Many of the Winston-Salem restaurants that chose to close entirely rather than switch to all takeout service in March are now beginning to reopen. Gov. Cooper’s COVID-19 executive order that took effect March 17 gave restaurants a choice: Close or do takeout and delivery only.
For some, it was an easy decision. Pizza places and fast-food restaurants already relied on takeout — and were set up to do it.
Others, though, faced a harder decision. Fine-dining restaurants have menus full of dishes that don’t travel well. Restaurant staff hesitated to come to work, either because their hours were reduced so much, they were concerned for their safety or because the federal government offered a supplement to states’ unemployment compensation that made it more attractive to stay home. Many bar-driven restaurants simply didn’t think they could pay the bills without alcohol sales.
But in recent weeks — which have included Cooper’s Phase 1 of eased COVID-19 restrictions — the lights have again come on in some of the city’s most popular dining spots, even if customers still can’t eat inside them.
They include such popular spots as Sweet Potatoes, Fratellis Italian Steakhouse, Quiet Pint Tavern, Bleu and Carving Board. They also include such relatively new restaurants as New Sichuan, Poke Star and Spruce Street Garden — Craft Tavern. Intown Donutz also has reopened, along with Mojito Mobile Kitchen.
Quiet Pint Tavern was one of many restaurants that relied heavily on drink sales for its revenue — 40% is not unusual for many bar/restaurants. Owner Dave Hillman — who also owns West End Poke and two Burke Street Pizzas — kept those takeout-friendly restaurants open but closed Quiet Pint back in March. “It didn’t seem to make sense at the time. I didn’t think I could do enough takeout to pay the bills,” he said.
His May 5 reopening was prompted by the fact that he got a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) federal government loan. Though Hillman decided to get the loan, he, like many others, said it will be difficult if not impossible to meet the requirements for forgiveness of the loan.
To have the loans forgiven, businesses must spend 75% of them on payroll within eight weeks of receiving the money. The other 25% can go toward rent, mortgage payments and utilities. (If businesses have to pay back the loans, they have a 1% interest rate and six months before any principal is due.)
In other words, the good news is that Hillman and others with PPP loans have money to hire back laid-off employees. The bad news is they aren’t doing nearly enough business to hire enough workers top pay out 75% of the loan in eight weeks — especially if the reopening of restaurant dining rooms doesn’t happen in the next few weeks.
“It’s hard when we’re doing only takeout and I have only five people working,” Hillman said, noting that Quiet Pint had a staff of more than 20 before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Like Hillman, Sammy Gianopoulos, a partner in Fratellis Italian Steakhouse, also got a PPP loan. But he said his motivation in reopening May 4 was get back in the swing of things to prepare for the Phase 2 easing of restrictions that will reopen dining rooms. “We just wanted to get the ball rolling, so we would be ready,” said Gianopoulos, who also reopened Sammy G’s in High Point and Three Bulls Steakhouse in Clemmons.
He said he initially closed because Fratellis is a fine-dining restaurant. “We really didn’t do takeout,” he said. “Our food doesn’t carry that well. A steak that I cook to medium-rare is going to be medium-well by the time you get it home. “
Freddy Lee, an owner of several restaurants in town, still has kept Le Bernardin’s and Trade Street Diner shuttered. He finally opened Bleu for Mother’s Day weekend. “We had closed at first to give our staff a chance to stay home and stop this (virus) from spreading,” he said. “But we were closed for so long. We wanted to reopen now because when the governor reopens dining rooms, you can’t just open right away. It takes time.”
Lee has opened Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse on weekends, and Bleu is open seven days a week. Even so, the takeout version of Bleu has four employees instead of 45.
Lee said that business has been decent — considering his reduced payroll expenses — but he is a long way from hiring back more employees, even if he could.
“Some staff still doesn’t want to come back. Kitchen staff are fine, but some of the other staff are still uncomfortable,” he said. “And some staff doesn’t want to come back because they are getting so much from the government now.”
Even when dining rooms reopen, he said, it may be difficult to hire wait staff who rely on tips to make a living. That’s because dining-room capacity probably will be limited to 50% —and getting your old job back at essentially half pay can be a hard sell.
Vivian Joiner, who co-owns Sweet Potatoes and Miss Ora’s Kitchen downtown with Stephanie Tyson, said that her staff told her they wanted the restaurants closed back in March.
“We had Miss Ora’s open one week, then we closed,” she said. “It wasn’t because we didn’t have business, but because guests were not social distancing.”
Miss Ora’s is a small space for what was designed as primarily a takeout concept to compliment the more upscale, sit-down Sweet Potatoes next door. “There’s not a lot of room to move around in (at Miss Ora’s). We just didn’t have the manpower to guide that, and the staff was uncomfortable.”
In a way, the closing made sense for personal reasons — chef Tyson had just had a double knee replacement. “She is still recovering, but she is leading the kitchen and doing a lot of the prep,” Tyson said.
Joiner also pointed out that information about the coronavirus was limited in March. She and the staff feel more comfortable now that they know more about how the virus spreads and how use of masks and disinfectants can reduce the risks.
Now Sweet Potatoes/Miss Ora’s is open just Fridays and Saturdays, as Joiner and Tyson test the waters. They are offering a limited menu, with takeout-friendly dishes culled from both restaurants’ menus. “Fried chicken really stands out,” Joiner said, noting that the dish travels well and people are craving comfort food. “We also sell a lot of fried okra.”
Another popular fried item, fried green tomatoes, is not available, a victim of takeout disasters. “The breading would come off and it just wasn’t good,” Joiner said.
The tweaking — and sometimes wholesale rewriting — of menus is part of what has kept restaurants closed.
“We’re still trying to figure out what people want,” Joiner said.
Other restaurants are sticking to their full, original menus. New Sichuan, a popular Chinese restaurant that opened last September, is offering its full menu of more than 100 items through its online ordering system. (It also has reopened the drive-thru window it inherited from the building’s former use as a Biscuitville location.)
One answer about menus that most restaurants seem to agree on is affordable meals for families. Many restaurants have created package meals to feed a family of four. These include multiple servings of an entree and side dishes, and sometimes an appetizer or dessert.
Sweet Potatoes offers 10 pieces of fried chicken with one large side and four sweet potato biscuits for $24.99.
Bleu has four-serving packages of fried chicken breast, chicken pasta, salmon and filet mignon that run from $39 to $64, including two sides and bread. But Lee noted that menus may change, especially because of shortages with beef or other ingredients. “I don’t always know what I can get each week, and prices are going up,” he said.
Fratellis’ family meals include several kinds of pasta with a choice of sauce and protein. Lasagna to feed four to six people costs $60 and comes with salad, bread, appetizer and dessert.
Quiet Pint has been focusing on mostly sandwiches in the $8 to $12 range. But Hillman he still is trying new things to see what works.
Gianopoulos said he is trying to re-envision Fratellis as a more casual restaurant. “We can’t do the menu we had, and we’re looking at lower price points. But I just don’t know what the restaurant business is going to be (once dining rooms reopen).”
Joiner echoed that sentiment. “It’s like having a brand-new business. Seventeen years later and we’re back to the beginning. You open the doors and hope people come and like what you’re doing.”
All of these restaurateurs said that they have been grateful for the support of loyal customers. At the same time, the money coming in from takeout is minimal.
“It’s not really enough to make it worthwhile,” Joiner said, “but it’s enough to give people the opportunity to know we’re still here.”
Hillman said he’s not even thinking about profit and loss at this point. “I just want some money coming in the door.”