COVID-19

What is it like to reopen a restaurant right now?

Marielle Segarra May 20, 2020
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A restaurant reopens its in-person service in Brookhaven, Georgia, on April 27. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
COVID-19

What is it like to reopen a restaurant right now?

Marielle Segarra May 20, 2020
A restaurant reopens its in-person service in Brookhaven, Georgia, on April 27. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
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On a typical Saturday night before the pandemic, Le Colonial — a fancy Vietnamese restaurant in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta — would be full. You’d see bartenders slinging cocktails with names like the Vietnamese mule and large groups sharing family-style dishes like roasted duck in a tamarind-ginger dipping sauce.

The restaurant closed in mid-March and reopened on May 4. It feels different now. The bar is closed. Servers are wearing masks and gloves. The tables are 6 feet apart, with potted palms placed strategically in between.

“We tried our best to fill in the void with the plants and being creative not to make the dining room look empty,” said Hassan Obaye, regional executive chef at Le Colonial.

Only one person is allowed in the bathroom at a time, and there’s a worker assigned to spray it down with disinfectant after every single use.

Courtesy of Le Colonial

Also, the restaurant did away with laminated menus in favor of disposable paper ones and it is handing out throwaway chopsticks — the kind that come wrapped in red paper. 

“Just to prevent, you know, any type of — it’s peace of mind, is really what it is,” said Jake Guyette, the restaurant’s general manager.

Peace of mind. It’s not just how do you make the restaurant safe during a pandemic? But also: how do you make people feel safe? 

Guyette says at Le Colonial, people at different tables — total strangers — used to talk to each other. Now they stick to their groups. And he’s noticed, when they walk to their tables or the bathroom, “there’s a caution on their faces, as far as they don’t want to get too close, you know? I feel like everyone’s scanning each other’s health. How does this person look?”

 A lot of people who do come back want normalcy. They want going to a restaurant to feel like it did before. But things are not the same for customers — or for the restaurant.

Courtesy of Le Colonial

With the changes Le Colonial has made and the rules set by the state, the restaurant is only able to serve about half as many customers as usual.

“No matter how well we do under the constraints that are in place, you are still a far cry from what you’re able to do prepandemic,” said Rick Wahlstedt, who owns Le Colonial and six other restaurants.

Sales, including takeout, are down by 30 to 40%. But Le Colonial still has to pay rent, utilities and wages. It’s brought back about 75% of its workers. 

Wahlstedt says his goal for the rest of the year isn’t to make money. It’s just to not lose money. To survive.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

When does the expanded COVID-19 unemployment insurance run out?

The CARES Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in March, authorized extra unemployment payments, increasing the amount of money, and broadening who qualifies. The increased unemployment benefits have an expiration date — an extra $600 per week the act authorized ends on July 31.

Which states are reopening?

Many states have started to relax the restrictions put in place in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. Although social-distancing measures still hold virtually everywhere in the country, more than half of states have started to phase out stay-at-home orders and phase in business reopenings. Others, like New York, are on slower timelines.

Is it worth applying for a job right now?

It never hurts to look, but as unemployment reaches levels last seen during the Great Depression and most available jobs are in places that carry risks like the supermarket or warehouses, it isn’t a bad idea to sit tight either, if you can.

You can find answers to more questions here.

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