Eateries rework seating as restrictions ease

Before March 16, most restaurants experienced rush hours and slow times, then because of coronavirus restrictions, customers couldn’t even come to eat at all.

Restaurants had to adjust to takeout and drive-through service, if they had a drive-though.

After more than two months, they were allowed to open to diners at 30% of capacity June 1 and 60% June 15.

However, owners and managers said increasing seating while complying with the 6-feet social distancing requirement is a puzzle, with some looking outdoors for a solution.

Cantwell’s Tavern in Odessa — owned by Ashby Hospitality Group — reopened for dine-in service June 1. Jeremy Hughes, vice president of Ashby, said when phase two of the state’s reopening plan started June 15, they tried to get as close to 60% as they could, but social distancing requirements were a challenge.

“When they still enforce that the tables have to be socially distanced, 6 to 8 feet apart, whether it’s 30% or 100%, you can only fit so many people with those rules. The 60% didn’t really increase seating for us,” he said.

Hughes said the restaurant is at 50% capacity, and they cannot add any more seating inside with the current requirements. As many other restaurants have, he said they added temporary seating outside to help.

Luna’s Pizzeria and Italian Grill in Middletown is a small dine-in restaurant, seating up to 50 people. Co-owner Rob Daws said they chose not to open for dine-in service during phase one, but opened June 15 at 50% capacity, putting guests at every other table to keep them 6 feet apart.

Prior to the pandemic, Daws said they wanted to add outdoor seating. As a new business — opened May 1, 2019 — they chose to put it on hold until Luna’s stabilized. COVID-19 forced them to act faster.

“It started to push us,” he said. “Because we had a vision early on, we already had plans in place, design elements we took into consideration and when the pandemic hit, we really started to push and promote this to move forward more quickly.”

Daws said the outside tables will accommodate about 40 people, nearly doubling the restaurant’s seating. Guests will sit at alternating tables. The new seating area is still under construction, and he expects it to open at the end of the month.

“[Luna’s] is not a very big restaurant, so we wanted to capitalize on the outdoor eating area,” he said. “With the COVID-19 environment, everyone wants to do outdoor eating.”

Daws said Luna’s sales were not significantly affected when the state restrictions started because they had success with switching from dine-in to take-out and delivery.

“You have to be flexible. You have to adjust to the environment,” he said. “We weren’t doing delivery at all. We dabbled in DoorDash and Grubhub, but when [the pandemic] hit, we really had to change and take on delivery ourselves. That kept us afloat.”

When Cantwell’s had to switch to take-out only, Hughes said the restaurant’s sales were down about 80% from this time last year. Sales have picked up since the dining room opened, but he thinks they are still down 50%.

Hughes said it has been difficult constantly adapting to the statewide mandates.

“We were doing things a certain way for so long,” he said. “You are trying to find new ways to abide by the rules and regulations to keep everyone safe, but also try to stay in business and make customers feel comfortable coming in.”

About 90% of their employees were laid off in the spring.

“We were able to bring a majority of them back, but Cantwell’s is really low staffed at this point,” he said.

Daws said Luna’s had to lay off about 50% of their workers, but all of them were part-time, consisting of mostly hostesses and servers. He said their full-time kitchen staff stayed.

“Right now, we should be able to bring most of them back,” he said. “I would say most of them have an interest in coming back. We already brought back a handful.”

Daws and Hughes said the uncertainty of the pandemic is one of the big challenges.

“Not knowing what is going to happen down the road, like are the restrictions going to keep loosening or are we going to go backwards,” Hughes said. “We will keep making sure everyone is safe, making sure our employees are safe and our customers.”

In Smyrna at Bridgeway Restaurant, manager Stacy Theodorakos said customers are coming back, but the business and the employees have suffered.

“In March, I had to lay off almost everyone,” she said about her 20-member staff. “I was only able to keep a handful.”

She said all the laid-off employees except one have been able to get unemployment benefits and the one employee is working out arrangements with the Department of Labor.

“Now, everyone who wanted to come back has come back but only with part-time hours,” she said. “Our staff is back up to 15 but they’re all part-time now.”

Theodorakos, the manager for nearly 20 years, said business is improving, but not to the level it was before the pandemic.

“It’s been picking up, but with all guidelines and adjustments, it’s been really hard,” she said. “We want to be safe. We don’t want to go through all of this again, but we can’t move our booths.”

Even though the state restrictions allow 60% capacity, which would be about 120 customers, the restaurant can only accommodate about 80.

“It’s the 6-feet-apart thing. We had to print out signs with information about practicing social distancing to put on every other booth to remind customers they can’t sit there,” she said. “Sometimes people still say ‘I want that booth right there,’ and we have to tell them, ‘Sorry, we can’t do that right now. That booth is closed.’”

She said outdoor seating wasn’t a viable option.

“Not with all guidelines. We would have to go through a lot just to add a few tables. We’re not really set up for that,” she said.

When the restrictions started in March, Theodorakos said, “It was bad. Our sales were probably down 80%. We’re back around 50% now, compared to the way business was before. The phones are still ringing. We’re still doing a lot of take out.”

The restaurant cut its hours. Before the restrictions, Bridgeway was open seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, and 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday and Monday.

“During the restrictions we closed Monday and Tuesdays, and the other days we started opening later and we were only open until 8 p.m. instead of 9,” she said.

Now Bridgeway is only closed Monday, and open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Waitress Regina Campagnini has worked at Bridgeway for 18 years, but said the past three months have been the most difficult.

“There are so many challenges, not just with work. I have two small children, so it’s home schooling, and daycares have been closed,” she said. “It’s been a lot to adjust to, but I’m happy to be back and we’re doing what we can to make our customers happy.”

Theodorakos said she and the staff have been glad to welcome customers to sit and enjoy a meal inside again.

“The majority of customers have been great, but some are having problems adjusting and I can understand that. Who would have thought we’d be in the middle of a pandemic? I didn’t. For the most part, everyone’s been very kind and understanding,” she said.