Local restaurants appear to be recapturing some of the customers lost early in the pandemic, but owners and managers say business remains far below pre-COVID levels.
Jason Such, owner of Such-N-Such Burgers and Tacos on U.S. 31, said his business is down 44% from pre-COVID sales, but it has improved from being as low as 62% down shortly after a March emergency order that shut down dine-in restaurants.
On Nov. 5, Gov. Kay Ivey amended the Safer at Home order to allow 100% occupancy in restaurants as long as people wear masks when not eating and tables are separated by impermeable barriers. That order will expire Dec. 11 if not extended.
Only one of 14 local restaurants contacted this week had erected barriers — Buffalo Wild Wings on Beltline Road Southwest.
Restaurant General Manager Michael Reynolds said the partitions were installed in May, but the restaurant continued to use every other booth for social distancing until Ivey's latest order allowed more capacity.
"Booths are our No. 1 requested seating," he said. "With football season, all day Saturday and Sunday afternoons, oftentimes now every booth is full and that means more money for our wait staff, too."
Such said catering orders during the holiday season could provide temporary relief.
“Catering is carrying our business right now,” he said. “I’ve really seen no difference in business since the restrictions have eased.”
The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 2,424 new COVID-19 cases Thursday and an additional 72 newly confirmed or suspected COID-19 deaths, bringing the state’s death toll from the disease to 3,419.
Such said he feels some customers and even potential employees are staying out of the industry in fear of getting exposed to the virus.
He said he had 28 employees before the March shutdown and he now employs five because of a drop in business, but he is looking for two cooks and three cashiers.
Mark Whitt, owner of three Whitt’s Barbecue restaurants, said his restaurant at 2523 Spring Ave. S.W. partially reopened about three weeks ago.
“We're open there three or four days a week now,” he said. “We’re still needing more staff at that location before we can open full time.”
He said in July business was at 60% of pre-COVID days and now it’s about 80%. He said his business is mainly drive-thru customers.
Steven Lin, owner of Hibachi Express on Sixth Avenue Southeast, said he closed his dining room and offers only drive-thru service.
“Business is off 35% to 40% because of the pandemic,” he said. “Maybe when the vaccine comes out and is strong we might open up. It might be a few more months. I don’t want people getting sick.”
Cost of partitions
Linda Wheeler, owner of Minnie Lee’s Catfish and Soul Food Diner on U.S. 31 in Decatur, said her business has been good. Previously on Gordon Terry Parkway, she moved into her new location six weeks ago.
“We’re all ready for this pandemic to be over with,” she said. “Most of my business is now drive-thru and to-go, but overall business has been pretty good. I can’t really complain. I know business will jump probably 50% when we can open all of our tables again.”
She said putting up partitions between booths is cost-prohibitive for her.
“We have plenty of room in the dining room,” she said. “We don’t use all of the tables to keep a safe distance for everybody.”
Jacob Smith, kitchen manager of Mellow Mushroom on Moulton Street in Decatur, said the store’s to-go orders “are up from this time last year.”
“Inside, we’re using half of our tables to ensure social distancing and are doing extra cleaning throughout the restaurant,” he said. “We’re actually doing well for how things are right now.”
Cecil and Marjorie Monk, both 86, moved to Decatur from Athens in July and said they don’t eat out as much as they did before the pandemic. When they eat out, they said they try to visit restaurants when they aren’t busy.
“We try to avoid crowds, not just at restaurants but everywhere,” Marjorie Monk said. “As long as we do what we can do and keep a safe distance from others we might go out three times a week to eat sometimes.”
Jim and Nina Brumfield, both 84, of Decatur, said they eat out less because of COVID-19 and take precautions when they do.
“We used to go three times a week. Now we might go one time a week, and some weeks we don’t take that chance,” Nina Brumfield said.
She said if the restaurant doesn’t practice safe health protocols that are easily seen, they will not patronize the establishment.
Jim Brumfield said he is encouraged by early indications on the effectiveness of vaccines being developed by Pfizer and Moderna.
“We plan on taking it when it becomes available,” he said. “We’re glad health care workers are going to be some of the first to get the vaccine. Maybe people our age will be second.”