What Will a Post-COVID-19 Restaurant Scene Look Like?

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As restaurants have started to reopen across states like Georgia and Texas, there’s still a lot of questions and confusion about how to safely reopen and when is the proper time, as the coronavirus continues to strike at alarming rates.

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This week, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced that he expects to allow the state’s restaurants to reopen for dine-in business by May 15. Meanwhile, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is less optimistic that the District will be ready for such a move when its stay-at-home orders expire on May 15, and has been non-committal about whether that date will stand.

But eventually, the more than 2,200 restaurants in D.C. will need to open, or else many may find themselves closed for good.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released a document that details interim guidance on how businesses, including restaurants, should handle safely reopening to the public amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

As restaurants and bars consider reopening, the guidelines note that they should reopen with limited capacity that still allows for social distancing. 

Additionally, restaurants are advised to move toward disposable menus, plates and utensils; switch to single-use condiments; install sneeze guards at cash registers; and avoid salad bars, buffets and self-serve drink stations.

The guidelines also call for the use of a cloth mask or face covering by all employees when near other employees and customers.

Zachary Weiner, founder & CEO of RestaurantAccounting.net, a blog that helps restaurants with their finances, noted that regaining customers should start from the back office. 

“Restaurateurs should focus on training their staff to comply with local guidelines. Above and beyond that, the key concept is customer safety,” he told Commercial Observer. “This means taking the precautions when face-to-face interactions occur (having the proper PPE available) and most importantly having staff be aware and respectful of the customers’ current fear.”

He expects most customers will want staff to stay farther away and to be seated further apart from other customers — both reasonable expectations — and the staff should understand, accommodate, and still provide great customer service.

“I recommend both marketing materials and signage that states ‘we are here to make our restaurant safe for you, here is what we are doing,’ then list five or 10 ways that company policies have changed to better protect customers,” Weiner said. “This is instilling a level of comfort with the guest that will make them feel safe and more likely to open their wallets for a great time.” 

Affording to stay open

It’s no secret that government relief measures haven’t been available for many restaurants in the D.C. region, and relying on takeout is simply not enough. That means that restaurant owners need their landlords to be flexible with lease arrangements or many may permanently close.

Jeffrey Citron, co-managing partner at N.Y.-based law firm Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP, with an office in D.C., noted many landlords have generally been willing to work collaboratively with commercial tenants — particularly hospitality businesses like restaurants, bars, and hotels that have been forced to close or substantially reduce operations as a result of the Covid-19 epidemic. 

“The landlords and tenants usually have a shared interest in continuing leases in what was already a soft retail market, with modifications, as the landlord wants to continue to collect rent, even if it isn’t the full amount yet or has to be restructured, and entrepreneurs want their companies to survive,” he said. 

For instance, Citron’s firm has been working on several negotiations where the lease has been extended, often with more of the costs shifted to the back end, when businesses are more likely to be fully operational and generating more revenue. 

But that’s not the case for everyone.

Sushi Taro, a Japanese restaurant that has called 1503 17th Street NW home for 34 years, announced it would not reopen as a dine-in restaurant.

“There is no going back. We are moving to the future,” said Jin Yamazaki, who owns the establishment with his brother Nobu. The pair don’t believe things will get back to normal anytime soon and will transform to take-out only. 

Fado Irish Pub, which has been at 808 Seventh Street NW for 22 years, posted on its Facebook page that it has permanently closed in Chinatown, though its ending is more about not being able to keep up with rising lease rates since there’s little money coming in due to the pandemic.

Surviving the pandemic

When the stay-at-home orders came in, Ezequiel Vazquez-Ger, co-owner of pan-Latin restaurant Seven Reasons DC at 2208 14th Street NW, quickly shifted gears to survive.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant pivoted to delivery, first offering a limited menu of sandwiches and burgers and then expanding to cocktails, brunch and an all-new vegan menu. The deliveries and takeout business model is working so well through continued success, they’ve been able to rehire all kitchen staff, while many servers work as drivers.   

This has enabled the ownership to continue to pay rent.

“Once the crisis took over in D.C., one of our main objectives, aside from continuing to support our employees, was to continue to pay rent in a timely manner,” he said. “Our landlord is a small business owner, an immigrant, who for 40 years worked as hard as he could to build a new life and a family here in America. He was also a visionary who spent all his life savings 20 years ago purchasing the building where we are now, when no one even dared to invest in 14th Street.”

So, when Vazquez-Ger signed his lease in 2018, he knew the landlord deposited a lot of trust in him. 

“He could’ve signed with other bigger restaurant groups. But he took a vote of confidence in us — two nobodies with no track record in the industry, not enough money in the bank, but a lot of passion and a solid business model,” he said. “Now it’s our time to show him he was not wrong, and that we will continue to be here and abide by our contract no matter what happens. On April 1st, we paid rent, as we do every month, and we will continue to do so. 

Once his restaurant is given the green light to reopen, Vazquez-Ger is already thinking of a plan so it’s ready to go.

“We plan to continue to keep an open line of communication with the Seven Reasons community and supporters through newsletters, Instagram and the restaurant’s website,” he said. “I think a reduced capacity is going to be the norm until the end of the year, and maybe more. The place was full, it was loud, but they could talk and have a great time. Having that feeling with 40 people instead of 90, it’s going to be different. That’s where the creativity comes.”