Rooster's Wood Fired Kitchen

Melissa and Randy Clayton share a laugh while dining at the bar at Rooster’s Wood-Fired Kitchen, Friday, May 22, 2020. The Claytons were two of the restaurants first dine-in customers after Phase 2 COVID-19 orders were put in place.

Many Winston-Salem restaurants welcomed customers back into their dining rooms for the first time in two months Friday night, as employees and diners breathed a cautious sigh of relief that it is safe to eat out again.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday that restaurant dining rooms could reopen as early as 5 p.m. Friday in Phase 2 of the easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

Restaurants, though, will be adjusting to a new kind of normal.

Cooper’s announcement came with a five-page list of requirements and recommendations from the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services that affects how restaurants do business during the coronavirus pandemic, and to an extent limits how much business they can do.

Requirements include operating at a maximum of 50% capacity, seating customers 6 feet apart if they are not sharing a table, and conducting daily screenings of employees for virus symptoms. A much longer list of recommendations includes masks for employees, disposable menus and physical barriers at cash registers.

Many restaurants eagerly took up the challenge to rearrange dining rooms, train staff, and attend to dozens of small details to make their dining rooms safe and comfortable.

Some of the dozens of restaurants that reopened Friday included Little Richard’s Barbecue, King’s Crab Shack and Oyster Bar, XCaret Mexican Grill, Los Toritos Mexican Cuisine, Cagney’s Kitchen, Rooster’s Wood-Fired Kitchen, Foothills Brewpub and Ryan’s Restaurant.

Though Cooper’s Wednesday announcement had some restaurants scrambling to ramp up operations in a hurry, many had been anticipating the reopening.

“We’ve been preparing for this,” said Nick Allen, the general manager of Rooster’s on Knollwood Street. “We started restocking food a week ago. We started bringing back employees three weeks ago.”

Many restaurants, like Rooster’s, already had been doing takeout, but with limited menus and skeletal crews.

Ryan’s, on Coliseum Drive, had been doing limited takeout and selling some groceries. “We did takeout on Fridays and Saturdays, but that wasn’t enough to keep the boat floating,” said owner Dennis Carter. “We’ve been waiting for this magic moment, when we could get the entire crew back to work.”

Carter said that Ryan’s new capacity will be down to 100 from 200, and that he reset the parameters for the OpenTable app so customers could reserve only every other table, and could place fewer reservations overall.

At Rooster’s, Allen has placed signs on every other table to keep them empty and has added tables — placed well part — on the patio. Rooster’s also has several hand-sanitizing stations, a separate entrance and exit, social-distancing markers and more. “We have disposable menus, and we’ve taken salt and pepper shakers off the table. We also aren’t using water pitchers. When someone wants a refill of water, we’ll bring them a fresh glass.”

At Los Toritos, on Jonestown Road, owner Gustavo Mar said he rented a storage unit so he could remove half of his tables. “I’ve also been taping off the bar area,” he said. “And my staff will be wearing masks at all times.”

Mar also has removed communal items, such as sugar caddies, from tables, and will serve water from individual, fresh glasses, not pitchers.

Mar said he and his staff took the online course at CountonMeNC.org, which offers COVID-19 help for customers and businesses through a joint effort by the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services, the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association and others.

Allen said that he and the rest of Rooster’s staff took advantage of a similar free COVID-19 safety course offered through ServSafe, a recognized food-safety training program for restaurant workers.

Mar said that in addition to sanitizing throughout every shift, he has hired a company to come in and do a thorough disinfecting once a week.

Though many restaurants have made a lot of changes in a short period of time because they want to get both employees and customers back in the restaurant, others are moving more slowly — either because they need time to make changes, restock and train staff, or they are concerned about offering customers a safe environment.

Restaurants that expect to open their dining rooms in the next week or two include 1703 Restaurant, Meridian, Fratellis Italian Steakhouse and Three Bulls American Steakhouse in Clemmons.

Mozelle’s Fresh Southern Bistro opened its patio for people who wanted to sit and eat their takeout. It expects to offer table service beginning June 1 — but only for outdoor diners. Its indoor dining room will remain closed.

Similarly, the Porch will keep its dining room closed but serve drinks on the patio — and allow customers to eat their takeout there.

Full Moon Oyster Bar in Clemmons remains entirely closed. Finnigan’s Wake downtown plans to reopen June 2 — but just for just takeout — and then to only gradually work its way toward reopening its dining room. “We have been evaluating the phases of reopening and believe that a slow, controlled opening is safest,” Finnigan’s said on its Facebook page.

Others that plan to stick to takeout for the immediate future include Tre Nonne, Real Q, Sweet Potatoes, Grecian Corner and B.L.L. Rotisserrie Factory.

“I have such a small dining room and some of my staff are 60 years old. It’s just too hard to make my staff and my customers comfortable,” said Simone Vicidomini, the owner of B.L.L., which is in the same 380 Knollwood complex as Rooster’s. “I don’t have a separate entrance and exit. There’s no place for people to wait for tables,” he said. “I want to get things back to normal. But I want to wait two or three weeks to see how things are going.”

Some customers, though, were appreciative of those dining rooms that were open. “This is our 10th anniversary,” said Jenny Hicks, who came to Ryan’s from Thomasville with her husband, Daniel, to celebrate. “It just happened to work out perfectly,” Daniel Hicks said.

A few tables away, Charlie and Amy Terenzi of Greensboro were celebrating their 29th anniversary – two months late. “We came all the way from Greensboro for this,” Charlie Terenzi said. “Our two favorite places are this and Cowboy (Brazilian Steakhouse) – and we’re waiting for that to open.”

Also among the first returning customers to Ryan's were Jeff Bacon, the executive director of Providence Kitchen, a program of the Second Harvest Food Bank, and his wife and son. "It feels great," Bacon said.  "And we made sure we chose a local restaurant to show our support," said his wife, Andrea Robinson.

Over at Little Richard’s Barbecue on Stratford Road, retirees John Roberts and Wendy Holder had parked themselves in an isolated corner of the outdoor patio. “It feels wonderful to get out, but we’re being careful because we’re in that (high-risk) age group,” said Roberts, 68. But they said they felt comfortable with their masks and social distancing. “I think everyone is doing their best to make people feel safe,” he said.

Inside at Little Richard’s, Tony Gagliardi, a retired restaurant inspector with the Forsyth County Health Department, was enjoying dinner with his wife, Julia. “This is way overdue,” he said. He said he was pleased with all the measures restaurants are taking to reduce the risks of spreading the coronavirus. “Seeing what’s going on here makes me feel safe,” he said.

Carter, 68, said that words can’t express how he feels to have customers back in the dining room. “I just can’t tell you,” he said, smiling. “I’ve been doing this for 52 years and the last two months have been the most stressful two months.”

Allen at Rooster’s said that a restaurant needs the energy of a bustling dining room to thrive. “I’m a little nervous about a lot of people showing up, and how I’m going to control the crowd, but we need customers. Ambience is so important. And that energy from customers – that’s what makes the restaurant.”

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