On a cool fall day last Saturday, a grueling almost two-year nightmare ended when Germantown Cafe finally reopened the doors to its loyal customers. And there they were, lined up to return to a neighborhood institution many feel is a second home.
“I have enjoyed dining at Germantown Cafe, and I am so glad they are reopening after all the challenges of the past year and a half,” says diner Thomas Williams. “Neighborhood restaurants are the fabric where great memories are made.”
The memory of March 2, 2020, is etched in Sean Lyons’ mind. A managing partner at the restaurant, Lyons got a video of the damage caused by the massive tornado that tore through Germantown and East Nashville. “It was bad. There’s water spraying everywhere in the kitchen, all the alarms are going off, there’s stuff coming down from the ceiling. Then two weeks later COVID hit.”
The restaurant, which opened its doors for the first time in 2003, embarked on a long odyssey to rebuild the physical space and weather the pandemic. In the process, Lyons reimagined what a restaurant would look like in the future and incorporated those changes in the Germantown Cafe of 2021. In short, it’s a business that has made some revolutionary improvements for customers and staff alike.
The first is a hybrid ordering system. Customers have the choice of ordering food in the conventional way, with a server taking their order from paper menus, or remotely. Under the remote version, diners can use their phone to read the menu, order and pay. “We’re applying a unique degree of service to every individual,” Lyons says. “It allows servers to take more tables and get paid a lot more. From the customers’ perspective, they get exactly the service they want.”
Lyons also put into place a value system for employees based on skills such as teamwork, teaching skills and dependability. “In the past, you’ve only been able to evaluate money. Now we can evaluate soft skills.” The system will allow management to identify growth areas for employees and train future leaders.
The disparity of pay for back of house (the kitchen) versus front of house (the dining room and bar) has been a sore point for decades in the restaurant industry because front of house gets tips and the kitchen does not. Germantown Cafe created a walk-up window that serves breakfast and lunch items not available on the regular restaurant menu. A service charge is added to each order that goes directly to some back-of-house workers who meet guidelines involving food cost and waste.
The walk-up window functions as a small restaurant within the larger one and serves as an incubator for the concept that could be scaled up elsewhere.
All of this is new, but the heart of Germantown Cafe is still in the familiar service, adored menu and comfortable surroundings its customers have treasured for years.
“We have been regulars at Germantown Cafe for many years,” says regular Nancy Crowell. “When we had a special occasion to celebrate, GC was where we would go. We were so sad to hear about the damage they sustained in the tornado, but now we are so happy to be able to go back and enjoy all of our favorites.” Her favorites are the Plum Pork, marinated tenderloin with savory plum sauce served with mashed potatoes and French green beans, and the crab cakes with a mustard tartar sauce.
The Plum Pork has been a perennial best seller for years. “OMG, I can get Plum Pork again,” enthused another fan, Elizabeth Power. “It’s been my go-to for over a decade. The world stops for just a second when I take that first bite. So glad GC is open now.”
The Germantown Cafe staff is thrilled to welcome customers back. “There were people who waited for two years,” Lyons says. “We had people who had been coming to our restaurant for eight to 10 years. There’s no way we could do what we’re doing without them. They’re making restaurants better just by being so enthusiastic about coming back.
“I took a minute the night before (reopening) to realize we were finally opening. A dream is coming true.”
Catherine Mayhew is a former restaurant critic for The Charlotte Observer, cookbook author and master BBQ judge. Follow her @thesouthinmymouth on Instagram to see what she’s eating, and email her at email@example.com with suggestions on your favorite restaurants and food trucks.