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Counting House owner explores next venture

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The Counting House Restaurant and Pub executive chef Bill Clifton said he’s exploring the next Delaware. The Counting House in Georgetown closes this summer. | DBT FILE PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN

GEORGETOWN The Counting House Restaurant and Pub will close at the end of June, embattled by the financial fall-out of the COVID-19 pandemic. But restaurateur Bill Clifton is not down for the count.

Milford officials told the Delaware Business Times that Clifton has toured various vacant businesses for a possible new restaurant location, but Clifton said right now, he’s just exploring the market.

“The last year and a half has been hard to wrap my head around, with COVID, stress on the business, staff and family. But I am looking to do something else. Something a little different, on a smaller scale,” Clifton told the Delaware Business Times.

Since 2018, Clifton has run the Counting House restaurant out of the iconic Brick Hotel on Georgetown’s circle and enjoyed catering to the business travelers that come to the Sussex County seat to work or argue their cases before court.

Last May, the inn and restaurant owners Ed and Lynn Lester announced it would lease the building to the state of Delaware for new Department of Justice offices. Clifton told DBT that the restaurant would be closing by the end of the month. After renovations, the DOJ will operate out of the building by Oct. 1.

“What I think people don’t understand is that we wanted to continue. But we don’t begrudge the Lesters at all, because it was a great offer,” Clifton said. “We just want the staff to be taken care of the way they need and deserve.”

The rollercoaster experience of a global pandemic has also put things in perspective for Clifton. The Counting House, which was estimated to be a $1 million business, closed in March 2020 for weeks until summer. Ultimately, the staff was whittled down from 21 people to 5 people.

“I’ve been working here the entire time, and kitchen work is long hours on your feet. It’s stressful and it’s even more stressful on the staff who stayed, because they had to do more with less,” Clifton said. “It puts stress on relationships and it doesn’t give enough time for people to recharge.”

Clifton has been in the restaurant business since his first job at Grotto’s Pizza, jumping around to a number of restaurants in Rehoboth Beach and eventually applied to Kendall College at National Louis University, a private college in Chicago specializing in culinary arts and hospitality management.

After a prestigious internship at French Laundry in Napa Valley, Clifton came back to Sussex County where he partnered with various ventures like the Henlopen City Oyster House, Dewey Beer Company and the Blue Hen. But the pandemic served as a hard learning experience that made him rethink how the restaurant industry works.

“Working at that pace, with a small staff, to keep us afloat, it really made me think about how we need to be building for a more fair industry,” Clifton said. “Take the wait staff. They’re paid $3.50 an hour, and then you rely on strangers for tips. That tip can depend on performance, or anything as small as they didn’t like the wine label.”

In Europe, where restaurant workers are paid higher hourly wages but tipping was not a societal norm. Clifton said it might be time to visit a similar idea, especially in an environment where the staff doesn’t feel obligated to put in overtime to ensure the restaurant still succeeds.

Clifton wants to continue focusing on farm-to-table dishes, much like what was offered at the Counting House, which had a menu billed as meals that may never use the same ingredients twice. But sourcing locally, like hanger steaks from Mule Run Meat Farm in Milton, may mean availability changes  with little notice.

“I don’t think people really get how pricing meals are structured, and I hope there can be some perspective of that,” he said. “It’s not hidden costs, it’s not tip costs included in this. And when you source from a farm, you’re never going to have the same product. I’m a Delaware boy, and my father was a farmer and my brother is a farmer today. I want to still keep to my roots.”

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