Bars and Restaurants Find Uncertainty On Tap
Amidst fluid COVID-19 regulations, local establishments face mounting difficulties and slashed profits
Ten days after the onset of the pandemic, three percent of restaurant operators had already permanently closed their restaurants, 44 percent temporarily, and 11 percent said they anticipated permanent closure within the next 30 days, according to the National Restaurant Association. Earlier this week on a call with the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, initial estimates were reviewed that upwards of 30 percent of restaurants would not survive. Some speculated whether that number would be on the low end.
Recently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) published data showing the job loss to the hospitality and leisure industry as the hardest hit, losing more than 47 percent of total positions nationwide. And in Pennsylvania (like many other states), restaurants and bars are still not open for business. In addition to the human toll, the economic effects of a crisis of this size can be catastrophic. And certain industries like these will bear the brunt of the damage.
Restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues thrive upon the experience they create for others. Whether through food, drink, music, dancing, or any given social occasion from happy hours to weddings — each of these are intended to be definingly intimate. As a restaurant owner, I can personally attest to this.
And as social distancing, masks, gloves, and other personal protective gear engulf the consumer landscape, restaurants and bars still do not know what to make of this "new normal" — as these types of upcoming regulations will undoubtedly alter the patron's experience.
However, even with all of this uncertainty, many local restaurant and bar owners are cautiously optimistic.
Chris Sirianni, owner of The Brewerie of Union Station tells me, "It's the people that drive us. Between getting our brewery family back and our regular and new patrons, we are looking forward to serving people within these walls the most."
Given health regulations, bars and restaurants already follow a strict protocol in sanitation efforts, but the concept of limiting capacity is alarming for many, as even at full capacity, these businesses are just paying the bills as restaurants run on really tight margins.
"Twenty-five percent capacity is popping out to any restaurateur. It's hard to run at 50 percent and be profitable. The numbers really don't add up," explains Sirianni.
In addition, most are looking at added expenditures — whether it's booth dividers or disposable menus, or rising costs in food due to shortages.
"Our concerns are peoples' willingness to go out and have a total dining experience. And the ability to build trust in a relationship with the public and prove that we are doing everything possible to make that experience safe and comfortable."
Annē Lewis (pronounced Annie) is the Director of Marketing of Red Letter Hospitality, owner and operator of three local establishments — The Cork, Molly Brannigan's, and The Skunk & Goat. The group opted to close their doors to the public shortly before Governor Wolf mandated it. They are taking it day by day, but looking forward to reopening.
"We are most excited to provide the experiences our guests want and have been wishing for. It just isn't the same as Michael [one of their team] making a drink for our guests, seeing familiar faces, and getting back to a little bit of normality." The community has also been extremely encouraging. "We have received support where we have never seen before. Most are rallying and supporting us and others they believe in."
Lewis still recognizes they are living in the unknown — but believes the beginning will bring a great response. "I think people are excited to come out to restaurants. And when we first open up, I think we will be overwhelmed. But long-term — will people want curbside? It's a different game now. We will still provide the experience — but now with all the regulations."
Restaurants in other states [that have been allowed to be open] have already begun to redefine their model. In some places regulations include: only small gatherings allowed (10 or under), a minimum of six feet between groups, additional hand-washing methods, access to sanitizing products in high-contact areas; fewer things on the table such as condiments, table tents, etc., a six-foot distance between bar stools, six feet between employees, facial coverings, daily temperature checks and additional training. I can attest this all feels overwhelming — especially knowing it's all fluid. Plus, it makes planning for an uncertain future challenging at best.
Matt Orton, owner of McCoy's Barrelhouse & Grill, 1013 State St, has been closed since March 14 — and given the nature of his business, has not been able to provide any takeout or delivery options. "I think our biggest challenge is going to be getting caught back up on bills once we are allowed to open. I'm looking forward to seeing people come out and enjoy themselves again without panic and fear. It will happen. I'm just not sure when."
At this point, none of us are.
Rebecca Styn is the proprietor of Room 33 Speakeasy. She is also VP of Ventures at Erie Innovation District and recently completed her Ph.D. in Leadership and Organizational Learning from Gannon University. Follow Room 33 on Facebook @room33speakeasy, and follow Rebecca on Twitter at @rstyn.