Dillon Basse / Special to the News-Leader
Natalie Wu has been serving Southeast Asian flavors to the community of Fernandina Beach for almost three years now. Her restaurant, Wicked Bao, has been open since December 2017 and has become one of the most unique and highly recommended restaurants on the island.
“I originally come from Taiwan,” explained Wu, “And before Amelia Island, I also lived in Singapore for five years, so it only makes sense if I want to bring any dishes here, it should be Asian street food.”
On a day that began like every other, Wu was getting ready to open her restaurant for the day when Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that all the restaurants in Florida had to switch to take out only. It was St. Patrick’s Day, one of the biggest days of the year for restaurants and bars, when Wu found out just an hour before opening. A friend sent her a link to the announcement and asked what she was going to do.
Wu immediately went to Facebook and Instagram and even made hand-drawn signs for the front door to inform people that they were switching to take out only. After informing the public they were closed for dining, Wu and her employees went into the restaurant and started reshaping Wicked Bao.
“Within 30 minutes,” said Wu, “We changed all the settings in the kitchen, switched out all the plates for to-go boxes, and pushed all the tables in the dining area to the side.”
Wicked Bao stayed open for two weeks making to-go orders only. On April 5, however, Wu stopped service all together and decided to completely close for four weeks. On May 4, they reopened and continued doing to-go orders only for another two weeks, and then finally, on May 18, they opened for inside dining at 50% capacity.
Wu made clear that they wouldn’t have been able to reopen without a Paycheck Protection Program loan. The PPP allowed her to pay her employees 75% of their weekly check throughout the four weeks that they were completely shut down.
Instead of sitting at home through the shutdown watching Netflix like most of us, Wu took her newfound free time to improve her restaurant.
“This is time we’ve never had,” she said, “So for four long weeks, we worked hard at Wicked Bao to upgrade, repaint, maintain, and clean the restaurant.”
Wu made sure to also stay active on social media throughout this time. She would post pictures of the upgrades Wicked Bao was making to keep her followers updated on how they were doing. Wu would also use her platform to help other small businesses in the area. Since Wicked Bao couldn’t open, she would take pictures of herself eating food from other local restaurants to show support for small businesses in the community as a whole.
When Wicked Bao reopened, they continued to take customer safety very seriously. All the tables in the restaurant were constantly sanitized after being used, silverware was no longer preset and instead picked up by customers when they walked through the door, and there is now a sneeze guard set up at the cash register. Unfortunately, with the resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Florida, Wu had to close inside dining once again.
“To better protect the safety and health of our customers and team, Wicked Bao has switched to Take-Out orders only until further notice,” she said.
Every to-go order Wicked Bao sells comes in a microwavable and recyclable box so that customers can still eat their food hot at home. Even though Wicked Bao has made so
many changes, Wu doesn’t believe this is necessarily the new normal.
“I know everyone is saying this is the new normal, but I feel that things are just going back to basics,” she said. “We used to tell children to wash their hands before dinner, but we forgot that, and when they grow up, we don’t tell them that anymore. Now everyone is washing their hands again!”
Wu’s advice for other small businesses and restaurants trying to open up is to learn and listen. She explained how she follows CDC guidelines and Florida restaurant guidelines, and stays updated through Chamber of Commerce emails about what other businesses are doing. She also recommends supporting each other and staying positive through this all.
“To greet people here at Wicked Bao we ‘Bow for Baos,’” said Wu. “We miss hugging people and we miss shaking hands but right now being safe and taking care of others is what is most important.”
Editor’s note: Dillon Basse grew up on Amelia Island and recently graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in communications.