Matthew Golden, owner of Loda Bier Garten, joked that he didn’t know if his restaurant was ready to open for on-site lunch service on Monday, May 11 — the first day such activity was allowed in Alabama since late March — but he was doing it anyway. As for how business might look during the COVID-19 pandemic, Golden wasn’t sure.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” he said over the bustle of the busy establishment less than 30 minutes from opening its dining room. “I left my crystal ball at home this morning. I’m hoping for the best.”
Loda was just one of about four downtown restaurants opening for lunch on the first day the businesses were allowed to start on-premise dining again, since Mobile County Health Department Health Officer Bert Eichold closed the practice on March 18. Golden said to comply with Gov. Kay Ivey’s amended “Safer at Home” order, the restaurant would be limited to 50 percent capacity.
“The tables will be sectioned off,” he said. “Face masks and gloves will be worn by staff.”
In addition, the disposable beer menus will be thrown away after each use, Golden said, and the regular food menus will be placed in tubs after each use and thoroughly sanitized to help keep patrons safe.
Bob’s Downtown Diner was open on Monday as well, and owner Tony Sawyer said there was an eager breakfast crowd lined up outside when he opened the doors at 7 a.m.
“We had a lot of folks coming in here this morning,” he said. “I say ‘a lot’ — it was probably 45 or 50.”
The menu at Bob’s is a bit different than the diner’s former regulars might recognize, but that’s because Sawyer and staff members “shortened” it to make it easier to get back to serving customers.
“We wanted to take off our items we didn’t really need,” he said. “Let’s start slow because we’ve been away for a while, so we all need to get adapted to work again, the routine.”
Instead of trying to survive doing takeout only, or curbside service, Sawyer closed the restaurant when dine-in service was shut down. He said it was all part of helping to “flatten the curve.” However, as more states around the country decided to open up again, especially some of Alabama’s neighboring ones, Sawyer made the decision to begin the process of opening up the restaurant. That involved maintenance work and ordering food from wholesalers.
“So, anticipating this about the middle of April, we all started talking,” Sawyer said. “I say ‘we all,’ me and my staff — we all started talking about getting motivated into reopening and how we’re going to do it and what we’re going to do about it. We all came together, came down to the restaurant and did a lot of painting, did a lot of cleaning and enjoyed each other’s company again.”
While he enjoyed the time off, Sawyer said he and staff members were ready to come back to work.
“You know, sitting at home is nice and fine and dandy, but that’s not us,” he said. “That’s not the way Americans worked for hundreds of years. So, you know, we need to get things going.”
In addition to Loda and Bob’s, Mama’s on Dauphin opened for lunch Monday.
Roosters downtown announced it would remain open for to-go orders for the time being.
While some restaurants decided to open up to in-person dining on the day it was again allowed, others decided to remain closed at least for a little bit, given the limitations of Ivey’s new order or a lack of staff.
In her revised order, Ivey allowed restaurants to reopen dining rooms, but limited them to 50 percent capacity.
David Rasp, owner of Heroes Sports Bar & Grille and The Royal Scam, said he would not open immediately, as he already had an opening plan in place and wasn’t sure if he could or even wanted to alter it. He added that the impact of the pandemic shut downs would change the way he does business, if not forever, for at least a long time after he does open back up.
“I think to-go and delivery are still going to be a bigger percentage of the business than it was before,” Rasp said. “This does encourage us to think bigger picture.”
Rasp said he and staff members were “on a path” to reopen, regardless of what situation they were in at the time. Instead of rushing to open the downtown eatery earlier than planned, Rasp is sticking to his original timeline.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t already kind of have a plan,” he said. “I don’t know how much we would want to deviate from or can deviate from it.”
While Rasp announced on social media that the West Mobile version of his popular restaurant would open “soon,” he has been more vague about its downtown sibling. One issue is that unlike other establishments, Rasp can’t just move his tables around to accommodate social distancing guidelines.
Like Larry David did at his coffee shop in the most recent season of the HBO show “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Rasp bolted the tables at Heroes downtown to the floor to avoid the rocking that comes with older seating at restaurants. While he did it to enhance the customer experience at his place, Rasp is unable to move the tables without a great deal of effort.
“Because I’m a genius, I attached [the tables] to the wall,” he said. “So, they don’t wobble.”
He also has questions about how to treat patrons at the bar. For instance, he asked rhetorically if a group of four patrons came in together would he be forced to seat them with a barstool between them.
Cafe 219 owner Todd Henson said he is ready to open up later in the week, but will do so with a limited staff. In one instance, Henson said a server just got unemployment compensation after seven weeks of waiting and doesn’t want to come back.
Henson also mentioned that business at his lunch-only spot would be slow as long as office employees who would normally be downtown are working remotely. This gives him pause when it comes to ordering wholesale food and forcing an earlier delivery from a truck.
“I’m not going to push it up or to scramble to open up for folks who are not working downtown,” he said. “We’re going to open Wednesday anyway for my staff. Only one of them got unemployment.”
Henson said he had planned to open again for takeout anyway when Ivey amended her order. He had initially started doing takeout orders, but the business slowed after a short time.
“It took a nosedive after a week,” he said. “It’s better to put a few butts in the seats.”
Eateries need a great deal of customers at each seating in order to turn profits from already razor-thin margins. Downtown Mobile Alliance spokeswoman Carol Huner acknowledged as much in an interview with Lagniappe.
“Many restaurants can’t be profitable at 50 percent capacity,” she said.
Dumbwaiter owner Wes Lambert said the capacity issue is one of the reasons his restaurants will remain closed.
“If capacity of 75 percent was allowed, we’d probably open back up,” Lambert said.
Dumbwaiter is, at least, two weeks away from opening back up, he said, eyeing May 29 as a possible date.
Restaurants downtown, Lambert said, will be impacted greatly by the lack of business travel and the lack of live entertainment, especially for eateries who rely on dinner service.
Downtown Mobile Alliance is working with the city to allow restaurants to open more outside dining options, spokeswoman Carol Hunter said, even using what are usually parking spaces as places to put tables and chairs.
“We’re looking at expanding seating capacity into the right-of-way,” Hunter said. “Maybe using parking spaces to allow for more tables outside and allowing restaurant owners to space them out.”
The Spiffy Fox Pizza and Pub announced via social media it had opened up a patio at its Leinkauf eatery. Kazoola announced it would not yet reopen.
However, Hunter said fear may dictate how ready the public is to dine at their favorite restaurants going forward.
“It doesn’t matter how many tables you have if customers are concerned about every booth,” she said. “It’s harder to tell what consumer confidence will be.”
Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Bill Sisson expects some changes for businesses in the way they’re cleaned and the way they adhere to social distancing guidelines. Specifically, he said, restaurants would probably have a leg up in that regard because they are already heavily regulated.
“I’m sure that’s on everybody’s mind,” Sisson said.
Ivey’s amended order opens up many “close contact” businesses, such as bars, hair salons and barber shops, but others, like bowling alleys, nightclubs and entertainment venues, are still closed.
The orders have had a dramatic impact on both city-owned entertainment venues managed by ASM Global. Both the Civic Center and Saenger Theatre have had most, if not all, events for April, May and June either cancelled or postponed, spokeswoman Mary Lee Gay confirmed.
“We only had one public show in June,” she said. “July and August are usually slow for us. April and May are insane at the Civic Center because of dance recitals. It’s like Mardi Gras — you turn the building over one night and another group comes in the next.”
Worse yet, the venues don’t really know what to expect in the future.
“If I had a crystal ball right now, I’d sleep much better at night,” Gay said. “The whole industry is … Nobody knows what’s going on or what’s going to happen.”
One reason for the uncertainty is the proposed length of time the virus might still be in the population, Gay said. Any strict social distancing guidelines could have a very negative impact on the concert industry, especially when it comes to smaller venues.
“For us, if they let us open back up it’s going to be with social distancing, which is more complicated than people realize,” Gay said. “Promoters are paying money for an event. If there are 500 people there instead of 1,900, they’re not going to take that deal. Why would they?”
The result would be either a rise in ticket prices, which would discourage many from attending, or a promoter and event would not turn a profit, she said.
Artists want to go back on the road and perform, but promoters are being cautious and “don’t want to take risks,” Gay said.
“This is all so new,” she said. “It’s like the blind leading the blind. It sucks. That’s about all I can say.”
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