Smile Politely

The trials and tribulations of the COVID-19 pandemic for The Bread Company

The Bread Company is one of the truly iconic restaurants in Champaign-Urbana. Located on Goodwin Avenue near the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, The Bread Company has been serving up European classics for almost forty years. As someone who lives nearby, this restaurant is very important to me. I met up with owner Derrick Aikman to discuss how COVID-19 has affected this legendary eatery.

Many fresh baguettes are in a tall wicker basket beside another basket of sourdough rolls. Photo from The Bread Company's Facebook page.

Photo from The Bread Company’s Facebook page.

Smile Politely: Can you introduce yourself and your position at the restaurant?

Derrick Aikman: My name’s Derrick Aikman. I took over this place about eight years ago from my parents after they retired. The restaurant itself started about 38 years ago, so you can imagine the pressure I’m under to keep the family business going. What’s cool about it, though, is that I kind of just took over, so everything was really in place, but now, due to the pandemic, it’s kind of like I’m starting something new.

SP: Can you talk about the day in March when restaurants closed? What was it like?

Aikman: Well, I remember it very distinctly because I was sitting right here where we are now. I had actually talked to a close friend of mine that Sunday morning, and I knew something was coming. I had told my staff in prior weeks to get online and start looking for other jobs and unemployment for when the shut down would happen.

That morning I came in here to be a mediator between some of the day and nighttime staff, and I had just gotten off the phone with my friend who’s wife was undergoing cancer treatments, and I realized that this was bigger than just money, that the pandemic was life or death. That call completely changed the whole meeting. I realized I have to put health before money. It was so hard telling my staff that we were probably going to have to shut down, but we all knew it was the right thing to do.

SP: What were the early days of being closed in the pandemic like?

Aikman: With my wife being a school teacher, at least we had one income. A lot of times, owners of restaurants don’t have that luxury. My parents were in this place together, so they only had this income. Luckily, my wife carries our insurance, so I wasn’t too worried.

It was just so surreal. We came into the restaurant and just gutted the place. I didn’t realize how much prepped product we had. We donated as much food as we could and gave away as much food as we could to our staff, and then we unplugged our refrigerators. Normally this place sounds like a freight train, you know just running equipment everywhere. It was the most eery thing how quiet this place was when we only had one or two fridges running; it was just bizarre. I grew up in this place, so it was just something I had never heard before.

A photo of the back dining room at The Bread Company in Urbana. It has several tables set up on the bottom and top floor, empty. Photo by Anthony Erlinger.

Photo by Anthony Erlinger.

SP: What factors did you consider before opening?

Aikman: Well, I talked with a few of my staff members and realized that they were actually doing well with unemployment. I realized that we could wait a little longer before opening just to make sure that timing and safety were in line. I also had gotten my power bill way down which helped us keep the restaurant going while we were closed. I asked myself why try to keep going again? During the summers, this area is kind of a ghost town anyways, so it made sense for us to wait.

We were closed for almost four months. There were a couple times where I wondered do I want to keep doing this? I didn’t want this place to look like Carle Hospital, so we had to keep waiting. We had to learn how to streamline the restaurant, and we realized we didn’t need certain products or things. We had to cut our staff from 30 people to five, but all the streamlining actually made things more efficient here.

The interior of The Bread Company is empty due to the pandemic. Photo by Anthony Erlinger.

Photo by Anthony Erlinger.

SP: What changes did you make to the restaurant before reopening?

Aikman: The biggest change we made was installing the order window outside. One day, I was looking out of the window of the restaurant and realized that it would be perfect to have an order window. Luckily, I knew a contractor who helped me get it set up, and it really turned into a blessing.

I also wanted the big menu board outside, so it felt familiar to the people who were used to the inside of our restaurant. We also eliminated full service which is something we are never going back to. I know a lot of people liked our full dinner service like after Krannert shows, but it just makes more sense for us to have our restaurant like a New York style restaurant where you order from the counter. We also made a few changes to the menu, getting rid of a lot of seafood since it wasn’t selling. We offer a lot of small plates now, too, which we’re really excited about.

An overhead shot of a wooden table with small plates from The Bread Company. Photo from The Bread Company's Facebook page.

Photo from The Bread Company’s Facebook page.

SP: How are you going to handle the transition into the winter?

Aikman: We’ve decided that we’re going to shut down for the winter months.* Luckily, I only have five people to put on hold with my staff, and the decision will be mine. With the numbers going up, I don’t think people will really be wanting to go out to eat much anyways. Doordash and Grubhub have helped a little bit, but they take a percentage that would cut any real profit for me. We can’t just rely on that; financially, it doesn’t work. It feels like the right call for us to just shut down.

SP: What changes do you think will become permanent after the pandemic ends?

Aikman: I think we’re gonna try and figure out how to utilize the window in the future since it has been so successful. I have to move this company forward at a snail’s place because that’s how its always been for us with traditions and such, but there are changes I eventually want to take.

In the future, I want to hire more, but we need to wait until the opportunity is right. We’re looking forward to bringing things back from the menu that have been on there in the past, but I also have to remind myself that this is an opportunity for us to go forward and not backwards. It’s our time to now create, and figure out what works in this place and what we want to do. Since I own it now, I can do whatever I want. I could turn it into a burger joint at night if I really wanted to. I don’t know yet, but I have a very talented staff, and we can create what we want. We’re definitely keeping the fondue though.

SP: How has the community reaction been with supporting the restaurant during these difficult times?

Aikman: It’s been great. You know, it took some time to see some of those familiar faces that I’ve seen since I was behind the counter as a kid, and it was great to see them. It’s been awesome to see some of the younger, college-aged kids. The smiles from the customers have been awesome. I’ve had cars stop and ask me what’s going on with the restaurant. Seeing the numbers of people come really shows how much the community cares.

Growing up in this business, I’m always surprised to see people eating and enjoying our food. It’s such a cool experience. We’ve also had a few people who won’t go out to eat anywhere but our place because there’s hardly any contact at all from our kitchen to the customer. I wish I could stay open, but sadly, it’s just not financially possible. I do feel pretty confident that it will open up again — it’s just been a fight. We have to take everything on a week by week basis. Each week creates a new challenge. Mentally, I think we all need a little break. I know I’m very fortunate to be able to take that position, and we are very lucky to have such a loyal group of customers. We don’t take that for granted at all.

The Bread Company
706 S Goodwin Ave
M 8:00 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Tu-F 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Sa 3:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

*Editor’s Note: Thanks to continued steady carryout business, The Bread Company will continue to stay open as long as it as feasible.

Top image by Anthony Erlinger. 

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