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Commonwealth Bistro Reopens in Mainstrasse Village with New Focus

Operating a restaurant during the COVID-19 pandemic has proven difficult for many as such businesses had been, until Friday, relegated to take-out or delivery options only.

For Chris and Tess Burns, the husband and wife team behind Commonwealth Bistro in Covington's Mainstrasse Village, the pandemic arrived at the same time that they are expanding their family though adoption and beginning the restoration of another building.

The bistro was mostly closed for most of the time we have lived under quarantine-related rules, but reopened with a new take-out-centric purpose last Friday.

Though Kentucky, starting Friday, now allows for indoor dining again, at 33 percent capacity, Commonwealth is scrapping its dining room entirely.

When the government mandated that restaurants cease in-person dining, Commonwealth laid off twenty staff members while the Burnses worked on carryout options until most of their inventory was gone.

"So, we went ahead and shut down and donated the rest of our inventory to UC Hospital staff," Tess Burns said. "We knew right away we had to retool our business and flip everything on its head."

Commonwealth was able to secure a loan through the federal program pushed through Congress, but the Burnses realized that they could not return their full staff to work, especially with reduced capacity in dining rooms. "The business model was not conceivable for us," she said. "It wouldn't work."

Since its opening in 2016, in a beautifully renovated former dry cleaning shop on Main Street, Commonwealth gained acclaim and a loyal following for its farm-to-table, made-from-scratch, Kentucky-centric dishes.

Those principals will remain, even without the dining room. "The dining room is over for the forseeable future," Burns said.

Five employees have been brought back and Commonwealth reopened its business last weekend. The plan is to do carryout and delivery, and eventually, catering, too. The expanded outdoor dining area, an elevated space off the building's second floor called "Yonder", will also accommodate guests with small-plates and drinks.

"I think if we had to change who we are at the core, that would be a problem, but we are OK because we can still serve farm-to-table," Burns said. "Although it looks different, we are still serving people in the same capacity."

Building on their Kentucky theme, Yonder was inspired by state parks and being outdoors. "We wanted a place where you could go to relax and feel like you were away," she said. Yonder will have cocktails and its own special menu available with items like sausage corndogs and catfish tacos.

With the restaurant's new style, all the items used in delivering food to Yonder tables will be single-use and disposable.

Commonwealth's menu will retain some of its popular items and will feature chicken, meat loaf, pork shoulder, and catfish, with sides and sweets. Donuts are the newest sweet offering.

The walk-up window at Commonwealth is an adjustment from the restaurant's previous fine-dining vibe. 

"In fine dining, we don't really do carryout. You might take home the pie or the end of your meal, but it's not conducive because it's all plating and all presentation," Burns said. 

Family growing

In addition to operating a business in a period of economic uncertainty, the Burnses are also actively looking to add a new baby to their home. The pair were approved for adoption and while they have come close to becoming parents since last November, nothing has fully worked out yet.

"We are trying to be patient," Burns said. "We've done a lot of outreach personally and with our agency as well."

Before the pandemic took hold, the Burnses were very active in looking for a child, even having friends join them in hanging up flyers around town. "When COVID-19 happened, we couldn't do that anymore."

The pair are now "mainly relying on social media."

"We have waited a long time to have a family and this was our means to do that," Burns said. "I sort of always had known I wanted to adopt, even as a young child. So we just decided to go on this journey, after trying to have children, which we couldn't."

The parents-to-be are hoping for an open adoption.

"It's been a year of perseverance and faith and hope to get us through it," Burns said.

When the family is complete, the new baby will ultimately join Chris and Tess in their new home. The couple is renovating Commonwealth's neighboring building, a Victorian cottage that may also eventually offer expanded outdoor dining for their restaurant's customers.

For now, the Burnses are busy with the reopening of Commonwealth while also navigating the waters of an uncertain period in history and waiting for their child. Despite the challenges, they are focusing on what's good. "I think for now, we are mainly just grateful to reopen. We know a lot of people aren't reopening, so we've just been counting our blessings and looking at all the silver linings because that's what keeps us going," Burns said.

"When we brought back these five team members, their roles were changed so fast that we saw all these hidden talents that we hadn't seen before, or had the opportunity to see, I guess, and some people we've worked with for a long time," Tess Burns said. 

"We feel like our team is stronger than it's ever been. We feel we will grow in new ways at Commonwealth and we are excited to have a child in their first home, and that we will be able to rehab another property in Covington and invest in the city we love once again. It's just the beginning."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher

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