What does it mean to eat out during a pandemic?

You carefully position yourself as far as possible from the other people on the sidewalk. When your name is called you walk up, accept your food, and do your best to pay without touching the counter or stepping too close to the cashier. You use hand sanitizer the moment you reach your car and scrub your hands when you get home. This is the reality of eating out during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Included on the Governor’s list of essential businesses are, “restaurant: carry-out and quick-serve food operations, including beer & wine curbside and takeout – Carry-out and delivery food employees.” This means that local restaurants are utilizing a variety of strategies to stay open without sitdown service or choosing to close. Beginning Monday, May 11th, restaurants will have the opportunity to offer outdoor seating, so long as tables are six feet apart. However, the Governor extended the stay at home order through May 31st. Restaurants that chose to stay open may find themselves contending with less business, fewer employees, and difficulty getting supplies. If they chose to close, they have to find a way to survive without revenue. 

In looking at various local restaurant websites and talking to several owners, I’ve observed that they have chosen to close their restaurant for one of two reasons: they don’t have enough business to justify the cost of staying open or they’re working to help slow the spread of the virus. Franz’s Food, Pauly’s Pockets, Young’s Restaurant, and Sunny’s have all closed for the shutdown.

Tracy Mills, the owner of Sunny’s in Lee, explained why they closed. “For us to stay profitable, we needed to stay above a certain amount of sales each day, or we would just be losing money. Keeping in mind that, we have to take into consideration electricity, propane, payroll, and food cost. For us, it didn’t make sense.” She said that people choose takeout for lunch and dinner more often than breakfast, so it was hard for them to make enough sales. 

Mills also said, “we have not been able to retain our staff. We have assisted all of them with filing for unemployment and making sure that they are all ok.”

Similarly, Kenny Young posted a message on the Young’s Restaurant Facebook page explaining their decision to close on March 30th in which he talked about their staff. Young said, “to lay off the whole staff was just devastating to me and my wife Cathy.” He explained that they chose to close to help slow the spread of the Coronavirus and protect their staff.

If you’re missing your favorite restaurant, rest assured that they probably miss you too. “Personally, I miss my staff, I miss my regulars, I miss the students and I miss my craft. I love what I do, but not having the community aspect coming in our front door every day has been a tough loss for me,” Young said.

Both Young’s and Sunny’s have expressed concern for the community on their Facebook pages. Sunny’s has posted several updates asking people to reach out if they need anything. Young’s has been encouraging positivity and generally staying active and interacting with regular customers on Facebook.

Young’s community involvement included donating all the perishable food in the restaurant to Cross Roads House, a shelter in Portsmouth for the 126 people living in the facility. He added, “some of the homeless folks have helped me bring the food to the kitchen, which for me has been an enlightening experience.”

Like Young’s and Sunny’s, many restaurants laid off their staff during the closure to give them the chance to collect unemployment. The CARES Act means that anyone collecting unemployment will receive $600 per week in addition to any state unemployment benefits, according to “Collecting Unemployment Benefits in New Hampshire,” by Lisa Guerin, which appeared on the Nolo website. 

While the employees are collecting unemployment, many businesses are similarly eligible to receive money to make up for the loss. The U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA) disaster relief package is providing low-interest loans or $10,000 loan advances, which don’t have to be repaid. The SBA is receiving additional federal funding during the pandemic to help support businesses that are suffering from profit loss, according to the SBA website. This money is working to help preserve the economy while we’re staying inside to preserve our health. 

Health and safety are among the top priorities of the restaurants that chose to stay open. Bamee in Durham is among those; the owner, Pat Teepratiganon said that safety is one of their top priorities. “The safety of our staff is also as important as customers; the least time staying outside is safer. Workers who are still employed have been asked to stay home when they are not working.” 

Bamee is also struggling with its regular product deliveries, in part because the companies have struggled to find drivers. “They have reduced the delivery frequency (only once a week now). Few of them have increased the minimum order amount, and yes the price of products has risen as well,” said Teeptatiganon.

They’re offering pickup and delivery but Teepratiganon estimated that they’ve had a 60-70% decrease in sales. She said, “most of Durham businesses depend on college students; without them, most of us will definitely be struggling.”

Jon Wells is the owner of The Big Bean, which temporarily closed their Durham location but is now open for pickup and delivery. Similar to Bamee, Wells said, “business has dropped dramatically.” However, they’re “still doing enough to keep the lights on and the staff employed.”

Wells said the “first priority was our staff.” He said the community has also shown support for their staff, they’ve seen a lot of people giving good tips for them to split. 

In general, Wells said that the community has been supportive. He said, “a couple of people have dropped off donations to keep the business open.” He said that the Big Bean wants to give back to the community that’s supporting them and is, “looking to help everyone through this.”

Durham House of Pizza (DHOP) has been a long time community staple. They closed temporarily to protect their customers and staff and recently reopened. John Petrovitsis, a co-owner of Durham House of Pizza (DHOP), explained why they decided to do that. “We did that, one because we’re hearing that the peak of all this was supposed to be happening, so we’re looking out for the safety of us and also our employees. We decided to close down for a couple of weeks to kind of re-gather our stuff.” They spent the time cleaning and doing odd jobs. They decided to reopen when they’d heard that the peak had passed. 

Now, they’re open, but with reduced hours and they’re closed on Sundays and Mondays. Petrovitsis said, “we’re doing everything we can to keep going but there’s only so much you can do when you have limitations.”

Petrovitsis said their biggest struggle has been employment. “Most of our staff are UNH students, so as soon as the school closed we lost about eighty percent of our staff.”

Because of the decreased hours of operation and reduced business, they aren’t able to give their employees as many hours. “A lot of people would rather stay on unemployment and make more money than work, so we’re short staff right now. Pretty much running it as best we can with just family members and us,” said Petrovitsis.

Like many of the other local restaurants, DHOP has felt the support of the community. Petrovitsis said he talked to a lot of people who had a positive attitude toward their reopening. “We’ve had a lot of support from everyone, which is awesome,” he said. 

These businesses are a vital part of our community. They care for the town, and now they need us to support them. If you have the means, it’s vital to local restaurants that you continue to support them and their staff by ordering food or buying gift cards so that they’re able to reopen after the shutdown. Without our help, we may lose some of our favorite restaurants.

Artwork by Jane Schwadron, originally for “Pizza: a Community Staple.”