Uncertainly rules as restaurants begin to reopen
By Dave Eckert
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It’s an interesting time in the restaurant industry these days. By interesting, of course, I mean terrifying. Throughout the metro, restaurants are grappling with the on-going pandemic, advice from professionals, and a variety of rules and regulations that vary by city, county, and state. Each restaurant is assessing options, weighing potential consequences, and choosing a course of action. I thought it was a good time to check in with some of those restaurants and the people behind them to get their thoughts on the state of the state in the local restaurant industry.
Let’s start with Shaun Brady who oversees the menus at the three Conroy’s restaurants in Johnson County, and, until recently, was the chef and co-owner of Brady’s Public House on Troost in Kansas City, MO. Brady told me two weeks ago that they weren’t reopening Brady’s, but were beginning the search for a new location. For Brady, that decision was a real kick in the stomach. ”It was soul destroying. That was my home and that was my baby. It would be like putting one of your kids up for adoption or losing a family member,” Brady shared. “We went through every scenario to keep it going. That was our last resort, but with rents going up, it was shortening what we would be able to make. Also, with it being an older building and the landlord refusing to do any work on it, we couldn’t see any way financially to reopen.” So, Brady focused on reopening the three Conroy’s, which he described as being similar to opening three restaurants from scratch. The Conroy’s locations, in Fairway, Overland Park, and Leawood, have offered in-room dining since May 11, but Brady says it’s anything but business as usual. “We’re doing what we can. We’re following all the advice, all the rules: social distancing, sanitization, paper menus, you name it. We have a crew that comes in every night and sanitizes the restaurants from floor to ceiling every night, but we don’t know. Nobody knows,” Brady said. “We could be shut down next week.”
I could hear the stress and frustration in Brady’s voice as we spoke. It’s common these days for anyone involved in the restaurant industry at any level. At Affare restaurant on Main Street in Kansas City, MO, co-owners Katrin and Heuser recently announced the restaurant would not be reopening. At least, not now. “The past eight weeks seem like a lifetime. We have had to completely reinvent what we have done for decades, and almost completely needed to give up what we love most: taking care of our guests. While we are excited about returning to normalcy in our lives, we have decided not to re-open immediately,” the Heusers said. “We will take the next few weeks to relaunch our new summer menu and get our restaurant ready to be able to welcome everyone back in the safest possible way, both for our guests and team members.”
At the Mass St. Fish House & Raw Bar in Lawrence, Laura Klein, General Manager and Partner, told me they’re hoping to open for in-room dining in some capacity in early June, but like everyone else, her statement is made with a good amount of uncertainty. “We’re trying to become comfortable with the new normal, whatever that may be. We just opened for curbside pickup, so we are doing a reduced on-line bottle shop, pre-packaged cocktails, and a limited to-go menu. We’re doing that right now as we wait for new guidelines that will help us determine how we can move forward.,” Klein stated. “A big part of our concept was the experience, ambiance, and approachable service. We just can’t offer that right now, so we’re figuring out what are fun foods we can prepare for people to go.”
As a 75-seat, tightly packed restaurant, in-room dining will be challenging regardless of the guidelines. Klein says pivoting and staying flexible are the only ways to go. “Being rigid right now just isn’t an option. Every time you get new or disappointing information and you get angry, that’s just not an option. There’s a lot of letting go of the pre-conceived notions of what you thought about your restaurant and your business model,” Klein said. Klein says she believes it will be a “very, very long time” before they ever see business like it used to be. She says that’s disheartening but believes good days will return. “I really think small independent restaurants, not all of them, but a lot of them will survive this. In time, they will thrive,” Klein said.
In Johnson County, Leonice and Edson Ludwig are also navigating uncertain waters. their Brazilian steakhouse concept, Porto do Sul, is also dependent on ambiance and excellent tableside service focusing on an amazing array of freshly prepared items. I asked them what things might be like moving forward. “There will have to be some adjustments. We’ll have lots of guidelines to follow for the gaucho chefs, and it seems like we’ll need someone at The Harvest Table to serve guests. But this is who we are. We are a Brazilian steakhouse. This is us. This is our concept,” Edson Ludwig shared.
For now, Porto do Sul is offering on-line ordering and curbside pickup where customers can order meats by the pound along with items from The Harvest Table to create their own menus. Ludwig says the response and feedback have been great, but that the whole experience has been difficult. “It’s been really, really hard being a mom and pop restaurant, just one restaurant, one couple. We don’t have deep pockets or corporations behind us. It’s just us,” Ludwig stated. Edson and Leonice Ludwig say they hope to reopen for in-room dining in early June, but like everyone else, nothing is certain.
I thought I’d end this article with something positive, and what’s more positive than donuts? Andrew Cameron owns Donutology in Westport, which just reopened its dining room last Friday to a great response. “We had a lot of people come in. I was a little surprised by that, but it really makes sense based on a number of factors,” Cameron told me. Cameron says only eight to ten people are a time can use the dining room, so there’s a lot of space between tables. And, he says the average customer only stays in the dining room about ten minutes, a much shorter amount than restaurants. “They’re calling for six feet of space between tables. We average 12 feet. Plus, by having few people in the room for less time, we’re able to stay on top of the sanitizing. Not only does every table get wiped down, but every chair, and every doorknob,” Cameron pointed out. “I think we’re really the perfect business to open for in-room dining. Don’t get me wrong, business is down, but it’s increasing week to week and I think it will continue to do so.” Who would have thought a mini donut would bring so much joy and optimism? Well, me for one!