As he tends the bar at La Tia and Pancho’s Cantina & Grill along historic Main Street in St. Charles, co-owner Francisco Barocio said his customers have accepted the new realities of dining in the COVID-19 era: They cooperate with restrictions on everything from how long they can linger at a table to where they can wait before a seat opens up.
“They understand,” he said. “Most people understand.”
Likewise, it has been equally important for restaurants themselves to adjust.
“We care,” he said. “I don’t know what will go on in the next few months, but right now, we are trying to keep doing our best until customers feel comfortable.”
These days the best way to get customers to that point remains a subject of intense interest for eateries around Missouri after months of repeatedly shifting gears.
They continue to search for the right methods to protect jittery diners, follow changing regulations, assuage fears and simply stay solvent after being unceremoniously thrust into a public health catastrophe that has brought on one of the worst crises ever experienced by the American restaurant and hospitality industry.
With fall approaching, though, many of them no longer will be able to count on the weather to cooperate with outdoor seating options they’ve adopted or expanded. So what have they learned, and how do they plan to keep and accommodate business when cold weather approaches and customers can’t count on al fresco dining?
The situation you are dealt
Robb Wiesen is certainly listening for feedback — even if he knows he won’t always like the answers.
“We get comments on Facebook where people still aren’t comfortable going out to eat even with the safety protocols we put in place,” he said. “That’s fine. We understand. We’ve just got to live with that.”
Wiesen, owner of Ferguson Brewing Company in suburban St. Louis County, was general manager of the decade-old establishment on Florissant Road before taking over as owner early this year — just weeks before the novel coronavirus spread to the United States.
“Great timing on my behalf,” he said with a good-humored, if somewhat rueful chuckle.
As he stands in his mostly empty restaurant on a Monday afternoon, he notes that his enterprise often runs below 70 percent of normal dining levels. Some weeks might see only half the business of pre-COVID-19 times.
Like La Tia and Pancho’s, which increased its patio capacity, Wiesen expanded outdoor seating as well by putting more tables out in the parking lot.
But he said the response was muted, perhaps dampened even further by the rain and heat of early summer. He intends to invest in a cover for the patio to make it more hospitable, but he still believes that takeout and delivery are the main game to keep business moving.
“You gotta remain hopeful,” he said. “You can’t just think about the negatives. You’ve got to be hopeful and do the best with the situation you’re dealt.”
Down the street, Bridgett Lewis has a similar attitude. She and her husband, Sonny, opened Drake’s Place in Ferguson in 2014 — only months before protests and unrest stemming from the death of Michael Brown made the St. Louis-area municipality the focus of international news.
Today, another international issue is leaving its mark on the restaurant.
“It has been very, very tough since COVID because we had to shut down our dining operations for a while and transition over to carryout and curbside service only,” she said. “We are more of a sit-down restaurant.”
Like Wiesen nearby, she found that patio dining, which seats 18 at Drake’s, was helpful for making customers feel comfortable, but it wasn’t a panacea.
“Sometimes, it is too doggone hot to eat outside,” she said.
Drake’s typically draws students from the nearby University of Missouri-St. Louis campus as well as lunchtime crowds from large employers in the area, such as Emerson and Express Scripts. All of those sources have been affected by COVID-19. So has the willingness of local seniors to congregate for book clubs or social events. She’s reduced hours by cutting out lunch and serving dinner Wednesday through Saturday while opening at noon on Sunday.
Lewis worries about the increasing case numbers of COVID-19 in Missouri.
“I’m just having a little bit of anxiety due to the uncertainty of it all,” she said. “I’m hopeful that at some point, we will get some leadership from the government across the board with people being mandated to wear masks to keep each other safe.”
Lewis and her husband also sought advice on coping with COVID from the experts of the Food Network series “Restaurant: Impossible,” which featured them in an August episode.
Whatever the concerns about her own business, though, her thoughts still dwell on others.
“People are losing their lives every day,” she said sadly. “It is hard even thinking about your business, even though that’s your livelihood.”
Hitting the curveball
For many restaurant owners, hanging on to their livelihood has become an exercise in creativity and thinking on their feet.
“I’ve always said that I think that anyone who made it through the shutdown were those that reacted quickly,” said Jesus Perches, owner of Tortilleria Perches, a Springfield-area Mexican eatery that opened in 2005.
When the crisis hit, Perches immediately contacted his suppliers looking for to-go boxes, studied different types of sealed bags, added phone capacity and invested in headsets and tablets for servers.
He also rapidly moved to adjust his menu to suit the new world his customers were navigating.
“What I did in my case was that I created a family-style menu,” he said. “I just knew that everybody was going to be at home, so I was like, ‘What can I do to feed families at home?’ So I came out with a family pack.”
He also added temporary delivery drivers during the lockdown before shifting them to other roles after reopening.
Because his doors were closed to indoor dining anyway, Perches moved to do a remodeling project with staff helping out to place new furnishings, booths, flooring and fresh paint.
“We all just came together as a team, as a family, to get through these times together,” he said.
Like others interviewed, he said he feels the future is murky. Still, he said, business was pretty decent during the shutdown, although things would sometimes slow a bit during transitional periods as customers got used to each new phase, guideline or ordinance.
“If they throw a curveball at us, just learn how to hit it,” he said. “Get creative more than anything.”
One hundred sixty miles to the north in Kansas City, Kinley Strickland also has been learning how to hit curveballs. He finds himself thinking about people, particularly those who have been so helpful during the pandemic.
“What we really want to get across is how much we appreciate the community for supporting the business,” said Strickland, who runs KC Daiquiri Shop with co-owner Calvin Vick.
Strickland has reason to be appreciative. His establishment celebrated its one-year anniversary in March — the same week as government-ordered lockdowns began. Still, he was able to successfully pivot his business model and went from laying off employees to bringing them back and hiring new staff to deal with increased volume.
The key element, he said, was action by officials that allowed the shop to sell its signature alcoholic drinks to-go.
“Once they made that declaration, we were right on it within the hour,” he said. “That was the thing that turned the whole business around for us.”
That move always had been part of the shop’s business plan, and the shop already was petitioning for legislation to make it happen, but the crisis accelerated a loosening of restrictions on alcohol locally and statewide. Strickland said word of mouth “spread like wildfire” on social media.
While he said he believes winter will dampen enthusiasm for frozen cocktails, he also believes that the eatery’s increased visibility has led to customers noticing its New Orleans-style cuisine.
“People are now recognizing how good our food is, and so our food sales have even increased since the pandemic,” he said.
Strickland said he does worry about the future, noting that virtually every restaurant owner is navigating uncharted territory without a compass.
“It was a master class in adapting to the current situation and adapting again and adapting again and adapting again,” he said.
‘We have to have it’
Some of that adaptation can be seen in the supply chain. Strickland said he’s had to switch suppliers at times and place orders earlier than normal. He also advised that it is wise to have a backup plan.
“We can’t just tell the customer, ‘Well we don’t have that because our vendor doesn’t have it,’” he said. “We have to have it.”
Back in St. Charles, John Hamilton knows that feeling. At one point or another, he’s had headaches finding everything from affordable meat to draft beer.
“I think it will stabilize,” said Hamilton, who co-owns The Rack House with his wife.
Still, supply is an important issue for a restaurant that prides itself on locally sourced items and even makes its own ketchup and butter from scratch. He worries that food prices won’t return to normal when the rest of life does.
“Once you raise them up, they don’t just bring them back down,” he said.
Hamilton said that “people who want to come out are coming out” and that his business came back pretty strongly. He’s seen a bit of a decline, however, as COVID-19 case numbers have grown worse in the region.
“I think there are a certain number of people who were coming out intentionally just to support — especially locally owned — restaurants like us,” he said.
Echoing Wiesen and Lewis, he said he believes outdoor dining has been stifled by the summer heat. He noted that the restaurant’s banquet facility is starting to book parties again, and he believes that will help to pad revenues. He’s also introduced a touchless menu option for diners using their smartphones.
“This dining room is fairly spread out as it is, so even when we were doing the partial-ban stuff, we only had to take out a couple of tables,” he said.
At Jazzy B’s Diner in Lee’s Summit outside Kansas City, Brandon Simpson said loyal customers have been the key to success. He noticed much the same thing Perches did: Meals for the entire family seemed to increase in popularity. Though orders became fewer, tickets became bigger.
“People are still going to eat. They get tired of cooking,” he said. “But at the same time, the way that they order is completely different.”
Simpson, who opened his barbecue restaurant in 2016, sounded an optimistic note, saying his glass is “always half-full on everything no matter what.”
But he admits he expects things could worsen with additional shutdowns possible in Missouri’s two largest metro areas.
“Outside of that, people are eventually going to run out of money for eating out,” he said. “My main thing is just a fear of the unknown. You can’t plan for something when you don’t know what to prepare for.”
Like Hamilton and others, he’s seen meat prices rise — a particular concern for a barbecue restaurant.
The focus on taking meals to go has also put a stronger focus on the fees charged to restaurants by major food delivery services, something that Simpson and other owners have had to figure into their bottom lines as dine-in business slackened or disappeared.
“The other thing is that you don’t prepare for the influx of to-go items — to-go boxes, disposables for everything that you put out now,” he said. “It becomes a shortage in that area because everybody needs it.”
He advises restaurateurs to keep an eye on labor costs and adjust their menus as needed.
Beyond that, his main thought is shared by almost everyone.
“I can’t wait until it is all over,” he said. “I don’t think I’m alone in that.”