The year 2020 has been a roller coaster ride for the restaurant industry.
And much as on a roller coaster, one might lose their lunch, restaurants are finding they're losing lunch business — and having to find ways to adapt to that upheaval.
"We have felt many impacts from all the restrictions that have been placed on us," said Jonathan Muse, general manager at Buffalo Wings & Rings in Somerset. "As new restrictions have been announced or changed throughout this whole process, we have been forced to adapt our business model to those restrictions. It is extremely difficult to change all of these things on the fly."
The restrictions are a result of the reaction to the ongoing COVID-19 situation. With the virus known to spread among close proximity of person to person, and restaurants and bars typically being tightly-packed places of business, they've been among the businesses most in the crosshairs for Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (as well as governors in other states).
After an initial shutdown period, during which time restaurants were only able to serve customers via drive-thru windows or curbside pick-up, on May 22, Beshear told restaurants they could open at 33 percent capacity. That was considered by many to be lower than was ideal; Burnside Mayor Robert Lawson told the Commonwealth Journal at the time that he'd spoken to restaurants in that tourism-based community and been told they'd need to be at 50 percent to make it worth their while. But most local restaurants re-opened their dining rooms under those conditions nonetheless.
Beshear continued to respond to the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Kentucky as a measuring stick by which to determine how businesses should operated. As the situation appeared to improve, restaurants went up to 50 percent dining room capacity in June, and bars were allowed to re-open. But the numbers have fluctuated, and seeing more cases, Beshear ordered that capacity be dropped back down to 25 percent at the beginning of this week.
Even Beshear himself said, "This is going to hurt a lot of restaurants," though the attorney who was elected governor last November said that the measures are "absolutely necessary to control the spread" of the virus.
For some, the struggle has been more difficult than for others. Larger chains have fared better than small, locally-owned restaurants with razor-thin margins to begin with. A recent Bank of America study found that nationwide, spending at chain eateries in early July was down just about 4 percent from last year, while smaller restaurant brands and independents were behind to the tune of 25 percent. But no one has had it easy.
"Obviously it's affected our sales, but for the most part, we've been able to keep the majority of our people employed," said Joe Hamlet, managing partner with the local Texas Roadhouse, a high-volume restaurant in Pulaski County. He noted that pay cuts from the chain's top brass have helped keep people employed. "We've been spreading hours out and haven't laid anyone off."
Hamlet stressed that the restaurant has utilized technology to take the cautious approach, making employees take a survey online each day before coming in; if they're experiencing COVID symptoms, they don't come to work. Temperatures are taken upon arrival, masks are worn, dividers have been put between booths to help separate diners from one another, and texts are sent to diners, who can wait in their car for their table to be made ready. And carry-out business remains a popular option at Texas Roadhouse in particular.
"It's not fun wearing masks in hot kitchens, but I think our team members have taken seriously what they've seen happen at other restaurants," said Hamlet, as other local chains have had to shut down operations because of coronavirus scares among their employee roster.
Hamlet is hopeful Beshear will see fit to readjust the numbers in a positive way in a short amount of time, but for the time being, Texas Roadhouse is just going with the government mandated flow.
"At the end of the day, we're just going to do what the governor and local health department say; if they tell us to do it, we'll do it," he added. "Our priority is making sure our staff and the public is safe at the end of the day. If we have to jump through a few extra hoops, we will."
Muse sounded more concerned about Buffalo Wings & Rings being able to keep and compensate its hard-working staff as a result of the latest capacity change.
"First, and most importantly to us, it affects our ability to keep our employees working the number of hours that they normally receive," he said. "With the decreased capacity, clearly we will have reduced sales numbers. With lower sales, it means that I have less money to spend on labor. That means we have to reduce hours for our employees. These folks have rent, bills and living expenses that they have to take care of regardless of what our capacity is and it makes it extremely difficult for them to meet these obligations. It also makes it extremely difficult for us to meet those same obligations as a business. We also have rent and bills that we have to pay to keep our business operating."
It's too early to tell what the effects of the latest change will be longer-term, noted Muse — the order was supposed to be in effect for a couple of weeks, but could be extended — but Muse said that he anticipates the weekend period will suffer the most.
"We have a lot of tourism in our area particularly on the weekends," he said. "In addition, people just tend to dine out more frequently on the weekends. With the reduced capacity, we will no doubt lose some of our business."
As adjustments have been made to basic operations details from labor planning, dining room layouts, and additional expenses for things like masks, gloves and cleaning supplies, Buffalo Wings & Rings has also had to transform itself in a short period of time to accommodate higher carry-out volume and less dine-in business. He said the restaurant plans to add additional outdoor seating, while "working to perfect" contactless curbside service and offering delivery to a limited area to help those not yet comfortable being out in public.
"There are so many new burdens that we have to take on to comply to the ever changing restrictions, but I think one of the biggest is how to maintain a high level of customer service while trying to remain compliant with all of the restrictions," said Muse. "We want all of our guests to feel like they are just that, our guest. Opinions on the restrictions vary widely and it is very difficult to please all of our guest when it comes to how we apply those restrictions. It is incredibly difficult to enforce face coverings, social distancing and party size restrictions on our guests and maintain that customer service aspect."
Of course, at 25 percent, a restaurant like Texas Roadhouse or Buffalo Wings & Rings can still have a pretty good amount of people inside it. For the smaller Sock Hop Diner in Burnside, that means 14 people at a time — which, if a large family or two comes in, means other customers might get shut out.
And owner Dawn Dowden doesn't feel like the "one-size-fits-all" approach to policy from the state level does her brand of business justice.
"Honestly, my business was actually starting to pick up rather well from the first round of shut downs. Then this week, it's like a ghost town," she said. "It doesn't make sense to me for a small diner, or a small restaurant period, that has limited seating to have to go through this. I feel like they are picking on the wrong businesses. I don't think the restaurants or bars are the ones that are showing the most cases."
Added Dowden, "If the governor were in the shoes of the business owners, he would understand that some of his mandates should be in other places other then restaurants. We have so many restrictions to comply with on a day basis, that everything has to stay sanitary at all times to begin with, and now we're being even more cautious. I understand why the governor is doing what he is doing but I also think that he is targeting the wrong businesses for limiting people. He needs to focus more on the majorly crowded places, such as the grocery stores."
Even the mask mandate can be a complication for a business owner. With the burden put on individual operations to comply or risk being penalized by the local health department, employees must decide whether or not to question those who enter without wearing a mask, which can get uncomfortable if it comes down to claiming a medical reason why they can't wear the mask. And that's not all.
"We have to ask our customers for personal information for the contract tracing which makes me feel like I'm violating my customers' personal life too much; if they wanted me to know that information, they would provide it to me," said Dowden. "It is very hard to keep up on the mask and glove supplies for my employees and make sure that my customers have the mask they need to enter. The one big burden is having to tell my customers that they have to wear a mask to come in and sit down and eat when everything is as social distanced as it can be in a small place like mine. Its hard to make people wear masks and I don't want to refuse customers because of this and I am not going to violate HIPAA law by asking them why they can't wear them, but I will ask that they stay six feet away from other customers."
Dowden also said that while some people think a business like hers might have been able to get federal assistance, it was was "not approved for anything, and most in this town were not." The Sock Hop Diner is a labor of love for Dowden, but the conditions under which she's currently operating make it very difficult for her to continue to do business in the community she loves.
"My diner is not a something I wanted to do its something that I needed and still need today," she said. "After dealing with multiple health issues and being stuck in my home for three years, I finally got to get out and open my little place. I personally try to make sure each customer is happy; if I get a complaint, I try to handle that myself even if I'm not there, just so I don't have to go back to the girl I use to be.
"I own a non-profit as well (Thrifting for Santa), which I try to help families for Christmas like I did with the Burnside Fire Department last year, and it is my biggest love other than my customers and my family," she added. "So this place is not a business for me — it's more of a place to help people get their bellies full and have good conversation. But I try hard to comply with all the regulations, but they are killing business bad, and I'm scared not just for me but for many businesses in our small town."
While bars were made to close again, some of Somerset's most popular downtown nightspots were spared that burden. Tap on Main Brewing owner Bill Hamilton said that as his business goes in the category with microbreweries and small wine producers, he was able to stay open at 25 percent capacity indoor and unlimited numbers outdoors. In response, Hamilton increased patio capacity to twice its previous size; guests are asked to enter through the back gate, and only exit through the front door.
Even with the more liberal seating outdoors, Hamilton said they're still trying to keep people six feet apart; "We're been trying to do everything we can to do our part right," he said.
On Facebook this week, Jarfly Brewing Co. notified customers that it is keeping its capacity limited to 20 patrons across five tables, with no drinking at the bar. Masks are required in any part of the business other than at the table actively drinking, and Crowler carry-out is still available online.
At Tap on Main Brewing, the normal amount of people that could be seated indoors is 67; currently, it's at 16 people.
"It definitely hurts our business," said Hamilton of the restrictions. "... I feel bad for the guys who are shut down totally."
Like Dowden, Hamilton sees larger box stores as a bigger threat in terms of spreading COVID-19 than an establishment like his, and finds the constantly shifting regulations a challenge for his business.
"I just think it's wrong," he said. "These people are struggling all year to get back open, then (the governor) up and shuts them down again. It's tough."