Downtown culinary district gets creative

Amanda Presgraves loads groceries and young tomato plants into a customer’s car at the Magpie & Friends drive-thru market. (Photos by Randi B. Hagi)

By Kyle Kirby, contributor

Harrisonburg restaurants are finding creative ways to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic – supporting not only themselves, but their customers and community, too. Magpie & Friends drive-thru market is one new service cheering up a now-eerily quiet downtown.

Thanks to Kirsten Moore, owner and proprietor of the soon-to-be Magpie Diner & Bakery on North Liberty, customers can pick up fresh produce and other products from the safety of their vehicles. You place an online order in the days before the market, and then pick up the goods from the Clementine Cafe’s parking lot on Monday and Thursday afternoons.

Workers wearing personal protective equipment will then place the market goods in the trunk of your car – contact free. Moore wants to support not only restaurants but the suppliers behind them. 

Kirsten Moore, owner of Magpie Diner & Bakery, said they received 35 orders for the first market, and now regularly see over 75 per pick up day.

She expressed gratitude to Clementine for facilitating the market.

“[It’s] a good way for us to stay engaged and relevant.” Moore said. “I think it’s cool that people are trying to rethink how we get our hands on local food. Accessibility is really important now… hopefully this will have a positive future effect. It makes you think about what you really need, what your body needs, who you’re helping, where you source it.” 

Karen Barton, office manager of Clemetine Cafe, confirmed that service and food industries are suffering greatly under COVID-19. She said, “at the beginning of March we had 72 employees, and are now running with nine people who run the kitchen and take care of phone orders.”

Despite this, Barton said that Clementine remains optimistic for the future.

“We ask the local community to stand strong and support local business by taking advantage of curbside & delivery as well as purchasing gift certificates to use when businesses start to re-open with the government’s okay,” Barton said.

In addition to fresh produce, flowers, and local animal products, Magpie & Friends also offers products from Boboko Indonesian Cafe and FoodBarFood

Mark Mitchell and Ridwan Hotiman of Boboko Cafe wrote The Citizen an email saying the market has worked well for them, but “for the most part we are still completely shut down.”

Mitchell and Hotiman wrote that they had applied for federal grants and loans as soon as they were available, but the process has been cumbersome, and they have yet to see returns. 

“Right now, all we can say with enthusiasm is that we look forward to re-opening at some point in the future. The most important thing to us right now is for the community, our staff, and our customers to remain healthy so all can support us when we re-open,” they said. 

Fortunately for the public, Chef Hotiman’s macarons are one of the items available at the market in the meantime.

One restaurant lends a hand to healthcare workers

Last Wednesday, Mikey Reisenberg, owner of Mashita, was able to provide 40 fresh, handmade meals to the respiratory therapist department of Rockingham Memorial Hospital. 

Reisenberg created the #GiveSsam project with support from Mashita’s front of house manager and catering director, Jennifer Nelson, and friend and Mashita regular James Brown.

Through #GiveSsam, customers make donations by purchasing a Mashita gift card. Once donations reach $150, Mashita can provide meals for medical workers. Reisenberg was pleased to announce that they have enough donations to provide another round of meals for the ER nurses in two weeks. 

“For business overall, we have to make it through the trying times to make it to the good times,”  Reisneberg said. “There are some aspects of light and some of dark. The big thing that we are really hoping, is that this provides stimulus… on how much we take for granted real life and normalcy.” 

Foodie culture at risk

The culinary community is a pillar of Harrisonburg’s business and culture, and necessary social distancing has dealt downtown a heavy blow. For any business owner, the choice to close or remain open in a time of crisis is no easy task. Unfortunately, some places might not be able to reopen after the pandemic subsides – affecting the owners, staff, and customers of these establishments, as well as the fabric of the downtown community. 

“Downtown Harrisonburg has a diverse micro-economy. In our 40 blocks, we have a few hundred businesses… including almost 40 restaurants and breweries,” said Andrea Dono, executive director of the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance. “Restaurants, in particular, are a big part of our identity as we established downtown Harrisonburg as Virginia’s first culinary district years ago.” 

Dono explained that downtown Harrisonburg’s brand is heavily influenced by the quality and number of restaurants; establishments that draw customers from as far as West Virginia, as well as tourists and locals. Dono and the team at the Downtown Renaissance have compiled a list of resources for local small businesses, and are constantly trying to find more.

The impact goes beyond the bottom line for businesses.
“It could sadly have a serious impact on the culture and heartbeat of our city,” said Michael Parks, Harrisonburg’s director of communications. “Our restaurants and culinary district overall are vital to what makes the Friendly City what it is, and we hope residents continue to support them in whatever way they can and Harrisonburg continues to stay strong as one.”

Editor’s note, April 17, 2020: the article was updated to accurately reflect the number of customers who patronize the Magpie & Friends market.

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