The familiar makeshift parking lots that used to dot downtown Mobile returned last week, with anxious revelers looking to let loose at local eateries and bars. But the scene is still not where it was before many establishments were forced to close and others were forced to stop serving diners inside restaurants.
Downtown restaurant owners seem optimistic about the future in the first week since Gov. Kay Ivey lifted months-long restrictions, despite not seeing the normal customer base. The return of customers could be slow to build back up, Downtown Mobile Alliance spokeswoman Carol Hunter said. The alliance released a video welcoming folks back with the message that business owners in the corridor are doing everything they can to make it as safe as possible.
“I think not everybody is ready to come back, which is exactly what you’d expect,” she said. “Our restaurants and retailers are doing everything they know how to do to ensure customers’ safety. It’s going to be a slow ramp up and that’s probably a good thing.”
The loosening of restrictions on the state level has allowed these business owners to rehire some staff members and try to return to normal.
“Some restaurants have not reopened and some are still doing curbside and takeout only,” Hunter said. “Some had nice stretches of dine-in business, but maybe not enough where they feel like they can rehire the entire staff. Nobody’s at 100 percent.”
Matthew Golden, owner of Loda Bier Garten, said the eatery with locations downtown and in West Mobile saw about 70 percent of its normal customer load this week. Fear of the pandemic has only brought out the best customers, he said.
“The people coming out are better customers,” Golden said. “They’re the customers you want. They’re easy going, laid back customers. It’s kind of enjoyable in that sense.”
One of the biggest challenges for Golden is the availability of some of the restaurant’s needed items for its normal menu. For instance, he said Loda had to switch from serving a medium chicken wing to a jumbo-sized wing because that’s all that was available. He joked the larger wings were good for customers.
As for business while maintaining new dine-in restrictions like 50 percent capacity and social distancing, Golden said each owner is the “captain of their own ship right now” and each must “take it day by day.”
For Loda, the restrictions mean fewer inside seats and staff wearing gloves and face coverings. The reintroduction to inside dining “has blown up,” Golden said. The eatery is short staffed and he understands the employees who are back have been working really hard to meet the demand. A late delivery of a truck on Monday, May 18, meant he could close for the day, giving those staff members a needed day of rest.
The return of dine-in services at Loda also means a twist on the menu with a new chef. Loda will now feature weekend food specials, which has never been a big part of its menu before. The specials were a hit last weekend, Golden said.
Mama’s on Dauphin reopened on Monday, May 11, to about 40 percent of its normal patronage, owner Marshall Barstow told Lagniappe.
“It was worth being open,” he said. “It paid the bills and got people working.”
One issue for Mama’s, as a lunch-only spot, is when workers will return to downtown. When businesses begin having employees coming back to offices, Barstow feels business at his restaurant will pick back up.
To comply with social distancing guidelines, Barstow said staff at Mama’s are spacing tables six feet apart and placing as many seats outside as can fit.
“It gives the option for more outdoor dining,” he said.
In addition, the restaurant is providing diners with disposable plates, cutlery and menus.
The first weekend of dine-in service at Five, El Papi and Chuck’s Fish is keeping co-owner Cris Eddings “optimistic.”
“At 50 percent capacity, it’s certainly not where it needs to be, but it does help in paying our expenditures and in starting the process of rehiring staff,” he said.
As Eddings explained, “things were very different” inside the dining rooms at the three downtown restaurants. Along with the requirements placed on them by the state, Eddings said the restaurants’ owners took additional steps, like requiring staff members to wear masks and gloves and changing them frequently. The restaurants also provided sanitizing stations for customers and designated one employee per establishment as a “sanitation pro” who is tasked with constantly cleaning frequently touched surfaces.
Eddings acknowledged it’s beneficial for restaurants to try and make customers feel as safe as possible, but he said it’s about more than that at the three restaurants.
“The more safe people feel the better chances are they will come in,” he said. “We also want to make sure people actually are safe.”
As for the mood of customers coming in to sit down at a restaurant for the first time in more than a month, Eddings said many were “ecstatic.”
“We’re very optimistic things will come back,” he said.
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