Restaurant owners must adapt to new world

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Restaurants have been doing their best to get back to normal since the state permitted customers to return May 11, though what one considers normal will likely never be the normal we were used to before the COVID-19 pandemic.

This new normal means more distance between tables, which means less tables, strict sanitizing measures and ensuring the opposite of what restaurant owners wanted in the past – big packs of customers lining up to get in.

The owners I talked to understand the brevity of the situation and are doing their best to make things safe for everyone. But nothing is set in stone, and these measures will be as ever-changing as the pandemic itself.

On the fly

Jimmy Sullivan, who owns and operates Laycoff's Tavern on North Clinton Street, said it is as stressful of a time as he has ever experienced in the business. He feels like he is doing all he can but still has concerns.

“It is really tough,” Sullivan said, adding that he was glad to receive guidelines from the health department to help him through the process. “We are going to sort of play with things and see how it goes.

“There's like a hundred things on the list of things we need to do, so we are trying our very best.”

After limiting his hours during the carryout-only phase of the state's shutdown, Laycoff's is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. for now until Sullivan sees how things go.

“We can't do reservations and when we have a waiting line it is going to be tough,” he said.

Aside from clearing tables of such items as condiments, closing his bar and closing off half of his tables to create the proper distance in the tightly packed tavern – moves mandated by the state – he is also strictly forcing customers to enter through the side door and exit through the front in order to keep paths from crossing to maintain social distance.

At the Casa restaurants, the changes are similar, said Tom Parisi, the local Italian chain's director of operations. They are following guidelines from Allen County Department of Health's emails and have used the state's backontrack.in.gov website as a resource.

Each Casa location has cut seating from about 40 to about 20 tables, sanitizer stations are at each entrance and restroom, all employees are wearing masks and gloves, the heating and cooling systems were serviced and ductwork was cleaned and even the little presenters that hold customers' bills when they are brought to the table have been scrapped so only the paper bill itself and a sanitized pen is handed over.

“We even have one person designated as our sanitizer now who does all of the doors, tables and chairs regularly,” Parisi said. “We did all that we could but we didn't try to change the guest experience or staff execution much.”

It wasn't so easy for others to adjust to the new guidelines. Solbird Kitchen & Tap did not open its dining room the first week. Owner Jerry Perez said his team wanted to take time to make sure they had all the bases covered.

“We are easing into it because we have had the doors closed for so long,” Perez said, adding that his team is also busy working to get his Sol Kitchen food truck rolling again and there are tweaks that need to be made to it as well.

Since the stay-at-home orders were put into place, no customers have been inside the eatery as all carryout was distributed through what before was a seldom-to-never-used drive-thru window.

Solbird now can serve 25 instead of 50 and is starting out with a reservations-only policy on weekends to ensure there are no lines or packs of people waiting and not properly distancing.

“We are going to do three seatings at about an hour and 15 (minutes) each,” Perez said, adding he thinks that is plenty of time given the restaurant's casual service and that hanging around and mingling is not part of this new world we are living in.

“We just want to make sure we are doing the best that we can.”

It's been hard for those in the industry to do the best they can as this pandemic has changed and still is changing. Knowing what guidelines should or must be followed is constantly changing.

The Allen County Department of Health has reached out to restaurants in which they have email addresses for and provided reopening checklists and some general guidance from Gov. Eric Holcomb's order, according to health department administrator Mindy Waldron. The department has also answered several questions over the phone and provided answers during inspections.

But that is not as easy as it may seem as the health department does not have any rules, requirements, guidelines or even penalties in place with regard to the governor's orders.

“Our hope is that most will comply on their own as they normally do,” Waldron said via email.

Profit pressure

Parisi admits it was much easier from a financial and manpower standpoint for Casa to adjust to the pandemic. He also said the group was fortunate to have had such a strong carryout business – nearly 30% of all orders – before the pandemic made that the only option. As a result, the economic impact has been lessened.

“We have always done that right so we were ready to go right off the bat,” Parisi said, adding that carryout sales increased each week in the down time. “We didn't have to lay anybody off and we didn't fire anybody, and that is a testimony to our ability to do (carryout).”

Sullivan said his sales were down about 30% from the get-go during the stay-at-home orders and things got worse each week. The final week before the order was eased, he was down 50%.

He was thankful for some of the social media efforts to publicize and boost carryout business for city restaurants and is amazed the restaurant support is so strong here.

“We saw a lot of new customers just based on things like, 'Who has a good sausage roll?' posts,” Sullivan said.

Knowing how much or how little food to order was a big concern heading into the first week back open for dine-in customers, and it will continue to be a guessing game, Sullivan said. He had to make some moves he did not like to make – frozen beef, chicken and fish instead of fresh – to ensure he wasn't stuck with lost product.

Even that stress isn't as daunting as the looming meat shortage as COVID-19 has caused processing facilities across the nation to close.

“Every day with our vendors, you don't know if you are going to have meat or what meat is going to cost,” Sullivan said, adding he is bracing for beef prices to possibly double to about $6 per pound.

Those concerns are one of the reasons Parisi thinks we have only seen the beginning of what the pandemic's toll is going to be on the restaurant industry.

“I really think it will get worse over the next six to 10 months,” he said, citing the possibility that the community might not be able to support as many eateries given folks will likely not be eating out or going out. “I hope I am wrong, but I think a lot of places will try to come back and work to stay open before they fall off.”

What's next?

After getting through their first couple of weeks being back in a somewhat normal, but abbreviated, business, there are still many big “what ifs” restaurant owners and operators face.

The biggest questions include what to do if an employee or a regular customer in the restaurant recently tests positive for COVID-19, and how to handle the potential crowds or customers who do not want to comply with the guidelines.

When it comes to customers and employees getting sick, there are some general guidelines, but even those have some gray area.

A positive test results in a contact investigation in which the person's activities and contact with people is assessed, but there is nothing specific as to how or when it might affect a business.

“Most of the time, closures are voluntary because the facility wants to err on the side of abundant caution for their staff and customers, or perhaps they may not have enough workers to continue operating if several people were close contacts to a positive case and must go into quarantine for safety purposes,” Waldron said. “Closure is generally not necessary, but in some cases cannot be avoided.”

When it comes to crowd control, there is even less help for business owners.

“Everybody wants to sit and talk and what if they don't want to listen to you,” Sullivan asked. “The majority of the people so far have been so friendly. I have told my people to follow everything to the letter of the law, but we don't have a policy on people.”

Parisi echoed those concerns and said clusters of people waiting are his biggest worries.

“We are going to do our best to keep people out of the foyer, but I am not going to walk outside and tell people to move,” he said.

According to Waldron, it is up to the restaurants “to derive their individual plans for compliance with the governor's order, set standards, and then ensure they are followed.”

So, what does a restaurant do if people simply won't follow their posted notices and heed to simple pleases and thank yous?

“This is likely a question best answered by members of law enforcement,” Waldron said.

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.