November 27, 2020

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Foodies welcome

As NC restaurants weigh reopening, here’s what to expect.

Even if you don’t know Sharky’s Place in North Raleigh, you know neighborhood spots like it. There are pool tables and cold beer and a line of dart boards. It’s comfortably dark, with the glow of neon and television screens offering most of the light. It’s a quintessential neighborhood place, the kind you’ve likely been missing now for more than two months.

As a point of pride, Sharky’s Place owner Randy Wilson said his restaurant never closes, not for snow or hurricanes or holidays. For 28 years, Wilson said the doors of Sharky’s have been open and the beer has been flowing. But that stopped two months ago because of the coronavirus.

As soon as he’s able, Wilson expects to reopen Sharky’s, which could be as early as this weekend.

Wilson isn’t worried about the restaurant’s survival, even though business is down 90%. “It ain’t going anywhere,” he said. But he expects it to be different for a while.

Sharky’s will check the temperatures of patrons before they enter, Wilson said. He has thinned out the seating, mothballed half the pool tables and installed Plexiglas at the bar. House pool cues will be taken out of service and sanitized after use, as will pool balls. Restaurant cleanings will be constant, Wilson said.

“You roll with the punches,” Wilson said. “I’m a neighborhood bar, and people are clamoring to get into this place.”

Angus Barn employee Rebecca Layton arranges an antique display in one of the dining rooms on Tuesday, May 19, 2020 in Raleigh, N.C. Owner Van Eure is preparing to open her dining rooms in anticipation of Gov. Roy Cooper lifting his coronavirus restrictions.

Phase Two guidelines

On Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper announced that North Carolina will move into Phase Two of its reopening plan on Friday, May 22. Phase Two means that restaurants can reopen at 50% capacity, according to guidelines shared with the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association from the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Those guidelines include a handful of requirements for restaurants that chose to reopen in Phase Two, plus many more recommendations.

Among the requirements, restaurants have to maintain at least six feet of space between tables and bar seats. The 50% cap on guests is based on a restaurant’s fire code maximum occupancy. If there is no fire code number available, restaurants can have 12 people per 1,000 square feet of space. Restaurants that expect lines to form near cash registers or outside must mark waiting spaces six feet apart.

Other requirements include ongoing cleaning and sanitizing of doors and doorknobs and frequent handwashing. Restaurants are required to screen employees daily for coronavirus symptoms and to post signs asking any guests feeling symptomatic to leave.

The guidelines don’t explicitly require restaurant workers to wear masks or face coverings, but says they are strongly recommended. It’s also recommended that restaurants provide disposable or washable coverings for workers and guests.

Van Eure and Steve Thanhauser, owners of the Angus Barn, set up one of their dining rooms in anticipation of re-opening in Phase Two of Gov. Roy Cooper’s plan to lift coronavirus restrictions on Tuesday, May 19, 2020 in Raleigh, N.C.. The Angus Barn has reduced their seating by half, and have installed moveable partitions to help separate dining tables and make customers feel comfortable dining inside again.
Van Eure and Steve Thanhauser, owners of the Angus Barn, set up one of their dining rooms in anticipation of re-opening in Phase Two of Gov. Roy Cooper’s plan to lift coronavirus restrictions on Tuesday, May 19, 2020 in Raleigh, N.C.. The Angus Barn has reduced their seating by half, and have installed moveable partitions to help separate dining tables and make customers feel comfortable dining inside again.

Tables removed at Angus Barn

The Angus Barn is a Raleigh institution built on steak and service, on complimentary crackers and cheese, on a whiskey cocktail while you wait. During the two-month shutdown of its dining room, Angus Barn owner Van Eure admits that at first their takeout operation was clumsy.

It isn’t easy to take a restaurant that routinely serves hundreds of diners a night and convert it to takeout only. But in the course of two months, Eure said the wrinkles have smoothed out.

Eure plans to reopen the Angus Barn this weekend, making it among the largest restaurants in the state planning to reopen. Anticipating Gov. Cooper’s 50% capacity limit, Eure removed half of the dining room’s tables, but there’s still seating for 325. They built partitions that they’ll drape with quilts and move around the dining room to make barriers between tables.

Plexiglas was installed around the host stand. Diners will check in and wait for their tables while sitting in their car. An outside bar will be set up, with drinks served in single-use compostable cups, Eure said.

“I’m sure things are going to come up that we’ll have to tweak, that we can do differently or better to help things move more smoothly,” Eure said.

“I feel like why wait until everything can be opened up?” Eure said. “Why not go ahead and start getting as many people back on the payroll as possible and allow guests to celebrate birthdays.”

Chief Brewing Officer Les Stewart supervises operations at Trophy Brewing Company’s Maywood Avenue location in Raleigh Tuesday, May 19, 2020. Trophy started kegging more beers and brewing limited small batches in anticipation of selling to more restaurants as coronavirus restrictions are lifted. Stewart says they are taking a more cautious wait-and-see approach with the dine-in side of the business.
Chief Brewing Officer Les Stewart supervises operations at Trophy Brewing Company’s Maywood Avenue location in Raleigh Tuesday, May 19, 2020. Trophy started kegging more beers and brewing limited small batches in anticipation of selling to more restaurants as coronavirus restrictions are lifted. Stewart says they are taking a more cautious wait-and-see approach with the dine-in side of the business.

‘Count on Me NC’

The restaurant association put together a pledge called “Count on Me NC,” where restaurants promise to follow certain sanitation and safety guidelines and diners are expected to stay at home if they’re symptomatic. Restaurants taking the pledge will put a “Count on Me NC” sign at their entrance. Eure said the next few months will have to be a partnership between restaurants and patrons.

“We’re not going to take the guest’s temperature, we’re definitely going to count on their integrity to do what’s right,” Eure said.

Phase Two is expected to last at least four weeks, the governor’s office has said. If North Carolina meets its benchmarks and moves into Phase Three a month from now, restaurant capacity would expand. Lynn Minges, NCRLA executive director, said that restaurants will need that capacity if they hope to survive.

“No restaurant is designed to be successful at 50%,” Minges said. “As we move into the future, restaurants will continue to rely on takeout and delivery. We’re asking policy makers to allow alcohol sales to go. We’re seeing that done in other states, and it could be an important revenue stream for businesses and we’re leaving that money on the table.”

The decision to reopen ultimately rests with the restaurant owners themselves. Minges said that many will choose to stick to takeout for now, or remain closed altogether.

Lead Experimental Brewer Alex Leonard cleans North Carolina grown strawberries to be used in a batch of beer at Trophy Brewing Company’s Maywood Avenue location in Raleigh Tuesday, May 19, 2020. Trophy started kegging more beers and brewing limited small batches in anticipation of selling to more restaurants as coronavirus restrictions are lifted. Chief Brewing Officer Les Stewart says they are taking a more cautious wait-and-see approach with the dine-in side of the business.
Lead Experimental Brewer Alex Leonard cleans North Carolina grown strawberries to be used in a batch of beer at Trophy Brewing Company’s Maywood Avenue location in Raleigh Tuesday, May 19, 2020. Trophy started kegging more beers and brewing limited small batches in anticipation of selling to more restaurants as coronavirus restrictions are lifted. Chief Brewing Officer Les Stewart says they are taking a more cautious wait-and-see approach with the dine-in side of the business.

Waiting on reopening

This week, days ahead of the expected Phase Two announcement, a number of restaurants started takeout for the first time, or revived it after weeks of total shutdown. Raleigh Chef Scott Crawford reopened Jolie for takeout Wednesday, positioning the small French bistro as the source for a takeaway picnic.

His next-door restaurant Crawford & Son has been doing to-go meals for nearly two months, but Crawford doesn’t plan to open up his dining rooms this weekend or necessarily any time soon.

“I can’t retrain an entire staff on new guidelines in a week,” Crawford said in an interview last Friday. “We have to train, this is a new way of operating the business, of serving people and cooking. We don’t just wing it at my restaurants.”

Crawford’s restaurants are small by design, and a few days ago he said he took measuring tape and tried to find a configuration of tables that could sustain the business and keep people safe. At 50% he thinks the restaurant can break even.

“We certainly wouldn’t make any money at 50%, but it’s possible we could break even,” Crawford said. “And that’s working really hard.”

Crawford is reopening Jolie with the help of PPP money, he said, which runs out in eight weeks. He doesn’t know when he’ll be comfortable reopening the dining rooms, but he said he’s more optimistic now, in the middle of May, than he was two months ago.

“I do feel more optimistic because we’re better educated on what’s happening,” Crawford said. “On March 17 I was in shock. I was watching 25 years of hard work disappear in one week. No one was prepared for that. No one thought this was something that could happen.”

The general motivation behind the takeout pivot is that something is better than nothing. Nearly all restaurants were forced to layoff workers, but doing some kind of takeout operation meant there were a few more jobs than a complete and total shutdown.

Boricua Soul, which opened last year on Durham’s American Tobacco Campus after years as a successful food truck, has been running takeout and family-style meals for weeks.

“Considering the situation everyone is in, it’s been nice to generate something,” Toriano Fredericks said. “So that’s been good, but it’s not a long-term solution. It just gives us the ability to stay relevant.”

“When we’re comfortable our next move is to slide open the doors and have walk-up service,” Fredericks said. “We’ll still keep people out of the restaurant until we feel safe abut it. We have such a small space, so it’s a matter of when it’s OK to be close together. When is that ever going to be OK again?”

Optimistic, but with some fear

Communal tables have been a trend in dining rooms in recent years, but restaurants are moving away from them as they consider reopening. Boricua Soul has some communal seating that Fredericks said likely won’t be used for a while. Heavenly Buffaloes recently put an 18-foot copper table from its Chapel Hill location for sale on Craigslist.

“We’re optimistic,” Fredericks said. “But we have a fear of the bottom falling out again.”

Among the greatest fears for restaurants is becoming a place associated with a spike in the coronavirus. Sophia Woo owns MOFU Shoppe in Raleigh and doesn’t plan on reopening this weekend, saying she’ll wait until she’s more confident in the downward trend of the disease.

“Unfortunately we’re a huge science experiment at the moment,” Woo said of restaurant reopening plans. “Each state, county, city, they’re having their own rules, going about it in their own ways. … It still feels like a gamble that, personally, I don’t think we’re willing to take at the moment.”

MOFU Shoppe has been closed since March, but Woo recently held a frozen dumplings sale, which she hopes to repeat. For the first sale she sold 2,700 dumplings.

“We’re going to be at least one phase behind what’s legally allowed,” Woo said.

Woo’s fear, and the fear of most restaurant owners, is that this first step toward reopening, could mean two steps back if there’s a spike in cases. Woo said a second round of closings would be catastrophic, making it all the more important to get it right the first time.

“That would really decimate the industry and do awful things to the economy, not to mention the immediate health ramifications of what that would mean,” Woo said. “The industry would be kaput.”

MOFU Shoppe looks out on downtown Raleigh’s South Blount Street through large glass garage doors. When the restaurant does reopen, Woo said, those doors will always be open.

“If it’s hot, we’ll just run the heck out of the AC,” Woo said. “If it’s cold, we’ll run the heck out of the heat.”