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Chef Lou Smith, owner of Blend on Main and Peach Fit Cafe in Manasquan, recently opened the online market, Orchard on Main.

In a year of historic problems for the restaurant industry, Lou Smith and his team have tried their best to find the answers. Yet pertinent questions still persist.

Smith, the owner and executive chef of Blend on Main and the Peach Pit Café in Manasquan, said during a New Jersey Business Coalition Town Hall on March 18 that his experience has been an “uphill climb,” but he considered himself fortunate to have technology, adaptability and a dedicated staff by his side.

The arbitrary nature of the state’s restrictions on the restaurant industry, however, still leaves him scratching his head.

“I can’t imagine what it would be like to govern the state – I know it’s a tough job,” Smith said. “But what I can say is it seems like we’re on a big rowboat and all of our leaders like to not work together and row in a different direction.

“Why is it you can sit at a table and not be served at a bar?

“How is going from 25% capacity during the coldest months of the year to 35% make any difference for any of us? That was like a sick joke.

“Has there been any link to our superspreading from restaurants as the big box stores are at capacity?

“How do our neighboring states, like Pennsylvania and Connecticut, have the ability (to fully open) and we do not?”

Smith’s pivots over the past year included a temporarily closure of Peach Pit Cafe, but also the opening of Orchard on Main, an online marketplace where customers can shop and purchase the high-end food items offered by his restaurants to cook themselves – or they can purchase prepared gourmet meals.

On top of all that, Smith launched Chef Lou’s Army – a nonprofit providing communities of food insecurity in Monmouth and Ocean counties with free, prepared nutritional meals.

“I fortunately had technology on my side,” Smith said. “I had already purchased an online-based ordering system and had a social media presence. I was fortunate enough to be healthy and have a healthy, limited staff.”

“(But) many of my colleagues were not set up for this and were not able to pivot quickly – and were discouraged by the complexity of it all.”

Smith lauded local officials in Manasquan who “did their very best to make sure we had a fighting chance,” in terms of allowing outdoor dining capabilities. But at the end of the day, challenges remain when “the most expensive thing in a restaurant is an empty seat.”

“We will always weather the storm,” Smith said. “That’s the human spirit. (But) it’s the politics of it all that frustrate the human spirit. We need meaningful action, and we need it now.”

About 100 people, including state lawmakers, took part in the New Jersey Business Coalition’s third virtual town hall on how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted schools and businesses. To see Smith’s full presentation, click here.