Dining out was once a staple of everyday life. Romantic meals, celebratory family dinners and brunches with friends were all parts of our shared existence that we surely took for granted.
Now, of course, such carefree outings feel like distant memories from a bygone era.
As the coronavirus crisis carries on toward its third month, cooking at home and placing online orders for pick-up or contact-free delivery have become mealtime norms. But in all 50 states, non-essential firms — including restaurants — are re-opening in phases, and with modifications to business-as-usual.
In some states, eateries are following mandates to set up tables 6 feet apart and limiting capacity to no more than 50 percent. Others, meanwhile, are only allowing outdoor dining.
For restaurant owners, it’s an opportunity to try to bounce back after lockdowns devastated the industry. According to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), over 8 million employees at America’s 661,000 restaurants have been either laid off or furloughed, and the industry as a whole suffered a loss of $80 billion in sales in April.
Yet perhaps due to the toll Covid-19 continues to take — as of publication, 1.58 million cases and nearly 94,000 deaths had been reported in the United States alone — not everyone is excited for businesses to re-open, regardless of safety measures. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 68 percent of Americans think restrictions are being lifted too quickly.
The situation is further complicated by mandates that vary from state to state, creating confusion about how and when restaurants can re-open. In some cases, individual cities and counties are enacting policies that conflict with state mandates.
The lack of cohesion possibly stems from the absence of comprehensive, federal-level guidance until just recently, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a plan for re-opening nonessential businesses. It comes with specific benchmarks to meet — for example, a consistent decline in new cases within a 14-day period — before states may move on to one of three phases.
Before that, the only guidelines came in the form of an 18-page document released by President Donald Trump in April, which informed states’ present plans but left ample room for nuances.
All the same, many restaurant owners are moving ahead with plans to welcome customers back to their tables. We wondered: What is the re-opening process looking like for these entrepreneurs? What will this mean for their businesses financially? And — most critical of all — how will they keep customers and employees protected during an ongoing pandemic?
Laura Rea Dickey of Dallas knows all too well how complicated the patchwork of requirements for re-opening businesses throughout the U.S. is. She’s the CEO of Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, a family-owned chain of eateries with nearly 500 locations in almost every state.
While the timing of re-opening will vary based on location, Dickey has implemented a number of company-wide safety measures. For example, all employees must now be certified through a nationally-accredited safe food handling program called ServSafe. They must also wear the personal protective equipment (PPE) that will be provided for them, and regularly clean all surfaces with peroxide-based cleaners.
These measures align with recommendations put forth by the NRA. But perhaps the biggest change Rea Dickey instituted is a company-wide shift from “a ‘self-serve’ to a ‘we serve’ model,” Rea Dickey says, to minimize the amount of people handling food. Beyond that, she says some individual franchises are adding safeguards like “installing glass dividers, setting up outdoor seating spaces and offering walk-up windows for to-go orders.”
Michele DiMeo, founder and CEO of casual Italian dining franchise Squisito Pizza & Pasta, says the re-opening process is not unlike “the very first time they were ever opening their restaurant” for her franchisees at 10 locations scattered throughout Maryland and Virginia. All are essentially starting from scratch — complete with setting and promoting grand-opening dates.
Franchisees will need to hire or re-hire and train staff, institute temperature screenings and social distancing requirements, restock all food and beverage supplies, and install hand sanitizer dispensers, she says. And these aren’t temporary measures — DiMeo says that, “essentially, this is our new way of life until there is a drug that treats this virus or a vaccine.”
Dipping Into Digital Orders
As a restaurant owner in New York City, Sveta owner Svetlana Savchitz cannot yet open her doors — but that doesn’t mean she isn’t thinking ahead to the day she can. She plans to “allow customers to call in to order their food prior to arriving, so … they can enjoy the luxury and ambience of eating out, while minimizing time spent out and their risk of contracting the virus.”
Like many others, she plans to mandate active virus and antibody testing for returning employees, which she will pay for if insurance doesn’t cover. She will also require employees to wear PPE — a new branding opportunity in her restaurant’s case, as masks will feature the eatery’s logo.
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But unlike many restaurants, which have been offering take-out this whole time, Savchitz’s Russian eatery is only now jumping on the online order bandwagon. “We originally decided against offering take-out and delivery over a strong desire to help flatten the curve and keep our customers and employees safe and at home,” she says.
Savchitzs adds, “Now that we’re entering summer, with little guidance from the government on when restaurants can open up again, we’ve decided it’s in the best interest of the restaurant and our community to begin offering these online … options.”
The same goes for Michelle Courtright, owner of Fig + Farro in Minneapolis. “We voluntarily closed on March 15 in response to the growing threat of Covid-19 and are currently under a stay-at-home order from the governor,” she says. “The state is allowing restaurants to do takeout and delivery, so after watching other restaurants do this safely for several weeks without having any large outbreaks … we decided to re-open” and offer those options to customers.
Financial Burdens to Address
Courtright says the move was met with a tidal wave of social media support, but that sales are a fraction of what they once were, leaving her concerned about her ability to afford rent down the road. “We are expecting [Minnesota] Governor [Timothy] Walz to keep the dining room ban for at least another month, while he slowly re-opens other areas of commerce,” she says. “We agree that a slow approach is necessary to mitigate a surge of the virus, but obviously we see that it will affect our business long-term.”
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, all of Dickey’s barbecue locations have been fulfilling online orders, with better fiscal results. She says digital sales just recently began matching previous dine-in sales. “Having the infrastructure to support online ordering, app ordering, third-party delivery and direct delivery has been huge for our business during this time,” she says. “Initially, we lost 91 percent of our dining room traffic sales within 5 business days across all locations.”
A small business loan helped. “As a family-owned small business, this definitely made a difference for us in avoiding mass layoffs or furloughing any of the 169” employees that work at the company’s headquarters or family-owned locations, Dickey says.
Courtright, too, received loans — both a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) one, and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) — which “gave us the confidence to weather the upcoming recession and depression.” But it wasn’t a cure-all. Funds from the PPP loan must be used within an 8-week window, “but it would be wiser to use those funds in a few months as restrictions lessen and we have more income from the dining room,” she says. Plus, she had to use some of that money to hire new staff, rather than saving it for rent.
“Without the subsequent EIDL loan, I don’t think we could have survived for too long,” she admits. “Congress needs to take a look at making sure those loans go together, especially for a restaurant industry that will continue to be mandated to operate at far lower capacity.”
Meanwhile, loans weren’t even an option for Savchitz in New York. “We applied for a PPP [loan] in the first round and were denied due to the influx of applications — as our banker relayed to us, ‘the well ran dry,’” she says. They applied again, and are awaiting word while her concerns about money grow.
“As time in quarantine progresses, savings begin to dwindle and overhead costs like rent begin to add up,” Savchitz says. “These are costs that don’t vanish upon reopening.”
DiMeo, meanwhile, is also concerned that full-service dining at her chain of Italian eateries “will have its share of struggles initially, and the servers and bartenders — tipped employees in particular — will not make the wages that they are accustomed to making.”
“We are going to do everything we can to support our staff and guests through this different time,” DiMeo adds. And she’s hopeful about the future despite the odds, thanks to the neighborly support she and other restaurateurs have experienced. “We have and will continue to partner with our community, as we are in this together and will come out even stronger.”