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Survival of the fittest: restaurants stay flexible and optimistic

All sectors of the economy are feeling the sting of COVID-19. In New York City, restaurants will not be allowed to open for business indoors until September 30 and have been relying solely on takeout, those that are still operating. Many will close. However, in Connecticut takeout and outdoor dining have helped food businesses survive, and some are seeing more diners willing to eat inside lately. Owners are preparing for possible changes in the colder months.

Chris Prosperi, chef-owner of Metro Bis in Simsbury, said, “We have no complaints, considering the effects of the pandemic. We have enough business.”

But what does that mean? How much is enough?

“We can’t complain because we are grateful that we are doing enough business to survive and get to the other side. Unfortunately, we are not hearing that from some of our colleagues,” he said.

On a recent rainy night he was expecting that no one would show, but to his surprise many of his customers with reservations moved inside.

“It was the first time for some of them. They saw people eating inside so they thought they’d try it. Our dining room was full inside, but we only set half the tables because they were six to 10 feet apart,” said Prosperi.

He is hoping that this willingness to brave eating indoors shows that the comfort level of diners is going up.

In addition to offering outdoor and takeout service for several months, he is beginning to see the return of some catering for events. Families and parties of 8 to 10 people are requesting separate rooms where the doors can be closed to the rest of the restaurant, and people can feel as though they are at home.

“We have a 125-person banquet room but now we can only fit 25 people because the [state] has restricted us to no more than 25 inside. Outside we can seat 100 with the patio and tent. Lots of places are struggling. We are just paying our bills and doing the best anyone can do,” he said.

Metro Bis has been in business in a variety of locations in Simsbury for 22 years, and Prosperi has never had to lay off employees until now.

“There’s not enough business for everyone. We have laid off not quite half of our staff, mostly part-timers and kept the core staff. We are doing about 70 to 80 percent of our regular business,” he said.

The Connecticut Restaurant Association, a lobbying group for the industry, has been pushing for increasing the percentage allowed for indoor dining, and the state’s restaurants support the effort.

“But if there is a problem [leading to an increase of COVID cases], we would get shut down completely. Courtney [his wife and partner] and I are huge rule followers. This pandemic period has heightened the need for that, so we are following the rules to the letter. We are lucky to be in Connecticut because the state is doing what it should be doing, and the numbers are so low because of that,” said Prosperi.

He pointed out that restaurant operators and staff are tested every two years and are required to take classes regularly to make sure restaurants are safe and clean, a condition of doing business that existed before COVID.

According to Prosperi, “restaurants are one of the largest employers in the country,” providing jobs for 160-170,000 people. It is anyone’s guess how many of those jobs will come back after COVID.

Tony Camillieri, chef-owner of the new Toro Loco restaurant in Farmington, reported that he is achieving 60 to 65 percent of sales now, but his business only opened eight months ago so there are no sustained figures available for comparison yet.

With a Spanish-Mexican menu and outdoor patio seating overlooking a picturesque pond, the restaurant has been offering outside and takeout service with inside tables for overflow. He can accommodate 50 to 60 customers outside with six feet of separation.

“People are beginning to sit inside and seem more comfortable doing that. We have two heaters so far and will be getting more, but they are hard to get,” said Camillieri.

He wants to see what will result from the school year opening. If there is not a major increase in COVID cases in the area and the state, then he believes people will embrace indoor eating again, but with masks and social distancing as mandated by the state.

The restaurant is also in the process of getting plexiglass partitions fabricated for separating tables, adding to the tops of booths, and delineating eating areas at the bar. Delivery, he estimates, will be in a month or so.

“We are doing the best we can. It’s a long road to get back to 100 percent in sales. The state can regulate whatever, but we want people to feel comfortable. We are trying to make people happy,” said Camillieri.

Danny Keller, owner of Dish-n-Dat in Canton, which moved last November to a new location on Route 44 after 10 years at the Shops of the Farmington Valley, still offers all-day breakfast in addition to all-American fare for lunch and dinner. About 50 percent of his sales are in takeout and his total number of sales is off by 30 percent.

“We are hoping people will move in to eat. Some already are. [If the state restaurant lobby will be successful in reducing the 50 percent requirement inside] - depends on back to school results. September will tell,” said Keller.

He plans to keep his heaters going outside as long as possible and is counting on a loyal following to continue dining outdoors even in the colder weather.

“I would love to open the bar too. I have lost a lot of business there. Right now, I am operating with a limited staff. About 20 percent opted not to return to work after the lockdown,” said Keller.

The Hartford Restaurant Group, parent company of the Wood-n-Tap restaurant in Farmington, has seven restaurants open in the Hartford area, including the former Apricots location on Route 4, which they recently renovated, creating a large outdoor area overlooking the Farmington River. Their business in Hartford is currently closed for renovation and the new Enfield location has not yet opened.

Spokesperson Mary Ellen Fillo explained, “We are talking with officials about whether heaters are allowed under tent with flaps. We have tried to be so creative, but we are prisoners to the weather.”

The ownership and staff have been involved in ongoing meetings to come up with the most effective plans for an inside layout of tables that meet all the guidelines. Now the indoor space can accommodate 50 percent of the original 275 seats. They are also supporting the Connecticut Restaurant Association to increase that 50 percent limit.

“We don’t know what October or beyond is going to bring in terms of maximum capacity. And as we have done for the past six months, we will do our best to be safe, follow the rules, and be creative in order to keep business going and keep our guests safe and satisfied,” she said.

She pointed out that according to Farmington’s restaurant manager Mike Mauro, “there is already a sustained [lobbying] push on takeout food and drinks that will probably escalate. There are already Booze-n-Out cocktail kits being sold that include all the ingredients necessary to make Wood-n-Tap cocktails [at home].”

Fillo was not able to estimate current sales since the Farmington restaurant opened last October and does not have a full year of figures for comparison. And she added that the current year’s sales numbers will be skewed because of the impact of COVID.

“All restaurant businesses are struggling. We are hoping for some wiggle room,” said Fillo.

Richard Rosenthal, owner of Max a Mia and ten other Max Restaurant Group businesses, would like the state to loosen its 50 percent limit on indoor dining but is not optimistic this will happen soon.

“We want them to stick to the six-foot rule but not 50 percent. Plastic shields will allow us to fit possibly more than 50 percent [of original seats]. If two booths are back-to-back the seating can be within six feet. If the 50 percent is applied to the whole restaurant then there will be less. I am praying more people will want to eat during the day too,” he said.

The Max restaurants are prepared with propane heaters, but these are not allowed for use under a tent with four sides by the state. Only a three-sided tent can be used with heaters inside. Rosenthal is considering the use of blowers to blow heat into the tents from outside heaters.

If Connecticut’s incidence of COVID-19 case does not increase significantly then he thinks guests would feel more comfortable eating inside. His restaurants already have a brisk takeout business, so Rosenthal is counting on more in the colder months. Combining takeout, outside seating and limited inside meals, Max a Mia is achieving 75 percent of sales.

“But we have more expenses now too. There’s the tent, [disposable] gloves, face masks. Takeout requires more help because of a shorter time frame [to prep] and the paper products. We do not have a lot of liquor sales not, and there’s third-party delivery charges,” he said.

Even at his Florida restaurant in Palm Beach Garden, which has a large outdoor area, he is only achieving 50 percent in sales because the high rate of COVID cases there is discouraging potential customers.

“There are less people going out and more COVID spikes. Florida has had a huge spike the last two months. Guests who are generally cautious and safe have started to stay home. Those ages 50 to 75 don’t eat indoors. And a lot of them won’t eat outside,” said Rosenthal.

He describes recently seeing a couple in a parking lot on folding chairs having a picnic outside of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, where he also has a restaurant. They were in their sixties.

Although he has had a thriving catering business, his restaurants have only served one small wedding this summer. There have been no other catered events, except for the farm dinners his chef creates at the Rosedale Farm in Simsbury, and there have been less diners at those.

Rosenthal is grateful there have been no heavy rainy days so far, only spurts of showers.

“Even at 80 percent of sales, restaurants are not making a profit,” he said. VL


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