Local restaurants prepare to reopen

Local restaurants have spent the last several weeks relying solely on takeout orders to stay in business during the COVID-19 outbreak. Now, they are gearing up for the first phase of reopening indoor dining with limited capacity.

Restaurants, gyms, barber shops and hair and nail salons were among some of the businesses that Gov. John Bel Edwards said can open on Friday with a maximum 25 percent occupancy, sanitation guidelines and space to allow for social distancing.tony’s pizza335 E Prien Lake Rd., Lake Charles, Louisiana 70601

Daniel P Edwards / Tony’s Pizza on Facebook

Chris Dickson, owner of Tony’s Pizza, said Monday will be the earliest the restaurant will open its dining room.

“We want to make sure we have everything in place,” he said. “We’ve been here for 52 years, but we’re having to change everything we’re going to do.”pujo street cafe901 Ryan St., Lake Charles, Louisiana 70601

Pujo Street Cafe on Facebook

Dan Schaad, owner/manager at Pujo Street Cafe, said staff has used the extra time over the last few weeks for renovations, such as painting, cleaning and sealing brick walls, stripping and finishing floors and building a new drive-thru system.

“We’ve been busy,” he said. “We’re hoping to get the restaurant back together in time for Friday.”

Dave Evans, owner of Luna Bar and Grill, said the dining area is being prepped to offer enough space between tables. The main challenge, he said, is having enough employees on hand to cover the demand. At the start of the stay-at-home order, he was forced to lay off 90 percent of his staff.luna bar and grill719 Ryan St., Lake Charles, Louisiana 70601

Luna Bar and Grill on Facebook

“We went from 58 employees down to like eight,” Evans said. “It was really tragic.”

Dickson said he initially didn’t expect the governor to lift the stay-at-home order by May 15. He said that likely changed after Texas Gov. Greg Abbot chose to lift its stay-at-home order and begin a phased-in approach, effective May 1.

“A lot of restaurants will be spinning their wheels to get set up in a few days,” Dickson said. “Even though people expected it to happen, it would have been helpful to have some target dates.”

Challenges

Evans said the stay-at-home order was “a terrible shocker” at first.

“We’re used to full speed ahead sprinting every day,” he said. “Whenever they shut it down to to-go (orders), it really slammed the door shut. It eventually started to pick back up.”

Dickson said business overall has been “as good as it could possibly be.”

“Our customer base has really stepped up,” he said. “We have a pretty loyal following.”

Schaad said business “started out pretty rough” when the stay-at-home order began. Initial sales were grim.

“A lot of people were following the order very closely, as far as staying home,” he said. “I was like, ‘How can I keep doing this?’ The numbers steadily climbed from day one. That gave me hope.”

Adapting

Since May 1, restaurants have been able to let customers eat their takeout orders at an outdoor area that has adequate space for social distancing. Tableside service isn’t allowed.

Tony’s used an owned parking lot next door to set up an outdoor seating area. Dickson said the response has been extraordinary.

“Everybody has cabin fever,” he said. “Our food keeps pretty well, but it’s just a lot better when you eat it here, and we’re able to offer that.”

Schaad said the restaurant’s existing outdoor seating area gave it an advantage. The operating hours were changed to 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with breakfast being offered in the morning.

“We kind of reinvented ourselves,” Schaad said.

Once patio seating was opened for to-go orders, Evans said there was a need for more workers. Some, he said, aren’t ready to return.

“They have said they have cush unemployment (benefits),” Evans said. “In a lot of instances, they are taking home more money than when they were working. I’m glad they’re comfortable and taken care of. Trying to get them to come back to work is very difficult.”

Like at Pujo, Evans said some of the downtime has been spent finishing renovations that began more than a year ago, including kitchen upgrades, along with updating the outdoor stage and patio area.

“We’re able to make lemonade out of lemons,” he said.

Evans said Luna applied for and received a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

“We’re in a really good position as far as all that is concerned,” he said.

Dickson said Tony’s has retained roughly 90 percent of its staff. Some left voluntarily because of COVID-19.

“We have not furloughed anyone; we have not laid anyone off,” he said. “We’ve been able to keep trucking.”

Schaad said enough staff has shown up to handle daily business.

“We may have lost a few, but as far as I can tell, most are ready to come back,” he said. “We’re just waiting to see how strongly things do come back. It’s kind of a wait-and-see situation.”

Schaad said adjusting the business to protect employees and customers against COVID-19 has been a challenge.

“This is uncharted territory for our lifetime for sure,” he said. “I realize we need to get the economy open, but we have to be safe about it.”

Evans said he is concerned about restaurants that have only been open for a few months.

“To go through something like this, it’s very detrimental,” he said. “I hope they can come back and be strong.”

As the indoor seating begins to gradually reopen, Evans said his staff will continue to follow the steps to ensure the safety of customers and employees.

“I hope we’re not doing it too soon,” he said. “Nobody knows. This is new to all of us, including professionals and doctors. We’re hoping for the best.”

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