Dining’s ‘new normal’: Masked waiters, e-menus and booth dividers

Emily Heil & Tim Carman

THE WASHINGTON POST – 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 per cent 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 shuttered eateries.

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

“I kept saying ‘I promise I’m smiling under this mask’,” said General Manager at Hugo’s Mikaela Cupp, which began dinner service, allowed under Republican Governor 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.”

A sign explains social distancing at Bad Daddy’s Burger in Atlanta. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
A sanitising station at Bad Daddy’s Burger

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.

Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy’s limitation of dine-in seating to 25 per cent 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.

Kemp’s announcement, a week before the reopening date, might have come as a surprise to many restaurateurs. But others said 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 CEO of Good Times Restaurants Ryan Zink, whose 39 locations of Bad Daddy’s Burger 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 said. ” Some of what we had was consistent with Governor 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 said.

Still, even those who had been champing at the bit to reopen had to scramble to get ready.

Kasey Carpenter, who owns Oakwood Cafe and Cherokee 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 sanitiser to offer customers, which is mandated by the governor’s order. “It’s hard to get,” he said.

Some restaurateurs are taking precautions beyond the mandated ones. Managing partner of Matanuska Co in Alaska Matt Tomter said he has installed air scrubbers in ventilation systems at all three locations. The scrubbers clean the air every hour, he said. The upgrades cost him USD7,500, 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 said. “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.”

In Tennessee, where restaurants in all but the most populous counties were permitted to resume dine-in service, 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’ 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 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 colours.

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 said he offered some furloughed staff less than 20 hours a week so they could still maintain some unemployment benefits.

Tomter at Matanuska Brewing said he had to pay employees well above Anchorage’s minimum wage of USD10.19 to get them back to work. His cooks, he said, earned USD20 an hour, and his front-of-the-house staff between USD15 and USD20 an hour, before tips. But Tomter did receive money from the controversial Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which requires 75 per cent of the funds to go toward payroll. “We are paying people more, because we have to right now,” Tomter said. “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 said. “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 said 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 said, and a recession could mean it won’t, entirely. “People have got to trust leaving their house and going out in public,” she said. “It’s going to take people having more confidence in the information they’re receiving.”

Bremer felt confident enough herself to return to one of her favourite spots, Chapultepec in Tyrone, where she had her favourite, cheese dip with jalapeños.

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 said. 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 said.

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 said.

“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 said he is seeing only 20 to 30 per cent 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 said, 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 said she had not filled more than four tables in an entire day. Part of the problem, she said, 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 said 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 said 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 – sanitising 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,” said Tomter of Matanuska. “No one can right now. So they’re giving hugs from 10 feet away.”