“I just drove past El Arriero, and the parking lot was packed!” I told Jock when I came home on the evening of May 5.
“Really?” Jock looked at me with a blank stare that has become synonymous with all the days bleeding together.
“Yes,” I said patiently. “It’s Cinco de Mayo. They might not be able to have the big business day they would normally expect, but believe me, to-go platters of tacos were abundant.”
On May 22 at 5 p.m., North Carolina restaurants were permitted to open their dining rooms for service for the first time in two months. Amidst the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, restaurants have existed in a terrible gray area that has made it barely possible to eke through for some and impossible to hold on for others. To-go orders and curbside pickup have been allowed, but no seated dining (hence the parking-lot Cinco de Mayo celebration). Though the governor’s most recent order allows restaurants to resume somewhat more normal operations, albeit at reduced capacity, it is still a big adjustment to try to get up to speed.
To be clear: Restaurants are a numbers game. You have to order food in advance of sales, pay on delivery, and try to cycle enough people through to pay for your overhead and labor costs. There are fixed costs that do not go away: rent, insurance, taxes, utilities, etc. If you cannot fill the dining room—in this case, if you can seat only half as many people as usual, at tables spaced 6 feet apart—then those numbers become significantly harder to make work.
This will require changes in the way restaurants operate. Utilizing more outdoor seating is one strategy. Asking guests to limit their visits to an hour is a real possibility. Even if your server doesn’t ask you to get up after an hour, it will probably be courteous to limit your time anyway. Gone are the days of lingering over a meal and enjoying post-dinner cocktails.
I still go to Folks Café every day to pick up Jock’s lunch. He has been eagerly awaiting the morning he can rejoin his group around the community table in the center of the coffee shop and solve the problems of the world. With dining rooms reopening, he decided he would be ready to hobble down to Folks on Saturday morning, and his regular schedule would pick up where he left it in early March.
“Sweetheart, there is no way that is happening anytime soon,” I attempted to point out.
“Why not? If restaurants can reopen, why not the coffee shop?”
“If social distancing requires you to maintain 6 feet apart, that would be two people in Folks,” I said. “And there is no way that table crammed with eight of you is going to satisfy the restrictions.”
He thought about this.
We all have things we do not realize have changed about the world. For each of us, there is something different we are holding on to. I fully admit it took me a while to get in the habit of wearing a mask, and when I get excited, I can still rush out of the house without it. I am working on having extra masks in places that are obvious: my purse, the car, etc.
For Jock it was Folks. Juan and Tammi Paccini have built a patio behind the coffee shop, which, combined with a grassy area for lawn chairs, will more than meet the requirements of social distancing. Additionally, one person at a time can come inside to order comestibles. It is one of many compromises that will need to be made citywide.
Downtown, The Copper Penny, a longtime local favorite, has become a tourist destination in itself since appearing on Guy Fieri’s show, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” in 2018. It also won encore’s Best Of 2020 in quite a few categories, including Best Lunch, Best Wings and Best Waitstaff. I have watched with amazement as they continued to provide curbside service throughout the stay-at-home order. Every day. when I headed home form the bookstore, groups of people stood outside The Copper Penny’s door or waiting in their cars. The determination and commitment by both the staff and patrons was pretty inspiring.
And at 5 p.m. on May 22, they opened the dining room again for service. I asked general manager Andrew DeVoid if he would share some thoughts with encore readers about the reopening process. He very kindly made the time for us while trying to juggle new demands.
encore (e): You maintained curbside service throughout the stay-at-home order. How did that work? What was the response from customers and staff?
Andrew DeVoid (AD): When we first realized our day-to-day operations were going to drastically change, we did our best to come up with a plan to keep the wheels turning best we could. The most difficult part of all this was having to reduce our staff down to a limited few employees. We’ve been fortunate over the years to have a loyal and hardworking group of people, and at the time, we did not know what was in store for any of us.
Knowing we had to operate on a smaller scale, we had to make other tough decisions regarding what to take off of our menu to increase our productivity and efficiency. We can honestly say the initial response from the community was amazing. We did not know what to expect but there was a tremendous turnout, and we realized right away we had to continue to provide service the best we could.
e: How did opening the dining room go? Are you glad you made that decision?
AD: We spent a great deal of time conceptualizing and then completing a transformation of our dining room. On top of that, we remained dedicated to the proper installation and training of any and all of the recommended health and sanitation protocols put forth by our local and state officials. When we learned Phase 2 would be a limited capacity of 50%, we knew with the right approach we could allow dine-in guests to come and enjoy themselves for an hour in a safe and comfortable environment.
Before opening the doors on Friday night, we all had butterflies, to be honest, mostly due in part to not having guests in the dining room for over two months. Those feelings dissipated very quickly once service kicked. In hindsight, we are extremely grateful for those who came out to support their local community.
e: What did you learn from last weekend that you will carry forward?
AD: As in any venture, we are constantly learning every day how to navigate this situation. One thing we have come to focus on is the importance of doing the right thing for those who have chosen to come dine with us, whether servicing guests inside or providing them with curbside and takeout.
e: What do you want the public to know about the current situation that they might not understand?
AD: From a broader perspective, we understand people want to know they are being looked out for when it comes to matters of public health and safety. Bringing that perspective into how we operate on a daily basis, we remain committed to our philosophy of doing what we feel is best for our staff and our community while creating and maintaining a safe dining environment.
As we start moving through this, please, be prepared your dining experience (really any experience) might not look and feel like it did in December. You might have to make a reservation, and it might be for a limited amount of time. If you are seated outside, your server might be walking two to three times farther than normal to bring you an extra packet of ketchup. You might be turned away and asked to come back later or another day. Believe me, there is no small business that doesn’t want your patronage right now, but they do have to comply with restrictions that are inconvenient for them as well as you. How we respond can make all the difference.
During the 2008 election, one of my friends showed up at his polling location to vote and the line was down the street. After standing in line for about 10 minutes, the guy behind him turned to his wife and asked her to go to the nearby dime store to get some games while he held their places in line. She came back with a couple of boxes of Connect Four, checkers, chess, backgammon and some decks of cards. The couple passed them out to people around them in line; instantly, the long, irritating wait was transformed and friendships were made. How we respond is the biggest piece of the pie.