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Restaurateurs Differ on Plans For Reopening

4 min read

Restaurant dining rooms in Arkansas, ordered closed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson on March 20, will be allowed to reopen today, providing they take specified precautions such as limiting diners to 33% of a restaurant’s normal capacity.

But being allowed to reopen and actually reopening are two different things.

Few industries have been hit harder than the restaurant industry. More than 8 million restaurant employees have been laid off or furloughed nationwide, according to the National Restaurant Association, which estimated that the industry lost $80 billion in sales by the end of April. In Arkansas, restaurant and car sales led April’s 2.8% year-over-year decline in sales and use tax collections.

Ryan Hamra, president of the Arkansas Restaurant Association and the owner of two Potbelly Sandwich Shops in Little Rock and Blue Coast Burrito in North Little Rock, will be reopening his dining rooms. But he noted that his eateries are fast-casual, where takeout is already a big part of the business, not full-service restaurants. That makes a difference.

And Hamra doesn’t think patrons will be flocking to restaurant dining rooms right away. “I think people are still going to continue to do curbside and takeout,” he said. He’s got all the required precautions in place and it’s easy for him to divide his dining rooms into thirds.

“I don’t know how I’d handle it if I were in a full-service situation,” Hamra said.

As president of the association, Hamra said, he’s hearing a mixed reaction to the state’s lifting of the dine-in ban. Some restaurateurs are saying they have to reopen, he said. “They just don’t have any other choice, and some have the flexibility that they can wait.”

His sales dropped 66% when his restaurants first closed their dining rooms, Hamra said. “It was really slow at first,” he said. “As people have become accustomed to this new way of living, it’s picked up.”

And like most restaurant owners, he was forced to lay off workers, but has since been able to bring back the majority of them, Hamra said. The federal Paycheck Protection Program was extremely helpful, he said.

Rob Nelson, executive chef and owner of Tusk & Trotter American Brasserie in Bentonville and partner in Pig & Swig Hospitality Group, was president of the state’s Restaurant Association before Hamra. He’s one of those planning to wait to reopen in-house dining. Tusk & Trotter has been doing takeout and delivery.

“We’re going to take that extra time to really focus on all of our eateries and make sure we have all of the processes and procedures in place not only for our staff but also for our guests,” he said. “We want to make sure that we have the utmost safety standards and sanitation standards, so we can make sure we open up responsibly. The No. 1, top-of-line concern for any of us is the health and well-being and the lives of our employees and the community.

“As of right now, it just seems a little early. We’re kind of going to sit back and just watch what the surrounding states and the area of northwest Arkansas is going to do with the slow reopenings.”

Capi Peck, owner of full-service Trio’s in Little Rock and a member of the Little Rock Board of Directors, has made it clear where she stands. “I just don’t think it’s socially responsible to open at this point in time,” she said. “And I think people appreciate that.”

When she first announced her intention to wait a few weeks, Peck said, “I have never had such a barrage of public support, even people who weren’t customers.”

Peck’s stand is a considered one. She recognizes that it’s easier for fast-casual restaurants to resume dining in because so little of the service is hands-on. She wishes luck to the restaurants that choose to reopen their dining rooms. She’s informally surveyed customers on social media and elsewhere, and “I just don’t think the consumer confidence is there.

“And we’re doing OK with this new business model.” Trio’s has converted its dining room into a staging area for pickup and delivery of meals. “I’m generating a lot more revenue this way than I would be by allowing 30 people to come into the restaurant,” she said.

Nelson said some restaurateurs in northwest Arkansas “are on the same page as I am; some aren’t.”

Some restaurants might find that being able to open up at only 33% capacity initially isn’t financially feasible, Nelson said, echoing Peck’s concern. He hopes the “slow progression of opening up doesn’t mean a slow progression of a shutdown again. But stay optimistic. That’s all we can do.”

Plus, well, Nelson has already faced his worst fear as a business owner: having to lay off employees, though his participation in the PPP has allowed him to bring back many of them.

“It can only go up from here.”

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