pw pizza is utilizing its banquet space as a dining room photo by michelle volansky

The choice to open during a pandemic is a catch-22 for restaurant owners

St. Louis restaurants are permitted to open their dining rooms with limited capacity starting this week, confronting business owners with many fraught decisions only they can make. 

Restaurateurs have to consider how and how much to pivot their business models for an environment that is constantly changing, and which is hopefully temporary. They fear losing their restaurants if they don’t open, and they fear for the financial and physical health of their employees if they do. Bringing back furloughed employees means reuniting teams that are low on morale and paying them for the first time in months, but it also means denying them steady, supplemented unemployment pay (which is scheduled to decrease by $600 a week after July) and forcing them to break quarantine. 

A significant number of restaurateurs have chosen not to open yet due to financial or safety concerns, or both. Those who did opt to open have to follow government-mandated operating procedures which translate into newly designed spaces, newly trained staff and welcoming (hopefully compliant) customers in reduced-capacity dining rooms. 

Some of the city’s social distancing and safety recommendations seem to defy physics, but the restaurateurs who decided to open are determined to spin straw into gold. Paul Hamilton, president of Hamilton Hospitality Group, is opening all five of his restaurants this week and was uniquely suited to do so, with several concepts sharing one large building. “We're really lucky because we have all this space, that we’re able to just spread out,” he said.

Eleven Eleven Mississippi and 21st Street Brewers Bar will make use of 3,000- and 4,000-square-foot patios, respectively, to increase their newly socially distanced seating. Vin de Set already has ample open-air seating, and will also make use of two additional decks that are ordinarily reserved for private parties at Hamilton’s Moulin Events & Meetings. Hamilton’s Urban Steakhouse & Bourbon Bar will also utilize a Moulin space along with its private bourbon room for additional seating, and PW Pizza will use its banquet space. 

pw pizza has installed plexiglass dividers // photo by michelle volansky

“Unfortunately, there's a lot of restaurateurs that are not in the same position,” Hamilton said. 

Many small restaurants are simply unable to open due to spacing constraints, even with newly relaxed policies on makeshift sidewalk and parking lot patios. But for those large enough to go forward with reduced capacity, layout issues might seem like the easiest challenge to overcome. Staff must be trained on new safety precautions like daily health screenings and mandatory masks in addition to sanitizing routines and service changes like delivering tableware only after a party is seated. Hamilton staggered his restaurants’ openings over three days so that upper management could assist all staff on their first service - both for the staff and to field any concerned customers’ questions. 

There will be a sharp learning curve for diners as well as industry workers. Guests will have to make reservations where they could previously walk in or be forced to wait in their cars or socially distanced lines outside rather than at a bar. They’ll have to get used to new routines like asking for condiments instead of grabbing them off a table and may even be asked to wear masks until they are seated. Imagine orchestrating these changes with a clientele that inevitably includes people who think stay-at-home orders were an absurd overreaction and those who are still terrified to go out. 

“I guarantee there will be guests that come in and will be pissed about the mask thing,” Hamilton said. “I already had a guest that said, ‘I love your establishments, but I won't be coming back as long as you continue this ridiculous rule of having to wear masks for the servers.’ So I answered him, and I just said, ‘It's not my decision. I mean, we have rules that we have to follow in order to be reopened, and it isn't me that's making that rule. If you plan on dining anywhere in the metropolitan area, you're going to be served by a server wearing a mask.’ He apologized and said he didn't realize that that was being mandated, but that he still wasn't going to patronize any restaurants where servers wear masks.” 

At the same time, Hamilton is anticipating blowback from those who don’t think the restaurant is being careful enough. Staff training for reopening included a focus on how to answer any questions customers have about their safety. “I could see guests maybe thinking, ‘Well, wait a minute - what about those people working too close together,’” he said. Hamilton wants to make sure his servers can quickly and clearly explain that kitchen staff is complying with the mandated six feet of social distance during prep, but that during service those rules are relaxed, as permitted by the city’s operating procedures. “During service, obviously, they have to be closer because of the way the kitchens are configured,” he said. 

Hamilton anticipates an influx of groups of friends dining together after being separated so long by the stay-at-home orders. The new rules allow for up to 10 people to be seated together if they arrive together, and he’s sure that those larger groups might scare some of his other customers, even though they are permitted. Does it make him nervous to have people coming out of quarantine at his businesses?

“I think everything's going to make us nervous to be honest,” Hamilton said. “We're going to do our best to be extremely sanitary, and we already were before this. We're prepared to deal with all of that.” What he can’t control, though, is what happens outside his restaurants. “It's just the perception - I think every restaurateur’s a little concerned that if somebody at the restaurant gets sick that there'll be some sort of backlash. We're all very concerned about that, and I think we're all going to have to work together on this. The guests are going to have to protect themselves just like we have to protect our workers.” 

Hamilton knows the pandemic is not over just because stay-at-home orders have been lifted. “They keep talking about when we open, it will probably go up a little bit,” he said. “We all just have to be careful. I think that's the message that everybody has to realize - that we're all in this together, let's all be careful, let’s do the right thing.”

He said no staff members have expressed concern about their health coming back to work. Some hourly workers were concerned about pay, but every Hamilton employee who was furloughed is coming back now that they’re open. “[They] were debating whether they wanted to come back because they were thinking they weren’t going to make as much money as a server,” Hamilton said. “So I sent out an email to them, and I just explained what we're doing that's going to keep the business volume up, and that kind of changed everybody's tune a little bit.” With all the extra dining room he’s finagled from event spaces and patios, Hamilton thinks his restaurants will almost be able to seat regular numbers even while following distancing guidelines. “I do think we’ll be busy, and I think that we'll do pretty good numbers,” he said. He’s also working out how to give his returning workers a bonus. 

Unlike Hamilton’s, some of Niche Food Group co-owner Gerard Craft’s six restaurants in St. Louis are prohibitively small. With the current restrictions in place, Craft said Taste and Sardella would seat fewer than a dozen people. It’s hard to imagine Taste, which just celebrated a 10th anniversary, opening while there are any mandated safety restrictions at all. “I don't think we're there yet with Taste,” Craft said. “In the current state, it's not on our opening agenda. Pastaria, Brasserie, Brasswell, those are going to have to lead the charge. And then we're going to have to think about the small places as time goes by. For the near future, it's just not even worth opening them.”

Brasswell, the burger-focused food counter inside Rockwell Beer Co., will be Craft’s only restaurant to open this week, on Friday, May 22. The brewery is handling its own safety procedures, including instituting one-way doors, prohibiting walk-ins, limiting reservation times and requiring guests to wear masks while entering, ordering or using the restrooms. The only other Niche restaurant with a hard opening date is Cinder House, which will also reopen with its housing business partner, the Four Seasons, on June 1.

Like Hamilton’s restaurants, Cinder House is in good shape due to its size and ability to space seating on the rooftop patio. Craft said they are taking out all the bar seats to encourage distance, and the menu will be much smaller and incorporate more of the bar menu than the regular dinner menu. 

But none of Craft’s other restaurants will seat guests before June at the earliest. “We will try [in June] assuming that things are going well in the world - which is a huge assumption at this point,” Craft said. There’s still a lot he doesn’t know. 

“I think this is a weird time because things change every week, so we're trying not to react too quickly,” he said. “Our instincts are like, ‘Hey, let's change this into quick service or whatever,’ but I think some things you need to be nimble and on your toes about, and some things you need to just take a step back and watch. Right now, we’re in a position to do that, which is an awesome position to be in, in the circumstances. But it's also a scary position because we really don't know.”

What he does know is that Niche Food Group restaurants are going to take “heavier precautions” than those advised by St. Louis city and county. He said they’re planning to temperature-screen customers and might have them fill out health declarations before dining in. Considering that some diners have already refused to eat where servers wear masks, Craft knows this isn’t going to go over well with everyone, but his first priority is his employees’ health. 

“A few years ago, we switched our company culture, and one of the biggest things about it was putting our employees first, which sounds so obvious but wasn’t always obvious to us in the hospitality world,” Craft said. “But we have a huge responsibility to protect our employees. They come in and work their butts off every single day - who may live with elderly people or have immunocompromised family members. And some of those people may not even want to come back to work. But those that do, we want to make sure that we're doing our part to make sure they're in a safe environment even if that means we lose some diners. I think there are diners who won't come in because of that. And that's a sacrifice I think we're going to have to make.”

Craft is looking at what restaurateurs are doing in Italy and China as a way to plan ahead. Many of his reopening plans come from a report put out by the Black Sheep Restaurant Group in Hong Kong. “I think we have to trust the people that are doing it better and doing it before us,” he said. “I feel like so many people right now are just trying to will it away. Like, if we just go back about our lives, this whole thing is going to be behind us. You hear everybody talk about it - ‘I'm tired of this.’ And it’s like, ‘Well yeah, we’re all pretty tired of it.’ But this isn't like talking to the government - we're talking to a virus. It doesn’t give a shit. It’s not listening to you.”

Opening this week or staying closed for now, every restaurant owner is being forced to make some decisions they would rather not. “We've talked through wild scenarios of having a central ordering station that just deals with the guest via text,” Craft said. “We obviously hate the idea. You know, all this stuff just feels so gross - the impersonality of it is really heavy. Even talking about it, it sounds so futuristic and sci-fi.” 

Like Hamilton, Craft is worried about how customers will react to all the changes. “I think some of it is deciding, you know, how much are people going to handle before they’re like, ‘Dining out sucks,’” he said. “Obviously, I hope dining rooms go back to being full at some point. But it's not going to happen overnight, and I think everybody, at least the smartest people I'm looking to, seem to be all in agreement about that. No vaccine is coming overnight. So some of these things are here for a bit, like employees wearing masks in the restaurant.”

And other changes that restaurateurs are making now might end up being permanent. The glass-like polycarbonate barriers that Hamilton had installed between booths at PW Pizza and in the dining rooms of Vin de Set and Hamilton’s Steakhouse are here to stay. He thinks they look nice and will make diners more comfortable. Craft said he may continue health screening employees after this is over - it’s not hard to check your temperature when you get to work, and why not? 

In the meantime, restaurant owners have to navigate through what is mandated, what is feasible, what is profitable and what is right. It is forcing lifelong industry professionals to take a step back and think about what they do. “That is the bigger question to all of this: Are we just feeding people?” Craft asked. “Obviously, restaurants do a lot more than just feed people. I think that's going to be the biggest disconnect. If we can't find ways to connect with guests, then we are just an elevated grocery store and we are just giving prepared food and providing nothing beyond that. You know, sometimes that is something, right? Like there is expression in food and there is like soul in food. So it's not nothing. But it's not what people have come to us for for years.” 

Hamilton is hopeful that diners will see the smiles behind the masks. He went out in St. James about a week before St. Louis opened. “They were all wearing masks, and there was nothing on the tables when you came in, and it was really kind of strange,” he said. “But by the time we got our entrees, we were fine. We didn't really think much of it. We were just so happy to be in a restaurant and be served. I think it's just like everybody keeps talking about ‘the new normal.’ You just get used to it, you know?”

Tags : Coronavirus