Restaurants plead patience as they struggle to reopen, recover from COVID-19

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El Azteco had to raise the price on its Monday margarita deals to help make up for lost business.

For restaurant owners in East Lansing, the Feb. 4 epidemic order issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer poses a new challenge in recovering profits lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We’re always applying for grants, applying for PPP (Paycheck Protection Program), whatever government or local options are available,” said Crunchy’s General Manager Michael Krueger. “No restaurant was ever opened to operate on 25% capacity with the intent of even coming close to breaking even.”

El Azteco manager Hunter Gushurst said, “We do margarita deals Monday through Wednesday and we had to raise the prices for those deals. We had to work with less people, and everyone has had to do more work to cut down on labor costs.”

Under the new gathering orders that went into effect Feb. 8, restaurants were able to open for in-person dining along with continuing services such as takeout and delivery. However, the order limits restaurants to 25% of their normal seating capacity, causing them  to find ways to increase profits while dealing with fewer customers.

“We’ve been trying to do everything we can to try and get as many people seated as possible,” said Gushurst. “We started time limits on tables and reservations ahead of time for people who really want to get a table.”

Hannah Zawisa, a recent customer at Barrio in East Lansing, noticed some of these new policies this past week. With a friend, she decided to support one of East Lansing’s prominent restaurants just across the road from the campus of Michigan State University. 

“We were able to be seated quickly and the service was quick, as we only had an hour maximum to be sitting in the restaurant,” said Zawisa. “I felt very safe at Barrio. It was an appreciated change of scenery.”

Though restaurant managers have been tasked with finding ways to maximize profits while at 25% capacity, some places have decided not to institute time limits and hope that customers are mindful of their time while in the restaurant. 

“That’s not something that we want to do,” said Krueger. “We have a lot of people that are just excited to be back out, so they just want to sit and chat with their friends and eat super causally, which frankly I would want too as well.”

Restaurants also have the daunting task of holding customers accountable to safety measures by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Restaurants are required to post notices that advise customers to keep their dining parties to six or under per table and to wear a mask while not eating. 

Joey Tesorero, a recent patron at Hall of Fame Café off Lake Lansing Road, noticed multiple signs advising customers about  their mask usage as well as the limited group seating meant to curb the spread of COVID-19. 

“I don’t believe that COVID-19 spreads very easily when everyone is at their own table and spread out,” said Tesorero. “They had many signs indicating a mask must be worn until reaching your respective table.”

Though many customers are adhering to the signs posted at their favorite restaurants, some customers have forced local eateries, such as El Azteco, to adopt some extreme measures to enforce the rules. 

“We actually hired a security guard a couple of months ago to help enforce the rules after we had a pretty bad incident here,” said Gushurst. “We told our servers if you see anybody breaking any of the rules to say something to the table.”

As restaurants around East Lansing continue to open their doors to eager customers, many managers are asking for one thing: Patience.

“Be patient. If you come out and there is a wait, be patient with us,” said Krueger. “We want them to know that we need the business more than they can even imagine, so we’re doing the best we can to try and get them in.”