Following Gov. Ralph Northam’s May 28 mandate to lift COVID-19 restrictions, local Richmond restaurants have started reopening to full capacity.
The restaurant industry has been one of the sectors hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Business Insider.
The total shortfall in restaurant and food service sales is estimated to have surpassed $120 billion during the first three months of the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Rick Lyons, owner of LUNCH. SUPPER!, has not fully opened his two restaurants yet, but plans to open Supper before Lunch due to a shortage of staff, he said.
"Hiring people has been the number one challenge beyond the obvious financial hardships we have had to endure," he said. "From management to dishwashers the workforce has been diminished drastically. Either they have left the industry or the feds are paying people way too much to move off the couch."
Darell Harrington, co-owner of Nate’s Bagels in Richmond’s Fan District, has also decided to take the reopening process slow, continuing to operate under the same system since the beginning of the pandemic, he said.
Harrington said customers would not be allowed inside, and all orders needed to be placed online or over the phone through credit card transactions.
Customers can order ahead of time and receive an order number and confirmation email, which they give to Nate’s staff before receiving their order outside of the building, he said.
Harrington's hesitancy to open back up completely came from the store’s space and restrictions inside, he said.
“We won’t have a lot of room inside here,” he said. “We want everybody to still feel comfortable, you know. [COVID-19] is still here. It hasn’t left, even though there are more people getting vaccinated.”
Nate’s business model of on-the-go bagels has been a plus during the pandemic, he said. Despite the ease of order-ahead and pick-up business, customers still value coming into the restaurant and sitting down, Harrington said.
“We had a lot of guests before COVID that just came in and they wanted the feel of sitting in the small shop where they could actually see our bagel rollers rolling and making bagels,” he said. "That’s one of the things [...] we’re looking forward to getting back to as well.”
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Nate’s Bagels is not backing down from the challenges of the past year. In fact, Nate’s might even be considering growing its business, he said.
Nar Hovnanian, one of the owners of Soul Taco located in Jackson Ward and Shockoe Slip, shared a similar sentiment to Harrington about reopening at a slower pace.
“We were a little late to open our dining room,” she said. “We were a little bit nervous because we had no idea, you know, things kept changing and going back and forth.”
Hovnanian said reopening has been exciting, and because of the vaccine people seemed to be more comfortable and excited about being out.
Excitement aside, Soul Taco was hit hard by the pandemic, Hovnanian said.
“At the beginning, we furloughed the majority of our staff,” she said. “We kind of just sat them down and were like, ‘Hey, this is where we are, we have no idea what’s happening, cannot afford to pay you guys, but we’re going to do everything possible to help you guys.’”
Soul Taco helped its staff by offering up its tip share, implementing an “open-fridge” policy where leftovers were up for grabs and sending fresh boxes of produce to employees' homes, she said.
During the height of the pandemic, Soul Taco tried out creative ways to stay in business, such as turning its spaces into a grocery store and catering to local hospitals and first responders, she said.
“We’re just kind of rolling with the punches,” Hovnanian said. “And trying new things and trying to stay relevant until we get to the point where hopefully things get back to normal.”
Soul Taco was able to offer every staff member their job back, she said.
Through the hardships of being a restaurant owner during the pandemic, Lyons said he learned an important lesson.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” Lyons said. “You have heard this cliché over and over through the years, but it really hits home now more than ever. What used to be bigger issues are just not that big of a deal anymore.”
The pandemic has drastically changed the landscape of the restaurant business, Lyons said.
"I have cut literally over $500,000 in yearly salaries since the pandemic has started with no interest in going back to that level of management again," Lyons said. "I used to have ideas of growing my business and expanding, but now I'm more than happy with where I am now."
Lyons is able to see some positives that have come out of the past year, he said.
"The pandemic has given me the unique opportunity to re-invent my business and myself," he said.
Contact City & State writer Hannah Levine at email@example.com.
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