Sammy T’s owners were looking for a fun way to get people fired up about their downtown Fredericksburg restaurant reopening last Wednesday.
They found it in a unique source: a Japanese firetruck owned by a collector in Southwest Virginia. Al Littek, who owns Sammy T’s with Buck Cox, spotted the 9-foot-long vehicle online and convinced the man to let them buy it so they could use to make deliveries.
“I was born and raised here and I’ve been in business here for over 40 years,” Littek said. “I’ve never seen a tougher environment for business. In times like these, you have to do things that are a little crazy, daring, unusual should we say.”
He and Cox had closed their restaurant temporarily on March 21 due to restrictions the state put in place to combat COVID-19. There wasn’t enough business to justify keeping more than a skeleton staff, and customers were entering the restaurant if the door was open for curbside service. That meant that others couldn’t get inside for pickup orders if there were more than 10 customers inside, he said.
The business partners decided not to apply for a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, because it’s intended to cover payroll and they didn’t have enough business to keep their staff busy. Their employees could get unemployment instead.
“Small business owners are the ones that have really been hurt,” Littek said. “If you look up and down Caroline Street, very few people are out and a lot of shop owners have not opened and may not open. There are some things you can cut. Payroll is certainly the first, but then you have rent, insurance and utilities, although utility costs are down when you’re closed.”
The mood downtown has been so somber, that he and Cox decided they needed to do something to make things fun again. They came up with a new slogan for the restaurant, “Let’s get fired up again.” Not only does it indicate that the restaurant’s oven and grill are back on, but it’s a way to light a spark with staff and customers as well.
“We had a bunch of different concepts, but that fit very well,” Littek said.
So does the firetruck, which he described as “a Good Humor truck on steroids.” It has a bell instead of a horn, and he’ll ring it for people when he makes deliveries.
“It’s just something unusual, different, happy, fun, exciting, all the things you need to do to get business going again,” Littek said. “People who spot it on the street stop to take photos.”
He said that he picked up the bright red vehicle about a week ago and was hauling it downtown when he spotted yellow police tape marking off the parking spaces in front of Capital Ale House and Castiglia’s. Fredericksburg recently launched a pilot program that blocks on-street parking in front of a handful of restaurants on Caroline and William streets to help them survive the pandemic.
Currently, Virginia restaurants can only serve dine-in customers outdoors as the state slowly begins to gradually ease public health restrictions while containing the spread of COVID-19.
Vivify, Fahrenheit 132, Castiglia’s, La Petite Auberge and Capital Ale House contacted the city to request accommodations, said Bill Freehling, the city’s Economic Development and Tourism director. The result was the pilot program, and city staff met with the business’s neighbors before putting in the temporary parking closures. These allow the restaurants to expand their outdoor seating and give pedestrians a safe place to walk.
Littek said that he contacted Freehling to see what could be done for Sammy T’s. He said that he was allowed to expand the restaurant’s seating area so it now goes from the front of the building at Caroline Street and around the corner and down the side facing Hanover Street.
“We had already made the decision to go ahead and get back open. We were going to do takeout and delivery. That was one of the reasons for the delivery truck,” Littek said. “Then when the city allowed us the side of Hanover Street, it gave us this beautiful outdoor café.”
He said that heat, humidity and rainy weather will limit its use, but he remains undaunted.
“We’re going to make it,” Littek said. “Part of it is this firetruck thing.”
Sammy T’s is using it to make deliveries within a 5-mile radius of the restaurant.
“It’s brought a lot of smiles to people’s faces,” Littek said. “People get a big kick out of it. That’s what it’s all about, bringing a little joy to the community for a change.”
And, if it’s brings in enough business, he said that the he might just call the previous owner back to see if he can buy another one.