Under a gradual easing of statewide COVID-19 health restrictions, restaurants will soon be able to resume offering dine-in service—but some operators say they’re not in a big rush to reopen.
Restaurants locally and statewide have been operating on a carryout-and-delivery-only basis since Gov. Eric Holcomb and Mayor Joe Hogsett halted dine-in service in separate orders issued March 16 to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
With restrictions now easing, restaurants outside of Marion County can reopen for dine-in customers beginning Monday. Marion County, which is operating under tighter COVID-19 restrictions, hasn’t yet set a date for when dine-in service can resume. The county is under a stay-at-home order until May 15.
Some restaurant owners, including Indianapolis-based Cunningham Restaurant Group, have firm reopening plans.
The company operates more than 30 restaurants in Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky under numerous brands, including Bru Burger, Stone Creek Dining Co., Livery, Mesh and others.
In central Indiana, “everything outside of Marion County we plan to reopen on May 13,” said founder and CEO Mike Cunningham. The company also has restaurants in Hamilton, Johnson and Hendricks counties.
If Indianapolis’ stay-at-home order is allowed to expire May 15, Cunningham said, he expects to open most of the company’s Indianapolis restaurants May 18. Downtown restaurant Nesso will remain closed for now, since its kitchen has been temporarily converted to a meal-prep site for not-for-profit food relief organization Second Helpings.
Other local restaurants have also set reopening dates.
Downtown Indianapolis’ famed St. Elmo Steak House has announced on Facebook that it plans to reopen May 18. Kilroy’s Bar & Grill told IBJ it plans to resume takeout service at both its downtown and Broad Ripple sites next week, with dine-in service set to begin May 18.
Other operators are taking a slower approach.
Sahm’s Restaurant Group operates 16 Indianapolis-area restaurants, mostly in Marion and Hamilton counties. It plans to reopen with outdoor dining only to start with, which means all but five of its restaurants will remain closed for the immediate future. Those that open will likely do so May 16, though the company was still working out its COVID-19 plans earlier this week.
“Some of our restaurants aren’t going to open right now because we feel more comfortable with them staying closed,” said Eddie Sahm, who owns the restaurant group along with his father, Ed Sahm. “For years, people have counted on us for good food and good service. You add another layer to that—it’s safety.”
Capacity limitations are one reason some eateries won’t open right away.
Under the state’s reopening rules, restaurants must operate their dine-in service at no more than 50% capacity until June 14, when they can ramp up to 75% of capacity. Restaurants can resume operating at 100% capacity July 4, according to current guidance.
The limited-capacity rule means Cunningham’s Mass Ave establishment Tavern at the Point will likely remain closed until mid-June, Cunningham said. The facility seats only 50, which means reduced-capacity operations there would not be feasible.
On the east side of town, tiny 10th Street Diner also says its size is a factor in its reopening plans.
The 44-seat restaurant, which opened last summer, is on 10th Street between Rural Street and Sherman Drive. The entire operation, including kitchen and restrooms, occupies only 1,200 square feet.
Operating at reduced capacity “almost just seems silly” given the restaurant’s size, said Will Holmes, who owns 10th Street Diner along with his mother, Karen Holmes. “If we had a larger space, it might kind of make sense.
For now, the restaurant is offering boxed meals for pickup three days a week. Even though sales are down between 60% and 70%, Holmes said, he plans to continue focusing on pickup sales through at least the end of May.
When 10th Street Diner does reopen, “I want my staff to feel comfortable when they’re here serving other people, and I want people to feel comfortable coming here,” Holmes said. “I don’t want to move too quickly too fast, especially since we’re in such a condensed space.”
According to state guidance, when restaurants resume dine-in service, both servers and kitchen staff must wear face coverings and undergo daily health screenings.
The Cunningham and Sahm’s restaurants are also planning other safety-related operational changes.
Cunningham said paper menus will be available, though customers will be encouraged to view menus via their smartphones. The restaurants will also recommend customers make reservations as a way to manage traffic flow, since seating will be limited.
And, in a departure from standard procedure, Cunningham said employees won’t set tables with plates, cutlery and other items until guests are seated.
Sahm’s dine-in patrons will be asked to use online ordering, which will minimize the amount of time that servers spend tableside.
Sahm said his business was still working out details earlier this week, but it’s considering different types of reservation systems to manage customer flows. He’s especially concerned about Half Liter BBQ and Beer Hall, whose patio backs up to the Monon Trail—typically a crowded spot when the weather is nice.
Sahm, a kidney transplant recipient, said he understands the fear surrounding COVID-19.
“If I had it my way, we’d still be closed (even after next week). I think that’s the safest choice for everybody,” Sahm said. “All of our choices are a balance between the employees’ health and the customers’ health and the minimum revenue we need to bring in to survive.”
Sahm’s has been operating six of its restaurants on a carryout basis, also selling a selection of “marketplace” items, including food staples and cleaning supplies. That service will continue, Sahm said.
Customer demand is still there, Sahm said—one day earlier this week, the company fielded 100 calls from customers wondering if one of its restaurants had reopened.
But Sahm said he isn’t expecting an immediate turnaround. “We still won’t be back to normal. Our revenues will be down 50% to 60%.”
Among the Cunningham restaurants that have remained open for takeout service, Cunningham said, revenue is about 25% of normal. He predicted revenue might climb to 40% of normal in the first month after reopening.
Cunningham also acknowledged that he doesn’t have a good idea how quickly customers will return to dine-in eating. “I think nobody really knows how comfortable people are going to be.”