Now, the popular Downtown restaurant is quieter. Tables and chairs stand empty. Your favorite server is drawing unemployment. No one is marveling at the collection of photos, paintings, newspaper articles, and eclectic memorabilia covering the walls.
- Photo courtesy of The Rendezvous
“We have office staff ’cause we had to help our employees with unemployment,” says John Vergos, one of the owners. “We have our cooks. And we have some other miscellaneous people. We have eight or nine.”
Vergos no longer works nights. “I come in about 9 and make sure we’ve got food ordered and answer phones, help with the takeout. And then my sister comes in later and helps with takeouts and get food to the customers.”
Takeout and delivery has been successful. “One thing that’s going on with us that is good is our shipping business has actually done quite well. So we increased our staff down there.”
Vergos spends his time between the shipping kitchen and the restaurant. “We ship in the United States, but we haven’t shipped anything to Alaska or Hawaii. We ship all over the United States.
“There’s been an enormous amount of paperwork my staff is handling — applying for SBA disaster loans, and for the employee protection loan, which required a lot of paperwork. And we’re constantly on the phone with our insurance company. Our goal is to keep our health benefits to all of our employees. We’ve already had to pay health care for all our employees, which we’ve been doing since the beginning of time.
“We’ve got about 15 servers, but we’ve got — between the shipping kitchen and the Rendezvous — 80 employees. And we also had to lay off part-time employees at FedExForum. There weren’t that many games left. We wrote them all checks for $150.”
People still want that Rendezvous cuisine, Vergos says. The entire menu — with the exception of the Greek salad, red beans and rice, and lamb ribs — is available, he says.
Their ribs, of course, are the most popular, but their ribs and brisket combo also is popular, he says.
Rendezvous brisket was introduced at the restaurant about 15 years ago, Vergos says. “I was at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival in 2004. We were with the barbecue people. There were about seven of us who catered a huge party at the Delano hotel. And one of the people was doing brisket. I’ve always liked brisket, so he kind of told me how he cooked it. The key to brisket is how you cut it. When I came back to Memphis, we made a point of doing the brisket.
“I take pride in the fact that we have people from Texas come and compare ours favorably to theirs. We smoke it for 14 hours. We cover it with salt, pepper, and Rendezvous seasoning. Not a lot you can do with brisket. Serve it with a little bit of salt and seasoning. It’s almost good without anything on it.”
Describing the ribs and brisket combo, Vergos says, “You get beans and slaw with everything. You get the equivalent of a small order of ribs and six ounces of brisket. It’s a full meal. Two people can share it, I think, unless they’re lumberjacks.”
Their iconic cheese and sausage plates are the second most popular, Vergos says. The plate contains cheese, Polish sausage, dill pickle, and hot peppers. “It’s one of the first things my dad started selling besides the ham and cheese sandwich. In those days, it was cheese, pickles, peppers, and pickled sausage on the side. When he started grilling, he started the Polish sausage. We even had pickled pig’s feet in those days. One of the few things I can’t eat.”
The business keeps going, but Vergos says he’s never experienced anything close to what the Rendezvous now is going through. “We’ve had two major fires. None of which were our fault, but they don’t compare because number one, we had insurance. Number two, pretty much we knew there was a definite date when we would reopen. And when we reopened, there was an ongoing economy.”
Vergos supports local restaurants. “I do takeout and I’m impressed how good the food is. My colleagues in the restaurant business are serving real quality food. The only difference is you can’t eat it there.”
But, he says, “What is the restaurant business going to be like in June or July or whenever we open? I know the Rendezvous will always be the Rendezvous, but we’re already looking at ways we’re going to have to do things different. We’re probably going to space our tables further. We’re looking to add dessert. We’re looking at taking reservations. We’ve even contemplated we may start serving mixed drinks. We may want to add items like my mother’s spanakopita. We’re going to do a lot more catering. We’ll probably continue to do delivery.”
Why so many changes? “To probably increase our average check charge to broaden our customer base. We probably lose some people who can’t get a mixed drink when they come down. We may lose people who don’t get dessert. We don’t have enough dishes — we may lose people.
“We operate at such a fairly fast pace that it’s difficult for us to add those things. But I think the restaurant will be at a more leisurely pace that will enable us to do different things we’ve liked to have done, but we didn’t have time. Trust me, we know how to cook other things. My mother is a wonderful chef, and she’s passed down some wonderful recipes.”
The Rendezvous already was making changes before the mandatory shutdown, Vergos says. They removed the paper napkins from the table so customers had to just use their linen napkins. “If you don’t put paper napkins in front of them, they’ll use the linen napkin.”
Instead of putting bottles of barbecue sauce on the table, the server brought extra sauce in a cup upon request. “We found it interesting that so many people take the sauce and pour it over everything. It drives you crazy.
“We’re going to save a ton on barbecue sauce and paper napkins. And it’s a much neater table.”
They will hire back all their servers, Vergos says. “We’re probably more fortunate than many in that we own our own building. And we had no debt. Many other restaurants are in the same situation, but I think we’re in the minority of being in that situation.”
Vergos doesn’t anticipate “opening to packed crowds” after the quarantine is over. “So, it’s doing shifts for our waiters so they can still make a living.
“In my opinion, I think it’s going to start off slowly and build. But it’s going to be a whole new world.”
For information on ordering Rendezvous takeout and delivery, go to hogsfly.com.