Back in early March as the coronavirus was spreading through Connecticut, but before the state had shut down, award-winning chef Bill Taibe reduced seating capacity inside his three Westport restaurants. But he was worried for his staff’s safety and didn’t like the atmosphere of unease pervading them and decided to pre-emptively close his restaurants to all but takeout.
He knew restaurant shutdowns were coming and “wanted a head start,” he says, adding that “it wasn’t on competition, it was on it, this thing.”
At the time, he says, he looked at it “as kind of a snow day.”
More than three months later, on June 17, restaurants will be allowed to serve inside for the first time since March 16 as part of the governor’s Phase 2 reopening plan. Seating capacity is capped at 50 percent, bars must remain closed and tables need to be placed 6 feet apart. Additionally, staff members must wear masks and implement detailed cleaning plans.
The state’s guidelines for restaurants note that outdoor dining “is still encouraged,” and "customers who choose to visit restaurants during this time should be fully aware of potential risks. Individuals over the age of 65 or with other health conditions should not visit restaurants, but instead continue to stay home and stay safe.”
Taibe is reopening the interiors of Kawa Ni, a Japanese and ramen hot spot, and The Whelk, a sustainable seafood restaurant. He is closing his third Westport restaurant, Jesup Hall, and reopening it with a new Mexican cantina concept in the coming weeks. The decision to go in a new direction at Jesup Hall was, in part, motivated by the new realities brought on by COVID-19. “Mexican cantina is a lot more casual than high-end American food,” he says. “It travels better. The margins might be a little better."
Taibe, like restaurant owners across the state, has had to reinvent his business models and rethink his restaurants multiple times. First they became takeout establishments, then takeout- and outdoor-only restaurants. Now they are an unplanned hybrid of reduced indoor and expanded outdoor dining and takeout.
Chef Billy Grant, who owns Restaurant Bricco in West Hartford and Bricco Trattoria in Glastonbury, says that “every phase of this has been an extreme adjustment.” For this phase, one of the challenges is staffing. “Two of my staff are older than 55, and then there's other people who can't make arrangements because of their day care, and there's other people who don't want to come back because they're making so much in unemployment,” he says.
Todd Ressler, an owner of Archie Moore’s bar and restaurant group, says the guidelines for resuming indoor dining are “pretty on track with the same guidance that we have to use for the outdoor seatings.”
Connecticut’s reopening guidelines also include suggestions for proper ventilation of restaurants such as increasing the speed of central ventilation systems to enhance outdoor-air circulation. At each location, Ressler has had to reverse ceiling fans, “so that they’re drawing the air up instead of down at the table.”
Archie Moore's has locations in New Haven, Wallingford, Fairfield and Milford, with a new location in Branford expected to open in the coming months. The Derby Archie Moore’s closed on March 1, before the impact of the pandemic was really felt in Connecticut, because the lease at the location was up, Ressler says.
So far, Ressler says he has seen a good response to outdoor dining from people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, and he thinks many in those age groups are eager to resume eating inside, but he’d like to get to the point where he can reopen his restaurant’s bars. “Food margins are not as great as bar margins,” he says. “When you own a restaurant with a bar, you want to be able to obviously use the bar.”
For Grant, when he gets staff willing and able to work, it’s hard to predict when crowds will come, as once-predictable consumer habits no longer apply. “I don't know if the demand will be there to do lunch,” he says.
These new concerns are on top of increased expenses for operation during a pandemic. Grant says he’s had to invest in masks for his staff, cleaning materials, outdoor furniture and has spent more than $10,000 on takeout containers alone. And the industry’s profit margins had been getting tighter long before COVID. “The cost of doing business in the last five years has gone up tremendously,” he says. But he adds that his customers have taken to takeout. “I'm grateful that the public has trusted me and I've been able to stay afloat and not lose money,” he says.
Taibe, from Kawa Ni and The Whelk, believes that the combination of indoor and outdoor dining will allow many restaurants to stay afloat through summer, but he worries about September, and what will happen if there’s a second wave of the virus and another round of shutdowns. But he says that if any industry can withstand the challenges posed by COVID-19, it is the restaurant industry.
“We’re a crazy group, anyway. We’re resilient, we fight. We’ve learned how to live on thin margins. We’ve learned how to survive. We’re tight knit. We’re rough and rugged. So if this thing was going to hit any industry and really take a chunk out of it, the restaurant industry would be the one industry I think that could fight back and really figure out how to come back even stronger.”