Reopened restaurants revealing dining’s ‘new normal’

The waiters wear plastic gloves and masks. The menus might be disposable, or even on customers’ phones. Diners might not be allowed to sit with anyone who doesn’t live in their household. Perhaps there’s a faint whiff of bleach in the air, or dividers between booths. The dining rooms can look mostly empty, with six feet or more between tables, and restaurants limited to as little as 25% of their capacity.

This is what’s not normal about the dining scene this week in Georgia, Tennessee and Alaska, where restaurants were given the go-ahead to resume serving patrons in-house, weeks after the coronavirus closed eateries, from farm-to-table bistros to greasy-spoon diners.

But here’s what is: patrons settling into tables and booths, ordering the “Summertime Setback” cocktail at Hugo’s Oyster Bar in Roswell, Georgia, the chiles rellenos at Chapultepec in Tyrone, Georgia, or the burgers at Matanuska Brewing Co. in Anchorage. They’re greeting servers they haven’t seen in weeks.

“I kept saying ‘I promise I’m smiling under this mask,'” says Mikaela Cupp, general manager at Hugo’s, which began dinner service on Monday, the first day allowed under Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s order. “It’s exciting to see so much support from the community, but it’s strange not to interact with guests—I wanted to give them a hug, but I can’t.”

In these three states, governors have issued guidance to try to maintain the balance between jump-starting their economies and protecting the public from COVID-19. In some cases, municipalities have issued even tougher restrictions, while restaurant associations have offered guidelines, too. Restaurant owners are working with no shortage of limitations.

In Indiana, restaurant owners are awaiting Friday’s decision from Gov. Eric Holcomb, to see where they fit in the next stay-at-home order. Many have been preparing for potential next steps.

In Alaska, where restaurants could open on April 24, some are bristling at the restrictions. Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s limitation of dine-in seating to 25% of capacity means owner Alla Gutsul can fill only five of the 16 tables at her Eastern European eatery Soba in Fairbanks, and she said that won’t begin to pay her bills. “It’s going to be really tough,” she said.

Because of the restrictions, less than 5% of Alaska’s 1,500 restaurants are expected to reopen, said Sarah Daulton Oates, president and chief executive of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association. “It’s just not feasible for most of our restaurants,” she said.

In Georgia and Tennessee, many owners have also opted not to reopen or resume dine-in operations, saying that even if they adhere to the guidance, they can’t yet ensure the health and safety of staff and customers.

Kemp’s announcement, a week before the reopening date, might have come as a surprise to many restaurateurs. But others say they had long been developing plans to reopen with stricter safety measures and social distancing, eagerly awaiting the official nod.

That was the case for Ryan Zink, CEO of Good Times Restaurants, whose 39 locations of Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar around the country include four in the Peachtree State and one in Tennessee that opened on Monday. He said his company had drawn up plans and checklists, making sure that they comported with official state orders as well as a 10-page best-practices brochure from the Georgia Restaurant Association.

“We had to bounce all these against each other,” he says. ” Some of what we had was consistent with Gov. Kemp’s orders, but we’re trying to go above and beyond that.”

John Metz has been working on reopening plans “since the day we closed.” He’s the CEO, executive chef and co-founder of Marlow’s Tavern, which has locations around Georgia. Three of those will welcome customers again this week, and diners will see such changes as plexiglass dividers between booths and taped-out distances on the floors. “It seems like we’ve had to rewrite the plan almost every single day,” he says.

Still, even those who had been champing at the bit to reopen had to scramble to get ready. The Georgia executive order outlining required precautions for restaurants opening Monday was released the previous Thursday night.

Kasey Carpenter, who owns Oakwood Cafe and Cherokee Brewing + Pizza Co. in Dalton, Georgia, broke out a yardstick to measure out the distance between tables. At Hugo’s, Cupp and her team rented out a storage unit over the weekend to stash the tables and furniture they had to take out of the dining room.

Even the well-prepared Zink was confronted with a logistical challenge: finding liquid hand sanitizer to offer customers, which is mandated by the governor’s order. “It’s hard to get,” he said, in what might be the understatement of the pandemic. Luckily, some of his alcohol vendors, like many around the country, have been producing it.

Some restaurateurs are taking precautions beyond the mandated ones. Matt Tomter, managing partner of Matanuska Brewing Co. in Alaska, says he has installed air scrubbers in ventilation systems at all three locations. The scrubbers clean the air every hour, he says. The upgrades cost him $7,500, he said, but it’s all part of the new normal of living and working in a pandemic.

“The real reason to open the restaurant up is, first of all, to see if you can do it safely,” Tomter says. “Then it’s just getting people used to being able to go out again. It’s going to take time. . . . People are nervous. Some people are ecstatic, and some people won’t come in for a year. There’s both sides of the spectrum.”

In Tennessee, where restaurants in all but the most populous counties were permitted to resume dine-in service as of Monday, Andy Marshall oversaw the reopening of six restaurants in his hospitality group, including several locations of Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant. He considered wiping down menus between uses, as mandated, but decided he had to do more to build up customers’ confidence. So staff printed disposable paper menus, and in what has become popular with patrons, established a QR code customers can scan to pull up the menu on their phones. “That’s probably going to stick around,” he said, even after the virus’s threat has passed.

Marshall hasn’t had problems getting supplies yet, but his wholesalers—who themselves are only now ramping up again—are warning him shortages might come. ” We’re burning through the gloves,” he said, with workers using up to a case in a single lunch service. Customers (who are not required to wear them themselves) have hand-sewn masks for workers, and the owner of the Nashville Predators has promised to send over more with the team’s logo and colors.

Rehiring and training staff has been a challenge for some. Many laid-off workers have been receiving unemployment benefits that pay more than they might pull in serving fewer customers. Carpenter says he offered some furloughed staff less than 20 hours a week so they could still maintain some unemployment benefits.

Tomter at Matanuska Brewing says he has had to pay employees well above Anchorage’s minimum wage of $10.19 to get them back to work. His cooks, he says, earn $20 an hour, and his front-of-the-house staff between $15 and $20 an hour, before tips. But Tomter did receive money from the controversial Paycheck Protection Program, which requires 75% of the funds to go toward payroll.

“We are paying people more, because we have to right now,” Tomter says. “It’s going to last until we run out of the PPP money” in a couple of months.

Getting the staff used to the new protocols requires some vigilance, too. “Restaurant people are pretty outgoing people,” Carpenter says. “By nature they’re social, and they’re excited, because it’s like the band’s back together, but I have to remind them to break it up, and everybody go back to their corners.”

Georgia Restaurant Association CEO Karen Bremer says that more than half of the some 19,000 restaurants in the state have remained open in some capacity, such as for delivery or takeout. She called the reopening to diners a “slow roll” that could take weeks or even months. Seeing the industry bounce back will take a lot, she says, and a recession could mean it won’t, entirely. ” People have got to trust leaving their house and going out in public,” she says. “It’s going to take people having more confidence in the information they’re receiving.”

Bremer felt confident enough herself to return on Monday night to one of her favorite spots, Chapultepec in Tyrone, where she had her favorites, including a skinny margarita and cheese dip with jalapenos.

Most restaurateurs interviewed said their return to serving diners shouldn’t be read as a political statement. Some view it as almost an obligation to their community. Others see it as a business necessity, to try to hash out ways to deal with a pandemic with no end in sight.

“You’re going to have to figure out how to live with that thing, because it’s not going away, right?” Tomter says.

In Georgia, restaurateurs frame it as a personal choice, for customers and owners.

Metz called the governor’s order an “opportunity” that everyone has to consider from their angle, even those who choose to stay closed. ” They have the right to do that, and I’m excited for them to do that in their own best way,” he says.

Carpenter offered a beach analogy: “It’s like after a shark attack—some people don’t want to get in the water ever, some are ready to jump in right away, and others want to wait a while and come back with precautions,” Carpenter says. “We had a group of people who were ready. They know their risk tolerance.”

Whether customers will return and whether revenue will be enough remain to be seen. Many owners plan to keep offering carryout and delivery—operations that might have kept them afloat—even as they resume serving diners in-house.

Marshall says he is seeing only 20 to 30% of his normal volume, even at half capacity, which is mandated by the state. He’s counting on PPP loans to help until the restrictions are ultimately lifted. That, he says, will depend on restaurants making sure they’re reopening safely, and convincing customers of it. ” Making money is down the list of priorities,” he said. “Right now, it’s getting people back to work, and doing this right so there’s not a setback. Most people in the hospitality business won’t survive a second round of this.”

At Soba in Fairbanks, owner Gutsul has been open for nearly a week. But in the first five days back in business, she says she had not filled more than four tables in an entire day. Part of the problem, she says, is the state’s demand that all customers have a reservation. But part is just about diners getting comfortable again with social activity. “They have to develop this habit again of going out,” she said.

At Hugo’s, Cupp says that even if they aren’t pulling in the revenue of pre-pandemic days, “opening at limited capacity means we’ll be able to be at full force once we’re back to the new normal.”

And what would a “new normal” look like? For customers, getting used to a restaurant experience that looks far different might take time. While Zink says he found the masked and gloved servers a bit jarring himself at first, ” I’m getting used to it, and I think customers will too,” he said. “They might have to experience it a few times before it feels normal.”

Aside from all the new protocols—sanitizing tables before and after use, wearing masks and gloves, assessing employee health daily—the hardest part of reopening may be the human element.

“People walk in the door, and you haven’t seen them in a month and a half, and everybody just wants to give everybody a hug,” says Tomter of Matanuska Brewing. “No one can right now. So they’re giving hugs from 10 feet away.”

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