Thinking Outside the Restaurant Machina Kitchen & ArtBar Gets Creative in Response to COVID-19

Machina Kitchen & ArtBar was created to provide an art experience for its patrons. From the installations and rotating exhibits in the space to the craft cocktails and carefully plated meals to the live performances, Machina was far more than just a place to get food.

  When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Machina lost the ability to provide that experience. It had to reinvent itself as a takeout restaurant, offering pickup and delivery only. With the recent relaxation of restrictions, it has been able to open for outdoor patio service and return at least in part to its modus operandi of food-and-drink-as-art, but much of what it used to do is still out of reach.

  Through it all, Machina’s three partners have pulled together with creativity and determination to adapt to the complete upheaval of business as usual.

  “Our industry is definitely a rough one to be in right now,” says Danya Landis, Machina’s art director, who co-founded the business in 2013 with Rebecca Hamilton. Chef Jordan Scott joined the team in 2018. When the pandemic hit, the restaurant portion of Machina’s business was barely a year old, just settling into the rhythm of things.

  “Then suddenly everything just disappeared and turned into a whole new business model,” Landis notes.

  For the first two weeks, unable to pay their employees, Landis and Scott worked alone in the restaurant.

  “It was pretty exhausting,” Landis says, but “we … kept each other happy.”

  After closing for a week to apply for loans and grants — Scott also redesigned the menu to be more takeout-friendly and focused on comfort food — they were able to bring their employees back. But without the bar or dine-in service, they had to find other ways to keep their staff busy.

  “We basically said to our employees, if you have special skills we don’t know about, tell us,” Landis says.

  Soon servers and dishwashers were occupied with projects from painting a mural in the kitchen to filming an educational video to conducting an energy audit on the space.

  Throughout, Landis says, they’ve accommodated each employee’s comfort level as far as interacting with others.

  Even as Machina has been surviving its own ordeal, it has also been giving back to the community. Machina’s partners have donated the proceeds from their potstickers — about $2,000 so far — to local organizations involved with the COVID-19 response.

Coming Back to Life

The outdoor patio opened for service on May 19, a Tuesday evening. The City of Keene has allowed Machina to temporarily take over four parking spots so that there’s enough room for diners to practice safe distancing. Scott built the tables himself with the help of another employee, and they were almost all ready in time.

  “We were actually putting [the last tables] together while people were sitting and eating,” Landis says. “People were offering help and cheering us on.”

  Machina served about 34 people that first night, and though it offered patio patrons the option of ordering online rather than interacting with a server, no one went that route.

  “All the people who came … were regulars” who knew the staff and “really wanted to be able to interact,” Scott says.

  The staff have been excited to get back to doing their jobs, too, even if it now includes wearing a mask at all times.

  “One of our servers said yesterday, ‘I forgot how much I love serving people,’” Landis says.

  And in the kitchen, chefs are happy to be plating again rather than just packing the food up in a takeout container.

  “I use a lot of color in my food; I use a lot of different sauces,” Scott says. “It’s eye-catching and fun. [We take] it to a level where we’re making art — that’s something you can’t do with takeout, no matter how hard you try.”

  The restaurant industry’s troubles are far from over, but Landis is confident that Machina will make it.

  “We feel comfortable about the future because we are very strong-headed and determined to make this work no matter what,” she says. “I think we’re really lucky that we have a team of positive people who think creatively.”

  “It has been a really creative time out of necessity,” Scott said. “When it’s not stressful, it’s been fun.”

  Landis hopes that folks will reach out if they have any concerns about Machina’s health and safety practices.

  “We’re always happy to talk; we’re always happy to accommodate people,” she says. “[This time is] so stressful; if we can add a little bit of comfort, a little bit of light to their life, we want to do that.”

Marisa D. Keller is a writer and editor who lives in Brattleboro, Vermont.

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