On May 22, when hundreds of restaurateurs eagerly opened their dining rooms, Simone Vicidomini decided to wait.
“I have such a small dining room and some of my staff are 60 years old. It’s just too hard to make my staff and my customers comfortable,” said Vicidomini, the owner of B.L.L. Rotisserie Factory, at 380 Knollwood St.
Gov. Roy Cooper may have initiated the Phase Two easing of COVID-19 restrictions for restaurants on May 22, but that wasn’t necessarily making things easier for restaurateurs such as Vicidomini.
“I don’t have a separate entrance and exit. There’s no place for people to wait for tables,” he said at the time. “And a lot of people are afraid to eat out.”
Instead, he kept serving takeout with a skeleton crew of five employees, down from his pre-COVID-19 staff of 16.
In mid-June, he called the staff in for a meeting, where everyone had a chance to voice their opinions about opening the dining room.
Again, Dominici decided to stay closed. “I had takeout, and we’ve always done a lot of takeout,” he said. His revenue was still way down, but he decided to wait until after July 4 to reopen inside.
July 4 came and went — and Dominici decided to wait a little longer. “I was looking at the numbers (of COVID-19 cases). The numbers were going up,” he said.
Meanwhile, regular customers were asking him, and asking him again, to reopen the dining room. Finally, on July 30, he gave in. B.L.L.’s dining room is open for lunch and dinner six days a week — just as it has been for the last 27 years.
Vicidomini was a young man, not yet a father, on Nov. 17, 1993, when he opened B.L.L. — whose name bears the initial of a former partner. “I was 26 years old and just married,” he said.
Now, he’s 52 years old with two grown children and one more at home. He’s also one of a handful of Winston-Salem restaurant owners who have weathered more than 20 years of changes in the restaurant scene, and he quietly but steadily built a loyal clientele.
But, like everyone, he is facing a crisis he has never faced in his life. And he is facing it the only way he knows — with hard work and care.
“To be honest, I didn’t want to reopen, but customers kept asking,” he said. Though he gave in, he also is being extra careful. He removed so many tables that there’s more than the required six feet between them. He’s disinfecting the tables himself between customers and offering customers hand sanitizer. He has installed a big sheet of plexiglass in front of the cash register.
He’s paying his wait staff extra because he knows they won’t get the same in tips.
He hates wearing a mask, but he does it — and so does the rest of his staff.
But he’s also not complaining. “I’m grateful. Our doors are open. We can survive this thing,” he said.
His confidence comes from his customers who have stood by him. He doesn’t have nearly as many, but the regulars never stopped, even back in March. “The customers came, no matter what.”
For many of those customers, B.L.L. is a hidden gem, an unusual, slightly old-school restaurant that never tried to be flashy or trendy. It never advertised. Its menu doesn't change much. It’s hidden in plain sight at 380 Knollwood, a stone’s throw from the high-traffic Stratford Road. Across the street, Vicidomini can watch the usual long line of cars waiting to go through the drive-thru at Chick-fil-A every day.
B.L.L. Rotisserie Factory is a chicken place, too, but of a different sort. As the name implies, rotisserie chicken is a big part of the menu.
Pre-COVID-19, Vicidomini would roast about 550 chickens a week, about 40 at a time, in his rotisserie oven. Now, he’s cooking about 220 a week. Seasoned with just salt, pepper and rosemary, he swears by the 600-degree cooking method he’s been using for 27 years.
A family special of a whole rotisserie chicken with two pints of vegetables and homemade garlic bread goes for $18.25. It’s the kind of family-friendly takeout meal that many restaurants have added to their menus during the pandemic. B.L.L. has been offering it for 15 years.
“And we use chicken in a lot of other things,” Vicidomini said. Rotisserie chicken, boned and pulled, is in four main-dish salads. It goes onto two of the specialty pizzas. It comes on a club sandwich. It’s served over rice or pasta. You can even get it in a stromboli in place of the traditional salami and other cured meats.
“We don’t even do grilled chicken, because we have the rotisserie,” he said.
And before you file away B.L.L. in your mind as a chicken place, you might want to know that it’s actually an Italian restaurant. Vicidomini was born in a town outside Naples, Italy. He learned to cook for love in his mother's kitchen, and he learned to cook for crowds in the Italian military.
So B.L.L.’s menu is full of pasta, marinara, garlic, basil, Parmesan and mozzarella.
The garlic bread is homemade, as is the ravioli. Vicidomini also makes all sauces and dressings from scratch. Vicidomini’s wife, Lucia, will make lucky customers tiramisu on request.
The menu includes chicken Amalfi ($15.30), pounded sautéed breasts with red peppers and spinach in a wine and marinara sauce with angel hair pasta. There’s chicken Marsala, veal piccata, shrimp scampi, linguine with clams, lasagna and pretty much all the classics you’d expect at an Italian restaurant. They’re all under $20.
Most of the menu has been the same since 1993. “Every five or six years, I’ll look at what’s not selling and take it off and add something new,” Vicidomini said.
He makes pizza, but his is hardly a pizza place. He was in business 10 years before he bought a pizza oven, and that was only to please his father-in-law, who used to own a pizzeria.
Oh, and B.L.L. also is a sub shop, offering Philly cheesesteak ($9.50), Italian subs ($9) and others.
Despite all that, Vicidomini said that some of his best-sellers are salads. He has about 10 main-dish salads on the menu. They include chicken Amalfi ($9.99), with fresh mozzarella and strawberries., and Capri ($9.99 to $11.95), with chicken, roasted red peppers, fresh mozzarella and balsamic glaze.
Vicidomini sold a ton of those salads at lunch before the pandemic sent all the nearby office workers home.
In fact, business lunches and other catering was a big part of his revenue. That is mostly gone. He sold a lot of food to Wake Forest’s athletics department, a relationship that dates back to the 1990s when former basketball coach Dave Odom was a regular. He wonders, and worries, about the state of college sports, partly because he’s a fan, partly because he did a lot of business feeding athletes.
He was encouraged last weekend to get an order from Wake’s football team for 160 pizzas. The order was a little different than usual — Wake ordered all personal pizzas, individually packaged, so no one would be touching or sharing anyone else’s food.
“I would make a lot of their travel meals, for soccer, football, baseball — but I don’t how that’s going to be,” he said.
And though a big chunk of his catering business is nonexistent, indoor dining isn’t much better. “People kept asking us to open,” Lucia Vicidomini said, “but then not many people come.”
“A lot of people are still afraid,” her husband said with a sigh. He understands. He’s a little bit afraid himself.
While his dining room was closed, Vicidomini redecorated with fresh paint, paneling and more. He spruced up the kitchen, too, replacing coolers and installing stainless-steel wall guards to make everything easier to clean and sanitize. “We had it in mind before,” Lucia Vicidomini said. “Then when this happened, we said, ‘Let’s do it now.’”
Simone Vicidomini estimates that business is probably just 50% to 60% of what it was before the pandemic.
Lunch, in particular, is slow — he might serve 8 or 10 tables instead of the 40 or so he served before the pandemic.
But, overall, he feels lucky that he has an established restaurant.
“A lot of restaurants that are established are going to make it. But I see a lot of restaurants that are not going to make it. And I really feel for the gyms and bars. It’s terrible,” he said.
He's hanging in there, but even he needed help. He got a federal PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan. He has an understanding landlord.
And then there are the customers. “We are so grateful to all the customers.” Lucia Vicidomini said. “The support has been amazing.”
“We’ve had people come get a $10 salad and write a $100 check,” Simone Vicidomini said. “We’ve had people just getting takeout who hand a waiter a $20 tip.”
Yet he can’t help but fondly remember the pre-COVID-19 days, and it’s not because more money was coming in.
When most think of restaurants, we think of the food. But Vicidomini is well aware he also is in the hospitality business. He misses having relationships with customers. “On Friday nights, we would have a lot of the same people come in every Friday. People would make friends. They would take their glass of wine over to another table,” he said.
“I used to spend a lot of time in the dining room, talking to people. I would sit down with them while they ate. Now, I try to stay out of the dining room. I just greet people at the front door behind plexiglass.”
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