Jason Maddens won’t ever forget when everything changed. On March 5, his upscale-casual restaurant AhSo in Brambleton was jam-packed and jumping, scoring its biggest Thursday in sales since opening two and a half years ago. The next night, the dining room was practically empty.
As Americans went on lockdown to protect themselves from the COVID-19 pandemic, the chef-owner realized he had to quickly adapt to this new reality, one where no one would be going out for a sit-down dinner anytime soon. If he didn’t, his business was going to shutter, shattering his career as his wife, Tiffany, was expecting their third child. Worst of all, he would have to lay off his 25 employees. “That was my biggest fear,” he says. “These people count on us to make a living.”
His first move was to start a GoFundMe for his team to help cover the income they lost due to reduced hours and no tips. When he saw donations pouring in, Maddens found himself crying out of gratitude. Ultimately, nearly $7,000 was raised. To pay forward the support, Maddens has helped other communities in need, donating boxed lunches to front-line first responders at Inova Health Systems and meals for the elderly through Leesburg’s Cornerstone Chapel and Potomac Baptist Church in Sterling.
In order to keep AhSo open, Madden decided to pivot his business model from a sit-down bistro to a takeout eatery. It wasn’t a comfortable U-turn. “I’ve always hated to-go food, because you’re not showing your best stuff in that situation,” he says.
Rather than simply sell AhSo’s usual a la carte menu, he decided it would be better to offer craveable comfort food, like ramen and barbecue, and larger-scale themed dinners built for families, such as taco night and prime rib suppers. It was the right move. Customers loved the new options. Every Monday, the 300 bowls of ramen Madden’s crew makes usually sell out in less than two hours. Once again, AhSo’s dining room was full, but packed with takeout containers rather than diners.
The new business format has been surprisingly fulfilling for Maddens. “When someone posts a picture of our food that they’ve replated on their own plates at their table, I get teary-eyed,” he admits.
It’s a tremendous amount of change in a short period of time, but he remains optimistic. “We’re going to make it,” he says. “I have no doubt in my mind.”
There are more than 15,000 restaurants and bars in Virginia. While restaurants are deemed essential under Gov. Northam’s stay-at-home executive order, on March 23 he ordered all dining rooms closed, limiting restaurants to offering takeout and delivery options only.