GRAND LEDGE- Cugino’s is a family run Italian restaurant established in 2001 owned by cousins Mark Naccarato and Patrick DeLuca. Cugino’s is still surviving while making accommodations according to the pandemic. These COVID-19 guidelines include daily temperature checks, COVID-19 questionnaire, face masks, and routinely sanitation.
The restaurant was completely closed for three months at the end of March and re-opened in the middle of May 2020 due to the global pandemic COVID-19. Transitioning this “always packed” local restaurant to take-out only was a huge adjustment for the staff and customers.
As they slowly opened for take-out on May 13, they minimized their menu to see what they could handle. Pizza and salads were the first items available with curbside only in the first phase. However, in early June the second phase as the restrictions let up, pastas were added to the menu. They also allowed people to come inside to get their food but dine-in was still closed.
“We had problems getting yeast and a lot of the pork products because companies were shut down,” Naccarato said. He also emphasized that strictly doing take-out containers were scarce, to compete with other restaurants like their neighbor Cancun Mexican Grill, but luckily never ran out.
The regular hours were reduced from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. to currently Monday through Thursday 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.. The hourly reduction caused Naccarato to fill fewer positions. The restaurant went from 17 to 12 employees a day.
“COVID-19 has wiped my work life away,” said Tiffany Ashley, a Cugino’s bartender for 10 years who has had her hours reduced. “I went from working six to eight shifts down to two shifts.”
Unemployment benefits have played a key role in helping employees make ends meet.
Naccarato said “we are lucky” when being successful with take-out only. The way the food is prepared and packaged has an advantage over other kinds of restaurants, because the presentation of pizza and pastas still look appetizing and fresh when it hits your table at home, unlike a steak dinner in a styrofoam container, Naccarato said.
The owners are not looking to open dine-in until a higher capacity is in effect; 100 percent would be ideal. Naccarato doesn’t think the government’s order of 25% capacity is worth the stress: “I am holding out for the safety of my staff.”
Being out on the floor any night at Cugino’s can be very chaotic, so waiting is the best way for Naccarato to be comfortable.
Employees Adrianna Castelein, James Tisdale and Annalise Vary have all reminisced on the “old days.”
Without those lively nights, Cugino’s hasn’t been the same seeing those empty floors. Castelein has been working for two years as a hostess and notices a lot of change since the pandemic.
“It was always packed. We would have to shout to get someone’s attention to be seated. Now it’s sad to see all of the empty tables and chairs,” Castelein said.
Line cook and pizza maker for five years James Tisdale said, “We don’t hang out after work like we used to is something that I miss.”
“The overall vibe has changed,” said hostess Annalise Vary.
Ashley said, “I miss my regulars. They become a part of your family and it feels like your missing your family.”
“It was not just a social thing for my customers but also for me too,” states Naccarato.
Cugino’s employees develop friendships and have a bond like family. There is a lot of passion to keep the restaurant running and successful, not only by the owners, but the employees as well.