial Day Pop Up menu —featuring an All-American menu of fried chicken, ribs, mac & cheese, collard greens, and an amazing array of desserts — was posted on social media at noon on May 20.
Everything sold out in just 36 hours.
Different from C&R’s previous seven pop-ups, the Memorial Day event offered hot prepared food, making for a more complicated service that called more of Shultz’s cooks back into the kitchen. All told, the culinary team fried over 840 pieces of chicken, smoked 48 slabs of ribs, and made 60 quarts of mac & cheese that were picked up last Sunday.
I wish I hadn’t settled for grilling some Omaha steaks patties on my Weber Smokey Joe.
Staying current, safe
Just a little over two months ago, the Habersham Street restaurant’s casual-chic dining room officially closed, and the staff of 30, the majority of whom are full-time employees, was furloughed. Since then, Cotton & Rye’s own Gang of Four has been busily producing eight pop-up pick-up events.
"We wanted to stay current, and we wanted to stay active," said Shultz, explaining that his core team members were willing to work together to do something unique and tasty.
He told them that he needed to do something during the closure to "try and slow the loss, especially when the pandemic first hit."
"Not necessarily work every day," Shultz added. "But work a couple days leading up to a fun Sunday event just to stay in the minds of our guests on social media."
"We have an extremely talented team, and we have an extremely talented pastry chef," he said, crediting Pastry Chef Peanut, a.k.a. Rebecca Ayers, though he is not sure if any of his staff knows her by her actual first and last names.
"She said, ‘I’m around, and I really don’t want to sit at the house, so if you want to do some baking, let me know.’"
Along with Executive Chef Caleb Ayers (Mr. Peanut, if you will) and General Manager Danielle Kratz, P.C. Peanut and Shultz have pulled off eight successful pop-ups, some of which reached their maximum online orders in less than a day. To fulfill the Memorial Day pick-up picnic feast, Sous Chef Megan Wallace and three cooks were whisked back into the fold.
"Every single one we’ve done has sold out," said a clearly grateful Shultz.
The Thomas Square, New American mainstay, which will celebrate its fifth anniversary on July 21, morphed into a New York-style deli for a couple pop-ups, and the Mother’s Day event featured fresh homemade bagels, champagne, and bellini kits.
Criminal defense lawyer by non-quarantine-order day and pop-up order manager for the last 70 days, Caroline Bradley Shultz "has been right by [her husband’s] side," taking and organizing all of the online orders and working with Lilly Brasili, who has created, updated, and posted all of the online menus and social media boosts.
"My wife has been my savior during this process," Shultz said. "She’s super-brilliant."
All of the orders have been taken via text, coming to Caroline Bradley Shultz’s cell phone, and once the food has been prepared, the husband-and-wife team have even done deliveries to customers who purchased a given amount.
Shultz explained that none of the pop-up events had a preset cap but that his team would take orders until it "got to an uncomfortable amount, where we were afraid we weren’t going to be able to produce the volume," he added with a laugh.
C&R sold as many as 800 bagels when they were on the pop-up menu, and one of those events sold out in eleven hours. For the last few, the Wednesday menu posting has resulted in selling out somewhere between 150 and 200 orders by Friday morning.
"It’s fun," said Shultz. "It doesn’t sustain the business, or necessarily pay its bills, but we’re showing Savannah what we’re made of and that we can do other things."
Like every local restaurant that has not served a meal in its own physical space since the middle of March, Cotton & Rye has its sights set on reopening, the first foray of which, more likely than not, will be for take-out meals only.
This will necessitate bringing back some staff, both front and back-of house, to facilitate even limited-menu specific-days takeaways, and Shultz hopes to start engaging some of his hourly employees either this week or next.
"It’s definitely been a very challenging time for me as a restaurant owner, and I am confident that everything will come back to normal" he said soberly. "But there is a period of time that, I think, it might be a little different, and that’s going to make the operations part of it a struggle between now and ‘normalcy’ again."
"We’re going to open in phases," said Shultz confidently. "We’re going to start with take-out and go from there."
He expects that pared-down take-out menus will continue to be posted online, both on the restaurant’s website and on social media with tastily teasing photos, and plans "a modified version of what Cotton & Rye’s menu is," with the exclusion of products that are currently difficult to access and items that will lose their integrity in a to-go box.
He is excited that a few items from the Sugo Rossa menu will make triumphant returns, a couple dishes, in particular, that travel well and that fans of the former Twelve Oaks C&R sister restaurant clearly miss.
As far as a grand reopening goes, Shultz said that the interior space of Cotton & Rye’s dining room and bar is relatively small, which means that 6-foot social-distance dining would not really be feasible, physically or financially.
Between now and the day when I am sitting in that charming back garden, chomping down on fried chicken skins and fries and a perfectly prepared hanger steak with garlic aioli and red wine jus, Shultz imagines that fulfilling ‘remote-dining’ orders for the time being will enable his kitchen to continue the pop-up bake shops, perhaps twice a month until the restaurant is back to regular on-site operations.
For all owner-proprietors, there are no clear-cut answers, and he admitted that the last two months have seen him talk himself into a plan for two days only to go in a completely different direction.
"Cotton & Rye is strong," said Shultz. "We’ve got a strong team, everybody’s got a great mindset, willing to help out and ready to work whenever I say, ‘Let’s get back at it.’"
When he says the word, we will be there, hungry and happy to be back.