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Georgia restaurants are allowed to open: Now what?

Operators in the state can start reopening their dining rooms this week, but not everybody is rushing to do so.
Photo courtesy of Marlow's Tavern

Reactions ranged from surprise to total shock in the Atlanta restaurant community when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced on April 20 that restaurants in his state could reopen on Monday. Most thought the announcement might come when the state’s shelter-in-place mandate was lifted on April 30, but not before. Atlanta’s mayor wasn’t even aware of the ruling until her son told her he heard it on TV. Mayors of other Georgia cities were not alerted beforehand either, according to one operator. Even President Trump was caught off guard—and angered—by the decision, as Georgia still falls short of the White House’s criteria for reopening.

Hopeful restaurateurs in Georgia and the rest of the country may have been mentally sketching out reopening plans ever since they were forced to close, but few could ramp up in less than a week—nor did they want to. Even if they were doing takeout and delivery, no dine-in restaurants were operating at pre-COVID-19 levels in terms of staffing, food, supplies and cash flow. What’s more, the governor didn’t issue any official guidelines until Thursday, April 23, following on a document released by the National Restaurant Association.

Many of the state’s restaurateurs are strongly opposed to the idea, as it compromises the health and safety of both employees and guests. “It’s irresponsible,” said Steven Satterfield, chef-partner in Atlanta’s Miller Union. “[COVID-19 cases] haven’t peaked yet, and the state is still under a state of emergency until May 13.”

Hugh Acheson, chef-owner of Five & Ten in Athens and Empire State South and By George in Atlanta, voiced his opposition in a tweet: “I am the leader of my restaurants. I will say when we open. It will be when I feel it is safe for those I employ, my family and my customers. No one tells me when to open. Period. And not Monday.”

A staged approach

Nevertheless, “Georgia is serving as a dress rehearsal for the other states,” said Bo Peabody, a member of the Georgia Restaurant Association’s hospitality task force and co-founder of tech company Seated. “Every operator and guest has to make their own decision about reopening, and everyone should respect that decision.”

Georgia restaurateur John Metz, who operates Marlow’s Tavern and is CEO, executive chef and co-founder of Sterling Culinary Management, agreed. “People have to open at their own pace and be prepared to do what’s best for their employees and guests,” he says, “but I’m excited about the opportunity and choice to reopen.”

For Metz and his team, “having a game plan is in our DNA,” and although he has had to rewrite that plan almost every day, he said, he is ready to slowly open locations, starting the week of April 27 and following White House guidance for a staged approach. Metz understands the various neighborhoods Marlow’s Tavern serves and intends to open first in those that consider the restaurants a place of refuge and comfort.

“We want to make sure we have all the guidelines in place from the state, FDA, CDC, National Restaurant Association and Georgia Restaurant Association, plus we’re adding extra protocols of our own,” Metz said. “Most important is building confidence for our guests and employees. If an employee is hesitant about coming back, we will respect that.”

“People have to open at their own pace and be prepared to do what’s best for their employees and guests. But I’m excited about the opportunity and choice to reopen.” —John Metz, Marlow’s Tavern

To ready the restaurants, Metz is installing plexiglass dividers around booth areas and removing half the bar stools and tables from both the interior and patio to limit capacity and promote social distancing. He is also installing an enhanced air filtration system and has secured all the necessary sanitation equipment.

Most Marlow’s Tavern locations have been doing takeout business since mid-March and plan to continue, so Metz has been in constant touch with suppliers. “We reached out to our vendors on two fronts: first to assure them that we are still in business, and second to let them know when we are reopening each location,” said Metz. To make for a smoother transition, he suggests allowing farmers and protein suppliers to come along at their own pace, as they also have to ramp up.

Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill, which has three locations in Georgia, plans to reopen those units next week. “We’re viewing it as a slow and gradual process,” said James O’Reilly, CEO of the casual-dining chain. “We’re not expecting guests to flood back into our dining rooms.”

To get each restaurant ready for reopening, the team is reconfiguring interiors to conform to social distancing rules and retraining employees on new service steps to ensure safety, following CDC and federal guidelines. Among other changes, workers will have access to masks and gloves, and condiments will be removed from tables after each turn to be disinfected with single-use sanitizing cloths before being replaced for guests, O’Reilly said.

“Recovery will be slow,” he predicted. “The labor model will follow the business as it shifts, and as the dining rooms fill up, we’ll be able to bring more and more people back.” Smokey Bones has been successfully selling meal kits and pantry items during the shutdown, and those will continue to be sold, even as more of our dining rooms open up around the country, he added.

“We ... finally got into a good rhythm and with good business. To revert back would take training and retooling. It’s stressing me out as much as the closure.” —Suzanne Vizethann, Buttermilk Kitchen in Atlanta

Reclaiming the dine-in space

Restaurants that pivoted to takeout, delivery and other to-go options can’t always make the shift so easily. Miller Union is contracted with Emory Health to provide meals for front-line workers, a program funded by State Farm Insurance and the Atlanta Hawks.

Twenty-five of the restaurant’s 40 employees are on the payroll, “and the dining area looks like a warehouse,” said Satterfield. “It’s filled with to-go ware, face masks and sanitizers.” He and co-owner Neal McCarthy can see transitioning to takeout if the funding runs out, “but we don’t expect to gear up to a fully functioning restaurant until late summer,” said Satterfield.

Suzanne Vizethann, chef-owner of Buttermilk Kitchen in Atlanta’s Buckhead area, completely reinvented her restaurant when she was forced to close, offering family meals for customers to preorder and launching an e-commerce store to sell her new cookbook and other merchandise. Half of her employees and all the salaried managers are getting paychecks, with everyone pitching in to do a little of everything.

“We flipped the dining room into a fulfillment center and finally got into a good rhythm and with good business,” she said. “To revert back would take training and retooling. It’s stressing me out as much as the closure.” Vizethann shared that she is a good month away from reopening, “whatever that looks like.” She has to figure out where guests will wait, create a separate entrance and exit and switch to a reservations-only policy, among other changes. “And will we make enough money filling just half our dining room with customers?” she keeps wondering.

“You can’t control what customers do. One customer can sneeze because of an allergy, and you’ll create a riot in the restaurant.” —Neal McCarthy, Miller Union in Atlanta

A balancing act

Bob Amick, founder and CEO of Concentrics restaurant group, operates three restaurants in Atlanta. Two Urban Licks, the largest, has 450 seats, a bustling bar and a large patio. But with social distancing rules in place, the vibe can’t be the same, he believes. Plus, “even if we open, who is going to come?” he said. “There are no travelers, no hotels open and parents are running schools. We’ll be lucky to have 30% of our business.”

Amick said the earliest he would reopen Two Urban Licks is the end of May or early June, conducting frequent analyses on the staffing and volume he can expect. He’s watching the behavior of Atlanta consumers as other restaurants reopen, and planning to “spread the love” among the 100 employees he furloughed by phasing in rehiring. 

“The big question is, when will people get over their fear?” he said. “When will they feel it’s safe enough to dine out?” There has to be a certain level of optimism and trust among the American people to make this viable, Amick said.

The customers are the wild card in the reopening scenario, many operators agree. There’s no doubt that people are anxious to go out to eat, but while you can control the environment and your employees, “You can’t control what customers do,” said McCarthy of Miller Union. “One customer can sneeze because of an allergy, and you’ll create a riot in the restaurant.” He and Satterfield also cite LA County’s decision to flag restaurants with COVID-19 cases. “It could be the customer’s fault, but that would mean the death of your restaurant,” said McCarthy.

One shot to get it right

The unpredictability of this virus plays a big role in the reopening strategy. “You don’t want to reopen knowing there’s a risk of closing again,” said Amick.

Although Georgia operators may start to feel pressured next week, Peabody advises against opening prematurely. “If you don’t reopen properly, it can permanently damage your business,” he said. “There is importance in being second and learning from other’s mistakes.”  

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