Tony Foreman co-owns a small empire in Baltimore, MD. Our talk mostly focused on Cinghiale, Foreman’s restaurant specializing in the food and wine of northern Italy—“If you can see the Alps, that’s our wheelhouse”—which has been open since 2007. In addition to five more restaurants, there is also a pair of wine shops which Foreman is proud to report have “done well selling things that not too many people know.”
On weathering the storm
Cinghiale opened 9/21/07, the official beginning of the Great Recession. Because I’m crazy, I bought all the 2001s and 2004s I could on closeout from Italy. There’s no mountain of shit I haven’t waded through—are you kidding? I recall the 1999 Asian financial crisis and 2001, when no one came in for three weeks.
On staffing over the last year and the loss of corporate business
Normally at Cinghiale, there are one to two wine staff plus me. Nowadays, it’s maybe one of them per shift. I explained what we’re going through and that everyone’s going to take a haircut, and we’ll cover health insurance, and we’ll cover groceries for everyone every week, and if you get in trouble, you let me know.
Across the six restaurants and two shops, our team at full force is 350 people. It’s 270 now, and everyone has taken a hit—and I used to think I’d have a retirement. Cinghiale is a big restaurant, and it’s downtown, surrounded by all the financial businesses and the bigger and better hotels where no one is in the rooms and the high-end condos where everyone is in their vacation homes in Florida.
Historically, 35-40 percent of our business was in the PDR (private dining room); now, it’s zero. And the most loyal clientele was medical, which is now zero for obvious reasons. I’m supplementing front-of-house payroll out of my pocket. There’s no other way to do it. They can’t survive if their sections bring in $300. I’m hoping things will turn around and that whatever financial disaster comes out of this for me personally, it will be survivable, but it’s likely that one of my spots will have to close.
Have you changed your buying at all to focus on stuff that sells better on a limited takeout menu?
Right now, we’re just buying when we have to. I have two retail shops. I’ve mostly been honoring my presales and taking them in retail except for a couple things that I want to tuck away in restaurant cellars.
Overall, for takeout, people want comfy, satisfying, not too difficult to understand or needing decanting. They don’t want to make their own pasta, and they don’t want to deal with that either. Easy is good. You give someone Fontodi or Montesecondo Chianti, and they’re going to be fine. For outdoor dining, we sold a lot of barbera this past summer…this person has pasta, this person has fish, I’m going to bring you 55-degree barbera from the cellar and everyone is going to be happy.
How are the wines you sell for outdoor dining (or for takeout, or at retail) different from the wines you historically sold in your dining room?
Did you see some good outdoor business last summer?
In the places that do more personal stuff and not so much business dining or special-occasion dining, yes. But a lot of the community is siloed right now and not coming out.
How have you been interacting with customers? And are there particular episodes, either good or bad, that stand out in your memory?
There was this one guy. I’m six feet tall, and I’ve had heart surgery three times, I’m probably at good risk [ for COVID ], and we had a guy come in with no mask on. He’s 6’7” or 6’8”; he and his wife had to have been drinking at a couple places beforehand. They both had high temps, so we turned them away, and dude pulls his mask off and starts screaming at everyone that he’s a doctor, and he’s definitely not a risk, and that none of the places they’d been before in the evening had taken their temps or anything. Now, you can hit me if you want—I’ll fall down, I don’t care—mostly, I just don’t want you to breathe on me. Finally, it’s: “We’re not going to serve you.” They said, “Call the police!” Good idea! Finally, the wife, whose birthday it was, got him out the door. I could see from my staff, managers and service staff, and every diner in the place how freaked out they were by this guy’s behavior.
The overwhelming memory I have of guests is really positive, though, of them being really grateful for us being there. That spirit that drives their visitation: “Wait a minute, this is a real part of my life, I’ve marked a lot of special times in this place, these people always make me feel good.” That’s a big deal.
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