Phase 1 of Reopening Louisiana: Patron fights back tears saying how much she has missed eating inside a restaurant

As Phase 1 begins, some restaurants serve diners for first time in months

DENHAM SPRINGS, La. (WAFB) - They’re four words the hostesses at Big Mike’s Sports Bar & Grill in Denham Springs have waited two months to be able to say: “Yes sir, we’re open.”

Owner, Mike O’Neal, known to everyone as “Big Mike,” celebrated the restaurant’s 10th year, a milestone indicating the restaurant has truly become a part of Denham Springs.

“I thought the flood was a once in a lifetime disaster, but I’ve never dreamed of anything like this,” said Big Mike. “It’s not just financially and mentally, I mean, it’s just everything. It’s a life change. It’s like somebody cutting your legs off from under you. We get the notice on Monday and Tuesday you were closed. There was no time to prepare.”

They made the decision to shut down after realizing it wasn’t worth it to stay open for carryout orders only. Today (May 15) is a grand opening of sorts, the third one actually if you count when they opened in 2010 and again after the 2016 flood. This time though, things look different. Before, the restaurant had two bars and could hold 288 people. But now, it’s down to a maximum capacity of 72 people. They have to follow the 25% occupancy guidelines laid out by the governor.

Big MIke's Sports Bar & Grill in Denham Springs
Big MIke's Sports Bar & Grill in Denham Springs (Source: WAFB)

“We have basically turned both of our bars into dining rooms and it has enabled us to spread the tables out and we actually have one room where we barely have any tables just in case someone still feels really uncomfortable,” said Big Mike.

To make customers comfortable, Big Mike says as a restaurant, they’ve always cleaned and are doing it even more so now after every customer and every single day. Plus, he’s assuring guests they’re abiding by safety measures among his own staff.

“We don't want you to feel like you are walking into a hospital or a surgical room. We want you to be able to come and sit down and visit people,” said Big Mike. “This is going to be a huge step. I feel these restaurants will help in getting us back to normal and getting people out again in front of people. They are gathering places.”

“It is kind of surreal because you thought that social distancing was the new norm and so it is the final experience to get back to something that is our actual normal,” said Codi Taylor, who was enjoying a meal at Big Mike’s Friday.

Friday’s meal was Taylor’s second time seeing her dad since the start of the pandemic. It’s why this first meal was so emotional.

“You would think something so small like this is not so big, but it really is,” said Taylor as she wiped her tears. “Social distancing is lonely. I mean, I have my family at home, but other people, this is their time to see family and friends, supporting local businesses.”

That support is how local businesses will make ends meet. Big Mike says the few weeks they tried to-go orders, sales were less than 20% of the norm. He says he and his wife had to dip into their savings just to stay afloat the past two months.

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“To be honest with you, it’s something I avoided because it’s something I probably don’t want to know, the number," Big Mike said about how much he has lost since the start of the pandemic.

But what he does know is how good it feels to see smiles and customers dining once again. He says it’s getting his livelihood and life somewhat back to what it was just eight weeks ago.

“Just to smell the bleach on the floor, just to hear the noise of the fryer, you don't realize what you get used to and what means so much to you,” said Big Mike.

“You're actually getting back to something that is normal,” said Taylor.

So as the sun begins to set, the ink is just beginning to dry on this first page of a new chapter, a chapter Louisiana will never forget, and neither will Big Mike.

“It’s definitely a day that I am going to remember the date and remember what we did today and what we do tonight,” said Big Mike. “Please come, try it, just see if you feel comfortable. If you don’t, that’s understandable.”

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