Restaurants still adjusting to ‘new normal’ of life during the pandemic

While the first half of 2020 has been a crazy period for so many, it’s been especially dizzying and chaotic for those in the restaurant industry.

With so many ever-changing, and often confusing, guidelines, employees being laid off and the threat of coronavirus infections, the past several months have been difficult and frustrating for many restaurants in the state and those in Stanly County are no different.

“Restaurants themselves have been very, very resilient,” said Chris Lambert, executive director of Visit Stanly County.

Even though their profit margins are clearly not what they were before the pandemic, the restaurants “have been able to roll with the punches and do things differently,” Lambert said.

But even with so much uncertainty, restaurants are happy to physically serve customers again and are slowly adjusting to the new normal of operating a business in the midst of a pandemic.

“We’ve had really good support from the community and our regulars have been coming back more and more,” said Five Points Public House assistant manager Ross Morgan. “We’ve actually been doing really well given all the circumstances.”

Unlike some other restaurants, Five Points in Albemarle made the decision to remain closed throughout Phase 1 but reopened May 22 when the state transitioned into Phase 2, where restaurants could open with 50 percent capacity. Fortunately once it reopened, Five Points was able to retain almost all of its employees, Morgan said.

Five Points removed numerous booths and tables from the dining area to allow enough room for customers to properly socially distance and installed hand sanitizer stations. The staff are also all wearing masks, he said.

“We’ve been very grateful for our staff and to our customers for being patient with us because every day we’re learning something new and doing our best,” Morgan said, adding that all the support has helped the restaurant adjust to the “new normal.”

Five Points Public House in Albemarle.

Harmanco’s in Albemarle was struggling to hang on during the beginning of the pandemic, when it was operating takeout and curbside delivery. The restaurant laid off the majority of its staff and often was reduced to just owners Kevin and Jamie Limer manning the whole operation, Kevin Limer said.

While things have still been tight financially, “it’s been nice having people back in and customers have been very nice and understanding of some of the changes we’ve had to make,” Limer said.

“I can’t say enough about how much we love our customers, they’ve just been really great to deal with,” Limer said, adding that many of them provided nice tips for staff when the restaurant was struggling at the beginning of the pandemic.

Though there are still some slow days, Limer said Harmanco’s has for the most part been as busy as a restaurant could be while operating at only half capacity. Reopening for dine-in service also allowed the Limers to bring back the majority of its employees.

To save costs, the restaurant has reduced its menu and adjusted the prices on a few items and it has removed tables to comply with safety guidelines.

Due to several employees suffering from asthma and other issues, Limer said staff are not required to wear masks, though some still do. The restaurant also does not require customers to wear masks.

“I’m not going to tell anyone they can’t (wear masks), but I also don’t want to force someone to either,” he said.

Harmanco’s owner Kevin Limer brings out plates with his wife Jamie behind him.

Phase 2, which began May 22 and was supposed to last a few weeks, has been extended several times due to rising cases and hospitalizations. Gov. Roy Cooper recently extended Phase 2 until at least Sept. 11.

Though alcohol sales are now prohibited at restaurants after 11 p.m., both Five Points and Harmanco’s said the executive order has little effect on their businesses.

As the pandemic has now lasted five months and is showing no signs of abating, restaurants continue to feel the pain of declining revenues.

The restaurant industry has lost $120 billion in sales from March through May, according to data from the National Restaurant Association, and is predicted to lose $240 billion in sales by the end of the year. In North Carolina, 40 percent of business operators had to temporarily close their restaurants from March to mid-April and 290,000 employees were either laid off or furloughed, according to the latest data from the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Because of the precariousness of the industry, some restaurants, like Off The Square in downtown Albemarle, have taken a different approach from most of their counterparts: they simply haven’t been open.

Off The Square plans to open in September after being closed throughout the pandemic. (Photo by CHARLES CURCIO/staff)

Due to its upscale cuisine and the fact that it would have lost much of its customer base with the courthouse across the street not being open, Off the Square owner Scott Lee said the restaurant decided to close in mid-March with no takeout or delivery. It has remained shuttered throughout Phase 2 due to its small interior space, which Lee said is not conducive for working under the 50 percent capacity guidelines.

“We’re a lot smaller of a restaurant than a lot of other restaurants so really the inside seating is so limited, we would be down to four maybe five tables that we could have in there at one time,” Lee said.

The tentative plan is for Off the Square to reopen in September, Lee said, adding that the restaurant will be completing renovations in the coming weeks, including redoing the bathrooms, acquiring new chairs, updating the website and revamping the menu.

“We don’t just want to open back up, we want to open back up fully flourished and allow people to come in and see all the changes we’ve made,” Lee said. “A lot of things are going to be elevated.”

Depending on size, some restaurants have had to adjust how they interact with customers. Due to the small interior space inside Tho Pizza and Hot Subs in Badin, the large majority of customers engage in takeout while the ones who do order inside the restaurant, take the food outside to enjoy, said owner Phoudone Naovarath. While she and the rest of her family don’t wear masks while cooking due to the heat, they always have them on when interacting with customers.

Emricci Pizzeria in Locust has been in a unique position during the pandemic. Since it already offered take-out and delivery services before the original restrictions in March, owner Dave Emrich said it’s been “better positioned” than restaurants that had previously only offered sit-down service. The restaurant is currently operating at half capacity in both its dining room and the patio outside.

“In general, people are still cautious about dining out,” Emrich said, adding that while people are still eating in restaurants, it still doesn’t match the number of people who participated before the pandemic.

While the restaurant initially had to cut hours for several employees in March, staff are now working similar full-time hours as before the pandemic. Emricci’s also applied for and received a PPP loan which helped it continue to operate.

Aside from removing certain tables and staff regularly wearing masks, Emrich said the various salt and pepper shakers have been replaced by single use packets.

As the state continues to adjust its regulations with the reopening phases, Emrich said he regularly listens to Cooper’s press conferences to stay informed.

While the menu hasn’t changed, Emrich said the restaurant has come close a few times to running out of key food items due to temporary disruptions in the supply chain.

“There have been times when I couldn’t get pepperoni anywhere and there were times when I couldn’t get cheese anywhere,” Emrich said, adding that because the restaurant has continued to overstock on supplies, it was able to weather the incidents.

Emrich said Emricci has procedures in place if someone is sick while inside the restaurant, including thoroughly sanitizing the building.

“If someone were to get sick, we’d immediately exclude them and have to get everyone tested,” he said.

The health department has already met with the restaurant to inform the staff about health guidelines.

According to guidance from the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, employees who have symptoms or become sick should be immediately separated from others and sent home and those who test positive should remain at home at least 10 days since the first infections occurred.

The key to making it through this time of such uncertainty is to be nimble and willing to adapt to changing guidelines, said Emrich, who’s been in the restaurant industry for more than 20 years.

“It’s just a matter of being flexible and just trying to steer the ship from point to point,” Emrich said. “Who knows what it’s going to look like three months from now or six months from now, but we just need to be able to adjust what’s coming our way.”

Lambert put it a similar way: “Hopefully this virus will dissipate and things will get back to normal, but who knows what that normal’s going to be.”

Contact reporter Chris Miller at 704-982-2122.