Restaurants' Approaches Differ as Restrictions Loosen

Customers line up outside Umami in Bellevue to pick up to-go orders through a new pick-up window on the first day the restaurant reopened Thursday, May 7, 2020. (Photo by Scott Stewart)
Molly Ashford
The Daily Record

As cases continue climbing as restrictions on public gatherings loosen, Nebraskans are facing a myriad of choices related to the reopening of the economy.

Some are choosing to return to their normal lives, shopping and dining at restaurants. Others are turning down jobs, and their unemployment claims, to reduce their risk of contracting the coronavirus.

In the center are many locally owned businesses, which are largely left to weigh the costs and benefits – financial, reputational, health and personal – of reopening.

Greg Sechser, owner of Howlin’ Hounds Coffee, cautiously began allowing customers back into his shop on May 4, the day state officials declared businesses in certain counties could begin lifting restrictions.

Sechser had been operating through curbside pickup since mid-March, taking the conversation he is known for onto the sidewalks and through car windows.

“Part of my deal is that I will sit here and talk to you, sometimes for hours over one coffee,” Sechser said. “You build a lot of loyalty that way – so when I switched to curbside, most people didn’t switch. The only reason I am still around is because of generosity, and because I was willing to sit outside with people, sometimes for hours.”

Nebraska lifted some of its restrictions on restaurants, but they are still limited to no more than 50% of their typical occupancy and bars remained closed. However, on the same day the reopening began, the state had just experienced the highest percent change in confirmed COVID-19 cases over a five-day period in the country: a startling 57% spike, according to data from John Hopkins University’s COVID-19 tracker.

That perceived threat, and the worry expressed by public health officials, resulted in a range of responses to the loosened restrictions. Some restaurants have opted to stay closed or continue with carry-out service only, and those that have reopened often aren’t seeing the same demand.

The Banh Mi Shop, a Vietnamese sandwich joint that operates out of a strip mall in Bellevue and Aksarben Village’s swanky Inner Rail Food Hall, is keeping its Bellevue dining room closed while the food hall, attached to HDR’s headquarters, has resumed limited dine-in service while encouraging take-away options.

“When the announcement that we can open back up came out, we started looking at the case numbers and what is really going on in the state,” said Banh Mi Shop owner Chloe Tran. “Trying to open back up when the cases are coming up higher than ever just doesn’t make sense to us.”

Despite a difficult initial few weeks, Tran said the shop’s customers have remained loyal and supportive. Even though she decided to stay closed, she understands that opening back up may be the only lifeline for area restaurants.

“Many restaurants really rely on dine-in because not everyone can make the big switch to to-go orders,” Tran said. “If they want to open back up and can do it safely with all of the precautions, I’m not one to say that it’s the right decision or not.”

Sechser said his coffeehouse’s revenue has been cut in half as a result of the partial closure. He is looking forward to getting back “in the swing of things,” but still feels as if local and state guidance to businesses largely leaves decisions about opening to individuals. 

“I think that in times of trouble, the one big job government is supposed to do is keep people safe,” Sechser said. “To keep people safe, you have to have a plan and you have to work that plan. We are suffering, universally, from a lack of coherent planning. It’s like a band-aid on a giant festering wound.”

Dante, a West Omaha pizzeria, opted to continue with to-go service after initially planning to reopen.

“We are continuously evaluating everything in order to create the best situation for our employees and our valued customers,” the restaurant announced in a Facebook post. “We have decided that it’s appropriate to pause our planned reopening.”

Other businesses never shut down or significantly modified their operations. Fast food places shifted to drive-thru service, although breakfast has suffered at many establishments.

The Dundee Double Shot, a small drive-thru coffeehouse, experienced records sales in recent weeks, while removing the few tables in its lobby and adding a sign encouraging social distancing to its front door.

“I’m grateful that we were able to remain open and that the staff remained strong and willing to adjust to gloves and masks and new standards to provide customer service to our community,” said owner Connie Lang. “It was kind of our opportunity to give back to them what they have given to us.”

Lang put the patio furniture outside recently after more than a month, albeit with less seating in order to maintain 6 feet of distance for customers. It won’t be so easy for some businesses, though.

“There are going to be extreme expenses for some businesses that could cripple them, as far as equipment and safety standards and spacing,” Lang said. “This is going to have huge impacts.”


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