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Roman restaurant Marigold defied the odds and reinvented itself virtually overnight to stay open and thrive. Here's an example of their outside the box thinking: a stay well postcard from Marigold restaurant.

For Sofie Wochner and Domenico Cortese, the dream of opening a restaurant in Rome started in 2018, when they found an old jewellery workshop on a quiet street in an otherwise buzzy part of the city known as Ostiense, near the ancient Pyramid of Cestius and the tomb of the English poet John Keats.

Perfect size, perfect location. They would call the restaurant Marigold, after a flower they liked, and a word that could be pronounced easily by English and Italian speakers. It opened in December of that year. Their dream would turn into a nightmare only 15 months later, when the Italian lockdown, the first in Europe, threatened to put them out of business overnight.

Ms. Wochner, 42, is a baker from Denmark; her partner Mr. Cortese, 46, is a chef from Calabria, in Italy’s deep south. They had met at the American Academy in Rome, where they were part of the sustainable food project designed by American farm-to-table pioneer Alice Waters.

For years, they ran a pop-up restaurant and bakery from their cramped Rome apartment. Marigold’s menu would build on that experience, featuring an eclectic mix of northern European dishes with a dash of Italian flair. They would use high-quality local products, from organic seasonal fruit and vegetables to free-range beef and naturally leavened bread, and the menu would change every day.

The Marigold menu – not cheap by local standards – was a hit with Roman foodies and the international crowd and the new restaurant developed a loyal following. The nine employees, from nine countries, speaking eight languages, worked hard, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner and operating the bakery counter. “We were a family,” says Jonathon Dominic Spada, 32, an American hotelier and designer who worked at Marigold and is now its business consultant.

Their world turned upside down in an instant on March 11, 2020, when the Italian government, without warning, tightened the national lockdown that had been announced two days earlier – all non-essential businesses and shops had to shut immediately. Tens of thousands of restaurants, bars and cafés locked their doors and sent their employees home.

Sofie Wochner and Doris Rittenschober prepare meals to go at Marigold.

Carrots and cabbage are packaged to go to customers from Marigold restaurant.Jonathon Dominic Spada/Handout

Ms. Wochner and Mr. Cortese also thought about locking up – for a nanosecond. “But I just couldn’t accept that we had to close the restaurant,” Ms. Wochner says. “Then I asked everyone: How would you feel going around Rome delivering food on bikes?”

The kitchen would stay open. But the business would have to be entirely reinvented within a day or two to have any chance of success. The challenge was daunting.

In Canada and the United States, restaurant deliveries are normal; in Italy, the concept is largely unknown, making Marigold’s decision bold. “In Rome, many restaurateurs were paralyzed with fear when the lockdown hit and pushed back on the home deliveries, which were not part of the culture,” says Dominique Barbeau, a Montreal-born Roman hospitality entrepreneur. “But Marigold dove head-first into the concept. It was actually courageous by local standards.”

Marigold’s menu was designed for dining in the 32-seat restaurant, not for bouncy delivery by bike along Rome’s famously lumpy cobblestone streets.

Its web site was primitive; they weren’t exactly sure how they would take orders or receive payment. The lockdown was so tight that they weren’t sure which suppliers could make deliveries. They didn’t know if their restaurant insurance would cover employees on bikes. What if they crashed? They couldn’t afford to make mistakes, since their cash reserves were low (the property owner cut their rent by 50 per cent).

The few Roman restaurants whose kitchens stayed open generally went with delivery services such as Uber Eats or Deliveroo. The Marigold team was quick to rule out that option. The hefty commission – 25 per cent or more – would destroy their profit margin and the delivery app would make them slaves to that service. If dozens of orders came at once, the small Marigold kitchen would be overwhelmed. “We wanted to stay in full control,” says Mr. Spada.

To even out and simplify the delivery flow, Marigold decided that the bulk of the deliveries would be made within a three-kilometre radius. Orders at any one time would be capped at 20 and lunch and dinner deliveries would be made only within set two-hour windows.

Customers would be encouraged to order days in advance and the minimum order would be €30. No delivery fee would be charged. The good news was that Marigold’s bikes could travel fast in eerily empty Rome. “When we were on the streets, it was just us, the police and the military,” Ms. Wochner says.

The apparent customer obstacles proved to be no obstacle at all – orders rushed in and their average value was a pleasingly high €50. Mr. Cortese, however, was not happy at first, since his creations, designed to appeal as much to the eye as the mouth, had to be made “travel friendly,” meaning they had to fit into a box and be able to withstand a beating on the Roman roads.

Doris Rittenschober sits at a reopened table outside the restaurant.Jonathon Dominic Spada/Handout

Some menu items that didn’t travel well, such as cooked pasta and poached eggs, were dropped. Others were added and he learned to arrange them artistically in cardboard. In came all kinds of sandwiches, fresh salads, chickpea hummus, smoky baba ghanoush, pork ribs, pork bao, pan pita, brownie cheesecake and pickled vegetables. Beer and bubbly were also delivered as well as Ms. Wochner’s bakery items – rye and sourdough bread, cinnamon swirls, chocolate-chip cookies.

Not everything went smoothly. The ordering (only by phone or e-mail) and payment systems were largely manual at first, making it time consuming, tedious and prone to errors. Botched order papers were placed in a big bag that was hung from the wall and labelled with a lewd name to remind the staff to be more attentive. At the height of the pandemic, customers were required to place any cash payments in an envelope, which would go into “quarantine” on a restaurant table for three days to make sure the bills could emerge virus free.

After a while, the Marigold team invented new ways to try to cheer up house-bound customers. One hit was the special Mother’s Day package, which included wild flowers from Rome’s Villa Doria Pamphilj park. They were hand picked and arranged by Marta Abbott, a local floral artist. The package came with a personalized card, sparkling wine and Ms. Wochner’s layered sponge cake.

“Marigold brought to the home table the experience of normal times and nostalgia during what felt like a never-ending pandemic loop of dread and bad news,” Ms. Barbeau says.

The new Marigold formula not only spared the business from disaster, it produced profits. Incredibly, revenues in 2020, when the restaurant was rarely open for sit-down customers, were no lower than they were in the previous year.

The success came at a cost. The staff worked 12- to 13-hour days non-stop. Some fell asleep inside the restaurant, utterly exhausted mentally and physically. “We had no idea the pandemic would last so long,” Ms. Wochner says. “We mustered strength we never knew we had. But giving up never occurred to us. It seems like our clients kept us alive, they weren’t prepared to let us die.”

Carrot Cakes with candles for celebrations are prepared and readied for delivery.Jonathon Dominic Spada/Handout

Today, as the Italian vaccination rate climbs and the pandemic eases off, Italy is re-opening and Marigold is cautiously returning to its prepandemic self. Home deliveries have largely stopped and outdoor dining is allowed – the tables are on the street between parked cars. “We’re okay,” Ms. Wochner says. “Even if our income is less stable now than it was last year, because we have competition again.”

As a gift to the Marigold crew, Mr. Spada turned his pandemic diary into a book – Marigold: Stories from March to August 2020 – which was published earlier this year. It is filled with photos of joy, stress and fatigue, and ends with his message that the Marigold team “rediscovered the power of hospitality and how it can lift the spirits of an entire community in times of darkness.”