When Choo Choo McGoo’s owner Melissa Trine opened the doors of her restaurant on Monday for the first time in nearly two months, she expected there to be a nice sized crowd coming in to sit down for breakfast and lunch.
But that crowd never came to the eatery on Markland Avenue.
“We knew it wouldn’t be gangbusters, because some people are still scared about getting out, but we figured it’d be a little bit busier than this,” she said Monday afternoon.
It was the same story at restaurants across the city, where cooks and servers anticipated crowds showing up to get their food fix for the first time since Gov. Eric Holcomb ordered the closure of dining areas on March 16. Those dining areas were allowed to reopen Monday at half capacity as the number of COVID-19 cases begins to level off.
Instead, customers only trickled in to most eateries, raising concerns that sales could continue to slump far into the year as patrons choose to stay at home or continue to only do carryout or delivery.
Windmill Grill General Manager Keria Hill said they opened at 7 a.m. and only seated 10 tables until about noon.
“It hasn’t been too busy today,” she said. “Sadly, we haven’t seen the turnout we were hoping for, but we’re hoping they’re still coming … It will take a little while before word gets out that we’re here and open and you can come.”
Hill said dine-in service is the “bread and butter” of her restaurant at the corner of Dixon Road and Sycamore Street. After the seating area closed, sales plummeted by at least 50%. But because they have a drive-thru window, that’s better than most eateries fared, she said.
“At first when we closed up, it was terrifying,” Hill said. “We just did what we could, but this community has been amazing. We are so blessed on our corner. We had so many regular customers and guests that pulled us through this. We can’t really be much other than thankful.”
But some eateries are choosing to remain closed over concerns about the virus.
Erik Carmona, who owns Omeletty’s on St. Joseph Drive, said he isn’t reopening right away because around 80% of his customers are senior citizens and he worries about their health and safety as new COVID-19 cases continue.
“I don’t want take the risk and have somebody get sick,” he said. “I want to make sure we’re 100% safe. I don’t want to open and then feel sorry for doing it.”
Carmona said right now, he’s retraining his servers and staff on new sanitation policies to ensure everything on a table, including ketchup bottles and salt-and-pepper shakers, are all thoroughly decontaminated after every customer.
When he does reopen, he said he’s going beyond the state’s order and will only seat less than half his dining-room capacity to ensure patrons are far apart.
“I’ve got to keep everyone safe,” Carmona said. “It may be impossible, but we’re going to do our best. That’s the way I look at it. If I have to stay closed another week, I’ll stay closed.”
At Cook McDoogal’s Irish Pub on the courthouse square, the dining area opened Monday, but the bar-rail area remained closed per the state’s mandate. Emily Carpenter, the day-time bartender, said that’s sure to cut into their profits moving forward, since the bar was a popular spot.
“We’re hoping that sales will boost over the next few weeks, but with the bar rail closed and so many kids still being at home with school closed, we just don’t know,” she said. “We just hope it gets better. We think it will eventually, but with all the guidelines, it may be like it has been for the last couple months.”
And the last couple of months haven’t been good. Carpenter said by only being able to offer carryout and delivery, their lunch sales plummeted by around 75%, and dinner sales dropped by about half.
Choo Choo McGoo’s owner Trine said the prospect of slumping sales far into the year has her nervous. She said they decided to completely shut down the restaurant in March after trying curbside pickup for a week without much success. That means they’ve had zero profits for the last six weeks.
“We’re just going to have to eat those costs and move forward,” Trine said. “You can’t recoup the business you lost.”
Now, the restaurant is taking out advertisements to let people know their dining area is open for business and they will offer curbside pickup for those who don’t feel comfortable coming in. But with the small showing on Monday, Trine said, she’s concerned sales might not get back to normal for a long time.
“We’re doing whatever we can do boost sales,” she said. “If it doesn’t work, I guess we close back down for awhile. We don’t really have any other option. We’re hoping that once everyone realizes that we’re open, business will pick back up. We’re just trying to think positive.”
And with people now more in the habit of cooking and eating around the kitchen table, and out of the habit of heading into a restaurant for dinner, local eateries may have to adapt and evolve in the coming months to increase sales, said Windmill Grill manager Hill.
She said one option may be offering more family-style meal deals that people can pick up and then take home to eat around their own table.
“Things could change, but that’s okay,” Hill said. “We’ll change with it and do our best.”
But even though the future may be foggy for local restaurants, that didn’t dampen Hill’s joy on Monday when she saw some of her regular customers come in for the first time in months, smiling and waiting for their favorite dish.
“You can’t see my smiling face under my mask, but let me tell you, I’m smiling today,” she said. “It’s a good day. We made it. We’re open. That’s an accomplishment that we made it through this.”