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Restaurants cook up creativity, adapt to uncertainty

Ogden Newspapers

At Forte, a restaurant in Jamestown, New York, presentation matters.

Before March, dining out was more about the social interaction — the presentation of courses and the inevitable Instagram post to follow — than it was about the weight of the plastic to-go box. At Forte, they leaned into providing that experience.

“They aren’t just customers, they’re guests in our house,” said Forte’s bar manager, Nick Dean. “People want to see a pretty plate or a pretty garnish on their cocktail.”

Now, thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak, those fancy cocktails are being served in to-go coffee cups.

Dinner is served, curbside

With New York State still under lockdown, restaurants are only able to offer takeout or delivery service, but for places like Forte, that restriction has limited what they’re able to make and package from their typical menu.

“We’re a small restaurant with kind of a large, interesting menu that’s geared towards dining in,” Dean said.

They also have a big connection to the community. He said since the shutdown, he’s had customers call him, asking how to make a cosmopolitan. They’ve had to find creative ways to maintain those connections, like putting favorite items in to-go bags, like gourmet popcorn and bread and oil.

They even put together coloring pages of pictures of their staff and chefs to include in the to-go bags.

“We wanted to give them something that felt like their typical meal,” Dean said. “We were missing some of the interaction of having our friends, our customers here.”

Those pages were such a hit, that now, the restaurant is selling “Flavors of Forte” gift baskets that include a coloring booklet, along with bread, oil, stout cake, coffee, salt and hand sanitizer.

When they do eventually reopen for dining in, they will have to make changes to the dining room and their menu, he said, but they’ll be happy to see their customers again.

“We won’t be able to have dine-in guests until who knows when,” Dean said. “What we’re excited for is to meet those challenges through creativity and ingenuity.”

Many restaurant owners in other locked down states have been providing take out services to their communities, too, trying to do so in creative ways. For many of them, there’s no clear path forward.

Restaurants in Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania, for example, are still closed for dining and will remain so until regions begin to see lower COVID-19 cases and meet other metrics that involve contact tracing and testing capacity.

Franco’s Trattoria, in Peters Township, Pennsylvania, has always had a takeout service, though they’re primarily a dine-in restaurant, according to the owner, Joe D’Amico. They tried to keep their full menu, including family-style meals, available for takeout.

Even with that service however, they’re still “way under 50 percent of the sales that we normally would have,” D’Amico said.

“I’m definitely worried about having to close,” he said. “If the consumer is still willing to patronize us, whether dining in or takeout, that’s going to be the most important factor.”

Another factor is being able to pay rent and having landlords that are willing to work with local restaurants.

“If the rent is less than 8 percent of our sales, we’ll do OK,” D’Amico said. “Now, our rent is 23 percent of our sales, and that’s just not sustainable. Whether it’s mortgage or rent, you still have to come up with that money.”

Distant dining, a new normal

D’Amico said that when his place does reopen, the dining experience won’t go back to the way it was. For example, each table will have two servers, he said. The person delivering the food won’t be allowed to touch used items to prevent the spread of germs. Instead, a second server will be responsible for clearing plates and tables.

In North Dakota, Abe Sakak’s restaurants began opening May 4, at 50 percent capacity. He owns Sonic Drive-Ins, Village Inn family style restaurants, and Badlands Restaurant & Bar in Minot, North Dakota.

“We only have so many chairs at the bar so people can’t sit too close together,” he said. “We went ahead and trained our people that if this booth is sat, don’t sit the next booth. Don’t sit anything closer than 10 feet.”

To combat additional spread of the virus they put out hand sanitizers and made disposable menus. Nothing sits on the table — no salt, no ketchup, no dessert menu. Instead, staff will bring those items to the table upon request.

“It’s uncomfortable the first couple weeks, but those things are the new normal,” Sakak said. “People don’t really mind that right now, because they understand why we’re doing it.”

The “new normal” hasn’t stopped people from dining at his restaurants either. In fact, he said they returned faster than he had anticipated. The first week they had about 35 percent of their business back. That first weekend, they reached 55 percent of their business, and Mother’s Day weekend brought them up to 65 percent of their business.

“People want to get back, even if it’s a new normal,” he said. “They’ve been cooped up in their room for 45 days. They come here even if it’s just to get out of the house and away from family for a few hours.”

Sakak believes a big reason for this rush to return to normal has to do with population and a much lower number of COVID-19 cases than seen in states like New York and Pennsylvania.

“There’s not enough cases here where people would say, ‘I’m just not going to go to the restaurant,'” he said.

He owns another restaurant in Minnesota, where a stay-at-home order expired Monday, with some restrictions still in place until June.

Now, to burn it off

In states like North Dakota and Iowa, the government opened up gyms and fitness centers about the same time as restaurants, so residents have a means to burn off those extra calories. They’re limited to reduced capacity, distancing equipment and extensive cleaning protocols.

In Iowa, gyms and restaurants reopened May 1 at 50 percent capacity in all but 22 counties. Strict social distancing guidelines and limited class sizes were put in place. The Fort Dodge Community Recreation Center reopened recently, but it didn’t get swamped like it typically does around the beginning of the year.

“I thought it was going to be, you know, open the floodgates and try to figure out how to manage 10 people at a time,” said Dave Pearson, the executive director of the recreation center. “It’s actually been a lot slower than I anticipated. People are wearing masks and gloves while they work out.”

He and his staff came up with a plan to disinfect equipment and “high touch areas,” like door handles and restrooms, every hour. They limited their hours so the staff can sanitize everything after they close for the day. Group workout classes and spin classes have been limited in size and equipment has been spaced six feet apart.

Pearson said he is a little concerned about low business for the nonprofit fitness center.

“We’re trying to change and hear people’s needs and worries,” he said. “We have had some membership loss, but I understand. People have lost their jobs.”

Many states reopened restaurants the first week of the month, and plan to open gyms by the end of it. In Indiana and Kansas, most restaurants across the state were allowed to reopen at 50 percent capacity on May 4. Fitness centers in Kansas are expected to reopen at 50 percent capacity Monday, but in Indiana, they won’t reopen until May 24, with restrictions on spacing and cleaning the equipment.

In other states, most residents will have to find more creative ways to burn off their takeout orders because reopening fitness centers just hasn’t worked out yet.

For example, New Hampshire restaurants are scheduled to reopen Monday, but fitness centers remain closed under Gov. Chris Sununu’s Stay at Home 2.0 order issued May 1, which will be in effect until the end of the month. Fitness centers are expected to be closed until further guidance is provided.

Planet Fitness facilities have started opening up their gyms in locations where local restrictions have lifted, according to the company’s public relations manager Becky Zirlen. She said in an email that safety for employees and members is a “top priority” as they begin the reopening process.

She then added that some of the steps they’re taking include updated sanitization policies and “physical distancing measures.”

“Now more than ever it’s important to stay active, in order to stay healthy, and we look forward to safely and responsibly welcoming our members back to Planet Fitness,” she said.

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