Restaurants adapting to new business model as stay-at-home order nears sunset

Dining experience could look very different once restaurants reopen

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - It appears Governor John Bel Edwards will allow his stay-at-home order to expire Thursday, April 30 and replace the strict guidelines with a new, looser executive order by Friday, May 1.

The new guidelines will allow some businesses to re-open or operate more normally, though they’ll still be expected to implement social distancing. Some vulnerable people may be asked to take extra precautions.

Aside from those basic tenets, it’s unclear exactly what businesses like restaurants will have to do to comply with the new order.

“Everyday I hear different things, but there’s no guidance on that yet,” restaurateur, Stephen Hightower, said, whose projects include City Pork, City Slice, and Rouj Creole.

President Donald Trump’s guidelines for re-opening the United States’ economy, issued the week of April 13, are broad and allow governors the final say on how business should continue. Edwards says he’s still working out the details on his plan, though he has frequently hinted that occupancy limits might be a key component.

“I don’t know what it looks like if a server brings food to a table,” Hightower said. “Is it setting a tray up, delivering food to that tray, and letting the customer get their own food?”

Until Edwards issues the guidance, restaurant owners are left guessing at the sorts of policies they may have to implement to resume dine-in services. For now, most establishments are surviving on makeshift drive-thru operations, carryout, and bulk orders.

“Is it half occupancy? If you have a private room, is ten people the most you can have in that room? Are we going to set up six feet apart in the kitchen and reduce our menus more?” Hightower asked.

He says he and other restaurateurs have discussed the possibility the state would require disposable menus and removing seats from their bars.

In other countries, some restaurants have placed Plexiglass barriers between booths to keep customers from spraying germs on each other.

More specific guidance should come before Friday, May 1, though any new recommendations will force restaurants to adjust their business models again. Until there’s a vaccine, Hightower says his shops are just hoping to break even on their investments.

“That’s really been the guidepost right now for us: Can we bring people back to work and, at the same time, have a little bit left over for the overhead cost that goes into it?”

It’s a business model further complicated by a requirement in the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that requires restaurants to spend 75% of their government loan in eight weeks. With reduced demand, Hightower says his restaurants don’t need as many employees to operate.

“It’s like the government wants us to spend all this money, but we’re just spending it to spend it,” he said. “I want to do it the right way, but they’re putting me in a position where I’m going to have to pay people to sit at home. Those people could potentially lose their unemployment benefits because I’m going to get them a check that’s not going to be as high as what they’re receiving,” said Hightower.

Any new plans also assume that patrons will want to spend their money eating out while the nation’s economy recovers from an unprecedented disaster.

But Hightower says restaurants have adjusted to bizarre scenarios before, perhaps best evidenced by the makeshift drive-thru tent set up outside his City Pork location on Jefferson Highway. His business, and so many others, have already adapted to survive.

“We’re grinders,” he said. “If there’s any group of people that can find a way, it’s going to be the restaurants.”

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