Sit-down dining has been back for just two weeks, but many restaurant owners have already reached some conclusions. For one, customers will not want to come back if they do not feel safe in the establishment. Nonetheless, many restaurant owners told NJBIZ, pent-up demand for sit-down dining has driven up patronage.
Another thing: don’t be greedy. Witness reports told of the overcrowded Jersey Shore bar in Belmar weekends ago. Proprietors should not encourage an unchecked stream of customers. “That’s a greedy owner,” said Salvatore Mazzella, who owns a Frutta Bowls and Massimo’s Pizza Restaurant, both in Robbinsville. “Now’s not the time to be greedy or selfish.”
That advice is especially apt so soon after the reopening, with COVID-19 cases surging across the country and again creeping higher in New Jersey. Limiting establishments to sit-down dining only helps maintain social distancing by preventing customers crowding around a bar or filling a dance floor.
Restaurant owners are curious about how the 25 percent capacity limit would work, suggesting that the 6-foot social distancing by itself could be safe. At the time of this writing, Gov. Phil Murphy had announced that indoor dining would be allowed beginning on July 2 but had not offered detailed guidelines.
The lack of guidance elicited some grumbling among some business owners. But Murphy did say the rules will require face coverings for staff and customers when they are not seated, along with social distancing and frequent sanitization. Still, many proprietors are eager to get going. “We have to think outside the box. Any opportunity for us to capture some revenue, we have to jump at the opportunity,” said Chris Kunisch, who owns Allendale Bar and Grill, and another in Mahwah, along with his brother Craig. “The days of us kind of just opening our door and saying ‘let’s get as busy as we possibly can’ are over,” he added.
Kunisch said the first task is to figure out how indoor tables can be spaced 6 feet apart, though it’s “really 8.5 feet, back of chair to back of chair.”
With outdoor dining, Kunisch said he and the staff had to actively monitor the crowd sizes, and how the groups at different tables interacted.
“People are used to coming in and celebrating and high-fiving. We have an obligation to our guests, our staff and industry, to keep us as separate as possible,” he said. “We have to step in and say ‘with all due respect, it’s not our laws, it’s the governor’s laws, we can’t interact the way we’re used to.’”
The need for staying apart is disappointing to Anthony Kanterakis, owner of Local Greek in Princeton.
“Our place is known for the Greek-style, everyone is close together, it’s rowdy and stuff, it’s just a fun atmosphere,” he said.
But, Kanterakis maintained, “we can kind of create that same atmosphere” even with people following social distancing.
“People might be hesitant to sit inside, but if you make them feel that they’re socially distanced, that everything is sanitized, that you’re following all the procedures,” then they’ll slowly come into the restaurant.
Howie Felixbrod, who owns Blue Moon Mexican Café – with locations in Englewood and Wyckoff – said that patrons won’t be allowed to dine standing around and happy hour tables will be closed. “The key is the control,” he said. “You have to tell them you can’t be standing up, you have to be at a table, they can’t congregate.”
Pick-ups are done outside so those patrons do not overlap with the indoor crowd. Felixbrod expects the protocols for indoor and outdoor dining to be similar. One difference: outside, drinks are served in plastic cups, inside they might be served in actual glasses.
“Right now, everybody wants to sit outside, at night it is fine,” he said. Hot weather roasted much of the state during the first days of reopening, but the weather became more pleasant as afternoon turned into evening and nighttime.
Down at the shore, Marilyn Schlossbach, who owns Pop’s Garage, which serves Mexican cuisine, and the Langosta Lounge on the Asbury Park boardwalk, among several other eateries along the Jersey Shore, said she was anxious about how social distancing can be followed and how she can stay afloat. “We’ve had stellar great weather the last week. First rainy day we’re closed without inside, so it’ll definitely help,” she said.
But regardless, “25 percent is not saving anybody,” meaning “our numbers are down 80 percent from last year.”
Schlossbach said she had scheduled a band to perform at outdoor sections of the restaurant around the July Fourth weekend, but cancelled because she worried that the crowds could become too large. “We can control them in our space, but we can’t control them in the public space. They’re playing in the opening toward the boardwalk,” she said. “People want to come see it – I can’t have a bouncer bouncing on city property.”
25 percent is not saving anybody.
— Pop’s Garage and Langosta Lounge owner Marilyn Schlossbach
To keep her restaurant from crowding entire sections of the business’s pavilion are closed off, and only one set of bathrooms will be kept open so that they can be regularly cleaned.
Executives at Ani Ramen, which has five locations across New Jersey – in Summit, Maplewood, Montclair and two in Jersey City – are tinkering with the indoor set-up in anticipation of the Murphy administration’s guidelines.
The Maplewood site has between 50 and 60 seats and the Summit site has 80 seats, all of which would have been filled during peak hours before the pandemic, according to Erica Gillespie, Ani’s vice president of operations. “The way our dining rooms are set up, the tables and chairs line the walls, and in the middle of the dining hall we have communal tables,” she said. “We won’t be able to use the communal tables anymore.”
The Montclair site scheduled a soft opening on June 26 for take-out and delivery, Gillespie said. Doing so is tricky, she added, because the business had to package a dish typically meant to be served hot in a sit-down setting. “We are packaging the broth separately from the noodles and the vegetables and the protein. It travels well that way. It maintains the quality and integrity of the dish.”
By mid-July, some of the stores will offer outdoor seating, where patrons can order at the counter and bring the food to their table. Later, the restaurants will offer contactless ordering so that the food can be brought out to the customer’s table.
“If you keep that 6-foot distance in between, I don’t know what capacity we would be able to come up with in the next week or two,” for indoor dining. “We’re going to have to visit our restaurants, and mark the floor.”
The front-of-house staff who deliver and bring out the food, and the managers, will now have the added responsibility of keeping the outdoor crowds in check.
Mazzella said that with Massimo’s, which offers outdoor dining, customers would be encouraged to wait in their car for a text notification that their table is open. “They understand they have to wait,” he said. “No one wants to get sick.”