CHAMBERSBURG – This Thursday, from 4-6 p.m., Chambersburgers are invited to Veroni Café (12 W. King St.) for the second installment of Downtown Chambersburg Inc.’s “Thursday Tastings.”
The series will showcase a different restaurant each week, and during the event, the featured restaurant will offer a special menu to celebrate downtown dining and help regain a sense of normalcy amidst pandemic restrictions.
“Thursday Tastings” is the latest initiative from DCI that uses food to entice Chambersburgers to the downtown area.
DCI was also behind the successful “Sunday Food Trucks on the Square” series, which – true to its name – has brought a different food truck to the square each week since June, and is currently scheduled to do so into September.
“Thursday Tastings” officially launched on Thursday, August 27 at Bistro 71 (71 N. Main St.).
For their turn, Bistro 71 offered $2 off of their appetizers, which included local peach and goat cheese flatbread and caprese bruschetta from the Bistro garden, plus two new cocktails: tequila and sage smash and watermelon lime spritz.
This Thursday, sisters Monica Mata and Neftali Bitner of Veroni Café will present Chambersburgers with a pork stew with cactus and a green tomatillo sauce served with tortillas and white rice.
Veroni Café is located just east of Main Street, and since 2016 the restaurant has served authentic Mexican food based on family recipes built around staples like chicken, steak and ground beef.
“With COVID-19, our whole routine changed,” said Mata who added that she misses sitting down with customers and talking with them in the restaurant’s dining area.
They closed the restaurant entirely for the month of April in the confusion of the early days of the lockdown.
By Cinco de Mayo they had reopened their doors on a takeout-only basis.
“We were really busy,” said Mata. “People were really supportive, which is great.”
Veroni Café is currently operating with slightly reduced hours and is still closed on weekends, but Mata is hoping that will change in the near future. They also have a website where customers can pre-order their meals to help Mata and Bitner anticipate customer demand.
“We appreciate how people are really understanding and the support we receive, which is the reason why we continue doing this,” said Mata.
Local restaurants forced to adapt to pandemic restrictions
Sam Thrush, president of Downtown Chambersburg Inc., explained that the idea for “Thursday Tastings” began with wanting to do more for Chambersburg’s brick-and-mortar restaurants, many of which have had to drastically change their operations since March.
“To be frank, I’ve heard stories, and generally speaking, most of them have risen to the challenge to figure out solutions. Certain federal and state grant programs have helped, but COVID-19 has certainly slowed down business. It has also slowed down their expansion plans as well. It slowed down their ability to purchase and replace equipment that they need. The cash isn’t necessarily there to do it.”
Thrush said that since March, several of downtown Chambersburg’s restaurants have changed the way they do business. As an example, he discussed how GearHouse Brewing Co. (253 Grant St.) has added online ordering for takeout, and they now offer table-side service instead for indoor dining instead of ordering at the bar.
“Thursday Tastings” are more than just a happy hour
“We look at [“Thursday Tastings”] as an opportunity to showcase one brick-and-mortar restaurant each week. The idea is for them to create kind of a happy hour special – new drinks or new small plates or new appetizers.”
In addition to the increased publicity (the event is heavily promoted through DCI’s Facebook page), the tastings are expected to help downtown Chambersburg’s brick-and-mortar restaurants in other key ways.
Adding: “We’re able to do this with limited volunteers, which is also a plus. Something like this is relatively easy to pull off. From the business’s point-of-view, it costs them nothing to participate in this.”
Thrush is in talks with other restaurants, which will be added to the schedule as they are confirmed.
“Sunday Food Trucks on the Square”
“Thursday Tastings” was preceded by DCI’s successful “Sunday Food Trucks on the Square” Series, which brings a different food truck vendor to Chambersburg’s square each Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The first one was held on June 14 and featured Rollz on Wheelz Filipino Cuisine. Other food truck operators have included Pully Wissle Provisions, Seasonz Food Truck, Uncle Eddie’s BBQ, Pizza Shack, Taste of Reggae, and Lizzy’s Restaurant.
The official schedule can be found in the events section of Downtown Chambersburg Inc.’s Facebook page.
The most recent “Sunday Food Trucks” event (August 23) featured Chameleon 1648 Culinary Services, which, like a chameleon changing its colors, offers an ever-changing menu.
“Of course, you have your opening day hiccups, and it doesn’t always go as you planned,” he said in a phone interview while preparing the Chameleon for another event in Chambersburg. “We’re hoping tonight we can correct a lot of that. We think we have. Now it’s just a matter of execution.”
On that particular Sunday, the menu included Chambersburg-centric dishes such as smoked pork sandwiches with fresh peach barbecue sauce and fresh-cut Chambersburg peach slices on the roll and a salad topped with Chambersburg peaches, Vidalia onions and grilled chicken.
They also offered “The 1648,” a Louisiana crab cake with a remoulade sauce served on a foundation of their fresh-cut fries. Their menu was rounded out with a choice of classic Italian or buffalo chicken meatballs with pasta.
David Munson has spent a lot of time working in restaurants and catering, and he was the executive chef at JLG Industries in McConnellsburg. Currently he works full-time for Keystone Fruit Marketing in Greencastle where he will continue working while operating the Chameleon as a labor of love.
Starting a food truck business during a pandemic
The Munsons’ path to food trucking had been delayed for months by the COVID-19 pandemic.
They finalized the order for their truck from a company in Georgia at the end of December, but it was stranded there for months when all of the drivers were reassigned to hauling pandemic-related medical equipment.
Then, even after the Chameleon arrived at its new home in Chambersburg, the pandemic continued to put a strain on the Munsons’ business model.
They had originally intended to take the food truck to weddings, corporate events and youth sporting events, but with bans on large crowds, this approach wasn’t going to work.
“Sunday Food Trucks on the Square” and other food truck-centric events have allowed them to bring their food to an eager – but socially distant – audience.
Growing the pie
The weekly event also allows Downtown Chambersburg Inc. to sell the food truck vendors on the idea of Chambersburg.
“What the food truck series is also doing is allowing us to build relationships with the restauranteurs that are in the food trucks,” explained Thrush who also casually mentioned that there is at least one brick-and-mortar restaurant space open downtown.
He is also a believer in using restaurants to add vibrancy to the community to encourage downtown businesses to expand their hours.
“If you’re able to do that,” he explained, “you’ll be able to grow the retailers’ confidence in staying open past 5:00 p.m.”
Downtown Chambersburg Inc., an affiliate of the Greater Chambersburg Chamber of Commerce, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that focuses on the revitalization of downtown Chambersburg.
As president, Thrush is involved with events like “Thursday Tastings,” courting new visitors and investors, retaining existing businesses, working with various stakeholders throughout downtown, and organizing fundraisers.
He is also a counselor of sorts for downtown businesses.
“That’s something that not many people realize is part of my job – to be there to listen and then help problem-solve the issue,” he said.
Thrush is currently developing an idea to do something like “Thursday Tastings” and “Sunday Food Trucks on the Square” for downtown Chambersburg’s ailing retailers.
DCI’s “Retail Therapy Hours” will have a similar goal of showcasing a specific brick-and-mortar store each week to attract both new and existing customers.
[Main image caption: Local peach and goat cheese flatbread served at Bistro 71 as part of the first “Thursday Tastings” in downtown Chambersburg. The event will showcase a different restaurant on a weekly basis.]