It’s a question facing restaurant owners throughout the Poconos: Where do we go from here?
The answer was bowled over last week when Gov. Wolf issued new restrictions including reducing capacity in dining establishments from 50% to 25% to help lessen the spread of COVID-19.
The new rules, which went into effect July 16, also mandate bars to serve dine-in meals with alcohol consumption.
Outdoor seating, cocktails-to-go, delivery and takeout food are still allowed.
John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association was shocked to hear the news.
The group is now advocating for residents, along with those in the hospitality industry, to sign the "I Stand With Restaurants" petition online.
"What’s different about this petition is that if you sign it through the PRLA website, it allows us to track which legislators connected to the signatures," Longstreet said. "I think we need to get the legislators helping to put pressure ... even though the governor ultimately makes the decision."
He fears most restaurants will be forced to close, particularly when outdoor dining is no longer an option, such as in the fall or other weather conditions.
"The governor’s team wisely, when the began to open in the first stage, they did it 50% capacity," Longstreet said. "But as they started to see a slight rise in cases, they talked with us about potentially putting some more mitigating factors in place for restaurants and bars. We talked about a number of things over the last couple of weeks, and then shockingly to us, when they came out with the (new) standards, they didn’t include any of the things that they had to proposed to us, that we had said will probably work."
"Fifty percent capacity is very difficult to break even on. Most restaurants only have a 5% to 7% percent operating margin at 100% capacity, so to be able to do it at 50% is tough — and 25% is not sustainable."
Ethan Rundle, owner of The Hamilton Restaurant and Bar (5295 Hamilton Road, Saylorsburg, 570-801-6422, thehamiltonrestaurant.com) has updated the menu to include summery dishes such as salmon ceviche, gnocchi (with duck sausage, broccoli rabe and ricotta cheese), risotto parmesan (Maine lobster, diver scallops, wild shrimp, sweet corn, peas and red bell peppers) and surf and turf (Maine lobster and Agnus filet mignon).
His business has increased since the 25% capacity rule was issued.
"It seems to be a healthy amount for us," Rundle said. "When we were shut down and only allowed to do takeout, we were operating at a slight loss, just to preserve cash flow and a customer base. At 50% capacity, people still didn’t feel comfortable coming out. We actually got slightly busier at 25% capacity because people feel safer. We have everyone spaced out and we’re allowed to have, based on our numbers, 26 customers in the building, that’s with eight staff because we have 135 seats all together."
Although Rundle empathizes with fellow restaurant and bar owners, he supports Gov Wolf’s decision.
"It’s leveled the playing field, for me personally," he said. "I really struggled getting off the ground — lots of difficulties, lots of issues with local customers starting problems because it was not what they were expecting, lots of issues with customers from the previous restaurant I worked at not coming over here. I think the governor is doing a fine job and it’s pretty straight forward that he’s doing what he needs to do to keep the numbers from going up."
Nick Gemmo, owner of Sue’s Thai Cuisine and Noodle Bar (5139 Milford Road, East Stroudsburg, 570-223-7300, Suesthaicusine.com) said business would be better with people dining in, but thanks to "loyal" patrons and an influx of out-of-towners, sales are on the up.
"Business is good and word of mouth is spreading, "Gemmo said. "We haven’t had any major problems and we haven’t had any people waiting for a table. I think a lot of people are still nervous coming into restaurants so people that used to come into the restaurant are continuously coming in for taking out orders."
The eatery, which Gemmo operates with his wife, Sue, is known for its authentic Thai eats such as pad thai and nam tok.
While the couple are preparing more takeout orders, Gemmo wonders how the smaller cafes and bars that rely heavily on liquor sales are making it during these uncertain times.
"If you have a restaurant that has five or six tables, now you’re only down to two tables," Gemmo said of the new capacity rule. "And if you have a restaurant that’s now really known for takeout, that’s even worse. We’re fortunate that we’ve made a transition to takeout."
Bruce Brandli, owner of The Big A Grillehouse and Tavern (252 Fox Run Lane, East Stroudsburg, 570-223-1700, Bigagrillehouse.com ), also saw an increase in sales thanks to the summer crowds.
The staple Pocono eatery, popular for its Italian-American fare and hearty steaks, draws tourists from nearby resorts such as the Pocono Mountain Villas by Exploria.
The future, he said, looked grim during the first few months of the pandemic.
"March and April were the worst. We were off about 90% in sales," Brandli said. "As we started to do a lot more takeout, people got accustomed to it and familiar with what we were doing, we were only down about 70%. Then in June, with the partial reopening, we were down 40%. And now in July, we’re tracking that we’re down about 25% in sales, to the point when the (capacity rules) were issued."
Thanks to the size of his establishment (there are seven rooms, a patio and a courtyard), he’s more optimistic now.
And even with no one sitting at the bar ("the stools are gone for now") he’s still serving plenty of eats, especially meat.
"It seems like people are ordering the more expensive cuts, surf and turf, porterhouse steaks, and the larger cuts of meat. We’re getting more than usual, people asking for larger cuts," he said. "I think it’s more of a celebration deal. Maybe people missed their anniversaries or birthdays during the previous months. So people maximizing the experience when they can now, and hopefully we don’t have to back to the March standard."
Brandli considers himself lucky.
"I’m sure there are a lot of taverns and restaurants that rely heavily on bar business and they’re going to suffer the most, and those with close seating," Brandli said.
Longstreet offers sage advice for bars and eateries that are struggling.
"The takeout model is a model that is going to survive and it’s going to have to for a lot of places because even when the government allows higher capacities in restaurants, people’s dining habits have changed," he said. "People will still be reluctant to going out to busy places. Those who have adopted takeout need to keep it, and those that haven’t need to get on the bandwagon because that’s going to be the key to surviving."