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Hear from Durham's Restaurant Owners: How You Can Help

Estimated Read Time:
7 minutes

What we can do as diners to better support and understand our local restaurants and bars during Covid-19.

Posted By Amber Watson on Sep 23, 2020

We all know Covid-19 has been a nightmare for restaurants, bars, and cafes, and in a city that prides itself on a robust food and beverage industry, this is especially tragic. But, let’s not forget, this is Durham — we are a resilient, creative, and supportive community. Restaurant owners have shown a high level of ingenuity and flexibility and it is our job now as consumers to help our favorite businesses stay afloat—from beyond saying that we support them to actually going out and frequenting our local restaurants responsibly, here are some tips, factors to keep in mind, and best practices based on feedback from local restaurant owners.

Brad Bankos, co-founder of Eastcut Sandwich Bar, which currently remains contactless curbside pickup only, points out that it is important to understand the restaurants’ motives: “Our priority is the safety of our team members and our guests. Beyond that, it’s about keeping the business afloat until this passes. We look at the risk-reward of these situations and the worst-case scenarios are incredibly daunting—sick team members, closing the business, etc.. The best-case scenario is limited—we could open outdoor seating and increase revenue (our indoor dining room is too small for social distancing). Based on that, is it really worth changing the business model again? Currently, we don’t think so. If there were more certainty about the containment of the virus, then we would reevaluate. Until then, we will continue to maintain safety by only offering contact-free take-out. In terms of business volume, 100% take-out is not as strong as normal business, but it’s enough to get us through. We really appreciate the support the community has shown us.”

Plan Ahead

Check websites & social media

Planning ahead is everything these days in order to avoid frustration and unwanted surprises. Because every restaurant is different in terms of what they offer, how they are set up, and how they are operating during Covid-19, it is wise to check each restaurant’s website and/or social media before heading out so that you know what to expect: Do they require reservations? Are they carry out only? Do they have outdoor seating?

Make backup seating and bathroom plans

Take into consideration you may have to find a place to enjoy your meal elsewhere if they do not have seating or if outdoor seats are full. Establishments that are serving take out/pick up or doing outdoor dining only probably will not have public restroom access (and some places are reserving restrooms for staff use only for safety reasons). Be understanding and think ahead just in case.

Make reservations

Even if a restaurant does not require a reservation but accepts them, it is not a bad idea to make one as it helps the restaurant plan ahead, order enough food, and properly staff. And if your plans change and you can no longer make it, be sure to call in and cancel so they are not wasting their limited seating.

Follow Protocols and Policies

Mask up

One of the most basic guidelines to remember is to always wear a mask that covers your mouth and nose, except for when actually eating or drinking; this includes when you get up to leave, use the restroom, or walk about from your table.

Stay at your table

And speaking of tables, stay at your own. Practice social distancing and don’t mingle about other people’s tables (even if you run into your friends) as this defeats the max group limit (which is six at a table).

If you come with a large group, be prepared to split up into smaller tables and do not move the positioning of tables and chairs as their spacing is intentional to meet social distancing standards. Also, don’t change tables without asking. With strict cleaning protocols in place, staff have a lot to keep track of.

Be considerate

Waitstaff don’t want to have to be the “bad guys.” If you are hovering around another table or group, they will likely have to be the ones to come and break up the party and that puts them in an awkward position.

The same goes for children…we should not be letting our kids run around inside or outside unsupervised. This was true pre-Covid-19 too, but is especially true now. Staff do not want to be the ones to tell children about the rules. Make sure they know to wear their masks, too, and stick at or right next to your designated table.

Don’t loiter

Because restaurants can only operate at a limited capacity these days, each table and each place at the table counts for double. With that in mind, don’t linger or loiter at tables after finishing your meal or drinks. If your family or small group is enjoying each other’s company, consider taking the party elsewhere, like Durham Central Park or walking around downtown.

Follow the signs

When you arrive at the restaurant, look out for and follow the signage on site. Remember, restaurant owners and staff have taken the time to carefully evaluate the scope and limitations of their interior and exterior spaces and placed specific signage, directions, and placeholders in accordance. As guests, we must be respectful and cognizant of those guidelines—they are there to keep us and the staff safe—and ultimately, to keep these restaurants in business. Signage might come across as wallpaper or checking a required box, but thought has gone into what’s being said, how it’s being said, and when you’re supposed to read it. Breaking seemingly simple protocols can lead to severe consequences for the restaurant owners, such as a temporary (or worse, permanent) closure.

“I think what customers don't always realize is that the processes we've put in place are not to inconvenience anyone, but to allow us the opportunity to focus on maintaining quality, accuracy, and promptness of every order,” explains Jen Gillie, owner of NuvoTaco which also remains curbside carry-out only. “In a predominantly ‘to go’ world right now, getting those three things right as often as possible is everything, and it requires everyone to do their part. By following our established processes, we are confident we can give everyone the best experience possible, consistently.”

It’s the Thought (and Tips) That Count

Order enough for everyone & tip well

Be sure to order enough food for everyone at the table. Sharing plates is not helping the bottom line. If you are able, indulge in some drinks and dessert. Every bit helps. And don’t forget to tip well. Waitstaff are serving less customers while having to do more work to keep everyone safe. They may have reduced hours during the pandemic, too, so show them a little extra love.

Chris Creech, co-owner/brewing operations at The Glass Jug Beer Lab says his business is spending a lot more money on staffing more people to do the necessary cleaning and traffic control, plus PPE, cleaning supplies, signage, etc., all while selling less product.

“With a higher percentage of our sales coming in the form of bottles and cans to-go, we make a smaller profit margin, and our bartenders make fewer tips. So, in an industry that already operates on thin margins, we're having to be creative to stay profitable while selling lower-margin products and with higher expenses,” he shares.

Curbside love

And just because a restaurant is takeout or curbside only, does not mean they should not be tipped. It is difficult to fathom how much behind-the-scenes work goes into running a smooth, safe and efficient takeout business.

Bankos at Eastcut explains there is a lot of organizational effort needed to get these orders made, packed, checked, and properly sent to the right customer.

“It takes many more hands than you would think to execute this system well. It also requires a good amount of staging space—our indoor dining room is now a landing and sorting zone for all our take-out orders,” he says. “And technologically, we have spent many hours crafting a guest-friendly and eye-catching online platform. Guests have been awesome for using this platform versus phone calls, which take a huge chunk of time for our team members to process.”

Creech at The Glass Jug agrees: “The original biggest challenge at The Glass Jug was how to move from having over 50% of our revenue come from on-site consumption to 100% to-go. This meant launching an online ordering platform with curbside pickup and delivery on a moment's notice for a store with over 500 different products that change daily. That was a huge challenge and required a lot of work from every person on our staff. We threw a lot of curveballs at our bartenders, but they were able to roll with it and do what needed to be done to keep working and keep getting beer and wine to our customers.”

Be flexible and understanding

Understand that menus and offerings may differ from our pre-Covid-19 days. You might really miss your favorite dish, and the restaurant probably misses serving it! Many restaurants have had to make tough calls on their menu items because supply chains have shortages, products are more expensive, and some items just don’t translate well for takeout or cannot be executed as easily with limited staff.

When the pandemic hit, Gillie at NuvoTaco was scared about how they would live up to and not compromise the reputation they had established over the past eight years. “Could we literally ‘box up’ what our guests love about our food and us?” she worried. “Some of the popular items had to be sacrificed from the menu because we couldn't ensure the quality we expect from ourselves. Other things had to be eliminated simply because of logistics. It wasn't feasible to have so many options and still get food packaged and out the door promptly. We've been evolving our ‘new’ concept daily over the past six months and have streamlined our process to operate at a maximum level of productivity.”

Some restaurants and bottle shops that were more fast-casual/hang out spaces have, in a sense, had to become more formal—a challenge for places like The Glass Jug. “We have tried very hard to keep a casual vibe to our space, while also ensuring customer and employee safety. In doing so, we’ve had to remove all of our bar seating and discourage people from gathering while standing, which immediately creates a physical and perceived distance between customers and our front of house staff, thus making things feel more formal,” says Creech.

Along with group size limits (six max), guests must remain seated at a table unless ordering a drink, closing their tab, or shopping in the retail beer and wine shop, so there is less room for casual socializing. Creech has helped offset this with outdoor music and movie events in the beer garden on Saturdays and staffing a host/hostess to help guests find a seat or a "drinking circle" in the grass where they can set up their own tables/blankets in a designated area with proper distancing.

Everything old is new again

With all these new rules and regulations, patience is key. When a new restaurant opens, they deserve a bit of grace—there are bound to be bumps in the road and some kinks to iron out…consider that every restaurant had to basically become a new restaurant when the pandemic hit. Not only that, but they have to continue to pivot and rework their structure and offering depending on state and local guidelines and numbers.

When Covid-19 shut down indoor dining, closing up completely was not an option in Gillie’s mind. “I quickly realized what NuvoTaco was isn't what it's going to be moving forward, so I approached it as a new business concept. It was exactly like opening a new restaurant, and fortunately, we had a great foundation in which to pivot from. We went from thirty-five employees to fifteen, and when you are operating at forty percent of your usual business, it's imperative to get the most out of each position.”

But also, every reinvention is costly. “Every new ‘pivot’ has its own set of start-up costs related to it,” adds Shannon Healy, bartender at Alley Twenty Six. “Up until March, we were a craft cocktail bar that served great food. In March, we could no longer serve cocktails, so we had to ask ourselves, How does a cocktail focused place move forward? For us, it's about re-imagining what we can do that feels true to who we have been.”

Before the pandemic, Alley Twenty Six never encouraged “to go” business because their menu was never designed for takeaway, but the new reality is that restaurants are all in a “to go” food business now, like it or not.

“With the exception of the ‘Alley Burger,’ Chef Carrie Schleiffer had to start from scratch,” says Healy. They are now serving an expanded selection of burgers, sandwiches and salads, as well as street-food inspired offerings that can be enjoyed outside in the Alley or to go. They also help people make better drinks at home by expanding their line of all-natural Alley Twenty Six tonics, cocktail syrups and shrubs; opening up “Mixers and Mercantile” (the shop inside their former dining room space that features their mixes and a great selection of vermouths and bitters, as well as beer, wine, sodas, and even a selection of quality barware, and by recording dozens of videos on how to make drinks at home and sharing them on their social media and YouTube channel.

“Most of the things we are doing are ideas we had pre-Covid-19 that we did not have time to focus on, so I hope the silver lining is that we can come out of this year having gained some new skills,” Healy adds.

Get Back on the Bull

The Durham Recovery and Renewal Task Force launched a campaign that offers restaurants (and other businesses) a voluntary self-certification tool, which outlines industry-specific safety guidelines and practices these places have implemented. Restaurants that have completed this checklist can be found on BackontheBull.com. If you’re debating whether or not it’s safe to venture out or wondering what your favorite restaurant has done to reduce risk for staff and guests, there are business listings for participating restaurants for you to see exactly what protocols are in place. For example, here are the pages for Eastcut, The Glass Jug, and Alley Twenty Six.

If you’re strolling around downtown, participating restaurants have signage in the window that lists the top safety measures in place, too. Take a minute to read through before walking in the storefront to know what to expect and feel safe while you’re there. There are other sections of the website that outline how you can do your part to slow the spread as a responsible community member, as well as additional resources that include the latest COVID-19 data and current FAQs on local ordinances.

Durham Delivers

Another program that helps restaurants increase the bottom line with bulk orders is Durham Delivers. By grouping orders at one location and time, while eliminating hefty service fees levied by popular delivery apps, Durham Delivers provides a financially viable option for independent restaurants while adding new delivery options for customers. Consider becoming a “community captain” and schedule a bulk delivery for your apartment complex or neighborhood. You can follow Durham Delivers on Facebook and Instagram too, to be reminded of upcoming deliveries and notified of additional restaurants joining the already impressive roster.

For your own personal/family takeout orders, it is ideal if you can drive to the restaurant for contactless curbside or walk-in pickups. If you need delivery, call the restaurant to see if they offer in-house delivery services as this would eliminate the big service charge they lose when using mainstream delivery apps.

Share Positive Experiences

If you have a favorite restaurant that is doing all they can to survive, or a place you have been particularly impressed with regarding their safety precautions, curbside efficiency or revamped menu, leave them some love on social media or restaurant review sites. Because offerings and atmosphere may have changed dramatically over the past six months, it is good to have some recent public kudos for diners to reference when they look up places to dine in or take out.

And remember, we need to continue to responsibly and strongly support our beloved restaurants and bars into the winter, which is going to be an extra challenging time for them.

“In the colder months, we won't have the space to serve many people indoors and our beer garden is not covered or heated, so it will not be enticing in the cold or rainy weather,” Creech admits. “We are hoping some progress is made toward a vaccine or treatment in the coming months. Without that, we will see a big decline in revenue this winter when our outdoor space is not usable, so we're currently brainstorming and trying to think of ways we can safely serve people even with our very limited indoor seating.”

We all want—we need—our local restaurants to still be here after the pandemic has subsided. In return, these restaurants need us to do our part: take the rules seriously, be understanding and kind, and to get out there and (safely) partake in their delicious offerings. We’re in this together, and if we can do our part to keep them safe and supported, they can do the same for us…while keeping us very well fed.

About the Author

Amber Watson - Founder, Content Creator
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Amber Watson is the creator and writer of the local Durham food news blog, Bites of Bull City. For more, follow @bitesofbullcity.