During the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants have had to make decisions on how to adjust during the early stages of social distancing, as well as with Governor Kay Ivey’s amended Safer at Home order, all while operating with thin profit margins.
For a restaurant to make a dime of profit for every dollar, that’s good, said Matthew Golden, owner of Loda Bier Garten. But those margins can easily shrink to pennies, especially in times of economic uncertainty.
“We’re not seeing 100 percent sales,” Golden said. “We’re seeing 75 to 80 percent; some of us are seeing 40 percent.”
He said Loda wouldn’t have opened up since regular sales levels couldn’t be reached, but they had to, as the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan had to be used to get furloughed workers off unemployment benefits.
The money originally had to be used within an eight-week period to qualify for loan forgiveness. That figure was extended to 24 weeks, though that change won’t be of much use to Golden.
“It’s gone as of next week,” he said. “It’s gone.”
Golden said he had to cram all the funding into the original eight-week period, so he was bringing workers back in who weren’t needed to meet the demand. He was still glad Congress made the change, as people in his situation who anticipated the extension would benefit. It’s a glass half full, half empty scenario for him.
Golden said his workers will remain on payroll, even after the PPP money has run out.
“If I have to go without, that’s my burden to bear,” he said.
Cris Eddings is the co-owner of FIVE Bar, Chuck’s Fish and El Papi. During the early stages of the shutdown, Chuck’s Fish and El Papi were open for takeout, while FIVE bar remained closed. His American Lunch food truck, which gives free meals to anyone who asks, expanded its operations from three days a week to anywhere from five to seven days a week, until Chuck’s Fish and El Papi reopened for dining services.
“We wanted to really ramp that up, because we knew that going into this, there was going to be an opportunity for us to feed a lot of people that needed help,” Eddings said.
Many of his employees have not been called back in because of the reduced demand, as restaurants can have a maximum occupancy of 50 percent. He said those who expressed concerns about exposure to the virus could remain furloughed, such as those who were considered “high risk” or were living with someone who was.
Higher degrees of sanitation have become adopted. Eddings said one worker’s sole responsibility is to disinfect high-contact surfaces, bathrooms and doorknobs.
Todd Henson, owner of Cafe 219, said the restaurant has gotten rid of the common amenities on every table. There aren’t any more salt and pepper shakers, napkin holders or straws already on the table.
“I’ve actually thrown away all the salt and pepper shakers, and now we just hand out little packs of salt and pepper,” he said.
They’ve changed from plastic cups to Styrofoam cups and clean laminated menus after use. Amenities come with the food now.
Henson said there have been fewer customers than usual, so he has been paying his workers more than they usually make, because they haven’t been able to get as many tips. He spoke with Lagniappe on June 10 and said that the week before, Cafe 219 was getting roughly a third of its usual business, though it increased considerably the next week.
When asked if he thought their businesses could be sustainable under a 50 percent maximum occupancy requirement for an indefinite amount of time, Eddings said the reduced capacity has allowed for his businesses to keep their doors open, but it didn’t bring in the same figures as it did before the pandemic.
“I don’t know,” Golden said when asked the same question. “I don’t know the answer to that question. I hope that it could be.”
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