Restaurateurs alter serving to cope with COVID-19

WILKES-BARRE — COVID-19 has had an effect on almost every aspect of day-to-day life – particularly, dining out. With restrictions put into place nationally, statewide and locally, many restaurants owners, as well as their employees, are feeling the pressure.

For many Wyoming Valley restaurant owners, new restrictions due to COVID-19 mean limiting their normal business practices, which vary from business to business. Jake Schell, owner of Pizza Heaven, Luzerne, has chosen to adapt his current business, rather than closing all-together.

“As a pizza shop, our business has been pretty steady,” said Schell, who has been an employee of the eatery since he was 15 years old, but took ownership of the restaurant roughly four months ago. “Our dine-in capacity is about 40 people, and historically, most of our sales have come from take-out, so the dine-in restrictions haven’t really hurt our business.”

Madison Hummer

Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend individuals limit their social interactions, keeping a six-foot distance apart from others at all times. Additional handwashing, as well as limited travel, are also suggested.

On April 1, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf took these measures a step further, enforcing a statewide stay-at-home order. The order prompted the closures of many local bars and pubs, as well as restaurants not able to offer take-out options.

Schell said he has implemented extra precautions, both for the safety of his customers, as well as his staff.

“I made a hand sanitizer station outside of the front door, (which is) made of wood scraps and a bottle of hand sanitizer held on by a hose clamp, as well as tape placed on the ground in six-foot intervals, to remind customers to keep their distance,” Schell explained.

“We also started doing curbside pickup, as well as sanitizing pens after each use. As a restaurant, our cleanliness has always been top notch, so really our biggest change has been informing customers that they must adhere to social distancing guidelines,” Schell continued. “Overall, customers are really thankful, and have been happy to embrace these changes.

“I honestly feel blessed to have taken ownership before this pandemic,” Schell continued. “Pizza is one of the only industries that is poised to hold their own until the quarantines are finally all over. It’s always been a bit of trial by fire, but that has always been how I learned best anyway.”

While the looming fear of closure is a fear in the back of Schell’s mind, as well as his employees, he says he cannot be more thankful for the public reaction.

“I’ve managed to keep my employees working their normal hours, everyone is happy we are open, and we are more than happy to continue to serve them.”

Pizza Heaven is open from 4 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, and from 3 to 10 p.m. Friday, located at 352 Bennett St., Luzerne.

While many restaurants were forced to halt dine-in options for patrons, other businesses in the Wyoming Valley that serve food but do not have a large take-out presence, like bars, were forced to shutter after a statewide mandate March 18. Others, that rely heavily on dine-in patrons, are also concerned about the impact COVID-19 has had on their business.

For Roberta West, owner of River Grille in Wilkes-Barre, restrictions regarding COVID-19 have hit her business hard.

“We originally closed altogether, but then we thought why not try take-out and see what we can do,” explained West. “So that’s what we’re doing, but it’s really a fraction of our normal business, probably about a tenth.”

West explained that due to dining restrictions regarding COVID-19, a large portion of her staff has been laid off, especially waitstaff, as there is a limited need for it currently.

“Really anyone can take an order over the phone, so there isn’t really a need for that. A lot of our take-out business now is from our regular customers, so we’re down to essentially one cook,” said West.

West explained that owning a business during this time of pandemic has been a constant worry for herself, as well as her husband. They recently applied for several COVID-related small business loans to help maintain their restaurant during this time; however, they are still worried about the near future.

“After my husband retired from corporate restaurants, we took our savings and opened the business, so being forced to shut down now is really difficult,” West said. “The loans were difficult to take out, and it was almost constant work trying to find a bank and actually fill out the paperwork.”

Repayment of loans, as well as demand for dining-out, are also concerns of West and her husband.

“These loans really weren’t meant for restaurants. As far as repayment, you need to bring back 75% of your employees?” West questioned. “How do we do that when we don’t know if there will be a demand for it? Are people going to be comfortable going out to eat?”

Despite worry regarding COVID-related restaurant restrictions, West said that her employees are remaining positive, and have even decided to aid their place of employment, as well as their community during this time.

“Our bartenders started a fundraiser online to give back to local restaurants. It involved doing a take-out ‘lunch’ for our local healthcare workers,” explained West. “So we got some donations, and were able to provide lunch to a few of the area healthcare facilities. It was really nice, because it helped us a little, but it also helped those who are on the ‘frontlines’ of this virus.”

River Grille is opened from 3 to 8 p.m. daily for take-out, and is located at 670 N. River St., Wilkes-Barre.

While local restaurants and bars are struggling amid the coronavirus outbreak, those who supply these eateries are also increasingly wary of their role in the restaurant business.

Dave Alcaraz, a food broker for Acosta Foods, said COVID-19 restrictions have left him with little work to complete, and dwindling clients.

“My position involves selling food, or food products, like ketchup, to a lot of local and chain businesses,” explained Alcaraz.

Now, with many local businesses shuttered, or opened for take-out only, limited restaurants are left to do so.

“A big part of my job is calling-on, or visiting local businesses and restaurants, to show off and sell our products,” explained Alcaraz. “With many of the businesses being closed, it really impacts my job security.”

Alcaraz explained that while his employer has maintained that employees will keep their positions, he still worries for the future.

“A lot of what I do has been moved online, or over the phone, so it’s OK for now. However, I am looking forward to getting back to work in the near future, hopefully,” he said.

Currently, the state of Pennsylvania remains under a stay-at-home order until at least May 8. Governor Wolf has stated that after this time, the state will re-evaluate the closure of businesses.