Six months of pandemic have profoundly changed Florida’s restaurants

The news was delivered shortly after 2 p.m. on a sunny Friday afternoon: Within hours, Florida restaurants would have to close their doors to dine-in business. They would most likely have to lay off the majority of their staff. And there was no word when they would be able to reopen.

It has been six months to the day, and restaurants are still reeling from the six-week, state-mandated shutdown, a summer surge of COVID-19 outbreaks that caused temporary closures and capacity limits that have crippled an industry reliant on notoriously thin profit margins.

Across the country, about 100,000 restaurants have either closed permanently or long-term, according to a recent survey by the National Restaurant Association. Close to 3 million employees in the restaurant sector remain out of work. In Florida, roughly 598,000 restaurant workers were furloughed or laid off during the shutdown. Though some are back to work, hotel and restaurant employees still make up the largest category of those seeking unemployment benefits, according to the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Orlando, with its large convention and tourism business, has fared particularly poorly, said association president Carol Dover, and business has been slower to return in South Florida counties where restrictions remain tighter. In Tampa Bay, restaurants reliant on business and corporate accounts suffered, while beach communities saw a surprising upswing in tourism dollars amid a nationwide increase in domestic travel.

The state has not tracked how many restaurants have closed permanently, but at least a handful of eateries have shut down in the Tampa Bay area over the past six months. Local owners whose restaurants have remained open said they are struggling financially.

By some accounts, Florida restaurants have fared better than elsewhere, a claim that’s still hard to measure this early in the pandemic.

Safety — for customers and staff — remains top of mind as local owners try to figure out ways to welcome diners. Health experts have pointed to indoor dining as inherently risky, and a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that adults who had tested positive for the coronavirus were more than twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant in the two weeks before getting sick.

One thing is certain: The restaurant industry in Tampa Bay has been changed, perhaps forever.

The pivot

When the state shut down, Tampa Bay restaurants had been operating at limited capacity for a few weeks.

David Benstock, the owner of downtown St. Petersburg Italian restaurant Il Ritorno, recalls having this thought: Tear everything up and hope it doesn’t last too long.

“When something like this gets thrown at you — something that is going to ruin your business — the only thing that you really can do is control your costs,” Benstock said.

An employee of Il Ritorno is seen through the window beyond signs featuring the restaurant’s contact information for online ordering. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

So Benstock laid off 31 employees at Il Ritorno, and a few more at his neighboring salad spot, Greenstock. He started preserving and pickling the produce he had on hand, to avoid waste. In August, he launched St. Pete Meat & Provisions, an online butcher shop where guests can order high-quality meats, homemade vinegars and pickles, pasta sauces and salad dressings. And, he started offering takeout.

For most Tampa Bay restaurants, takeout was the only option. Il Ritorno offered family-style dinners and pasta kits. St. Petersburg’s Bandit Coffee Co. started a contactless coffee and breakfast sandwich pick-up hub. Dunedin’s The Restorative relaunched as a takeout restaurant called The Temporary. And after the state loosened restrictions on alcohol sales, restaurants like Tampa’s Haven and St. Petersburg’s Trophy Fish and Noble Crust began selling craft cocktails to-go.

Some partnered with third-party delivery apps like UberEats and Bite Squad, but the 30 percent surcharge almost made it not worth the trouble. At Alesia in St. Petersburg, the owners launched an online ordering portal and started their own delivery service to curb costs.

Cru Cellars is selling pantry and grocery items along with wines and food to-go. [ Courtesy of Cru Cellars ]

As the weeks wore on, restaurant owners realized that takeout alone wouldn’t float most businesses. Places like St. Petersburg’s Urban Brew and BBQ and Tampa’s The Epicurean Hotel and Cru Cellars became de facto general stores, selling everyday household items, from milk and eggs to toilet paper and cleaning supplies.

Restaurants reopened to dine-in business on May 4, but many of the pandemic pivots have remained a popular alternative for diners still uncomfortable eating out.

How we dine now

Most restaurants have welcomed back diners, but eating out looks a lot different than it did six months ago.

The days of squeezing between people at the bar to grab a drink while you wait for a table at a crowded restaurant are gone — at least for now. Since May 15, restaurants in Tampa Bay have been limited to 50 percent capacity indoors.

Outdoor tables — even during the hot Florida summer — have largely replaced indoor dining. In Tampa’s Hyde Park Village, tables now spill out onto the sidewalk. At nearby Forbici Modern Italian, a large, white tent provides a European al fresco vibe. To help with crowd control, many restaurants limit or prohibit bar seating, and some have a reservations-only policy.

Single-use menus are de rigueur, and many are taking it a step further by posting offerings online only. At Rococo Steak in St. Petersburg, guests snap a photo of a QR code and order off an online menu. Other restaurants are wiping down laminated menus after every use. Masks aren’t just commonplace, they’re required — by local ordinances and often the restaurants themselves. Sometimes, your temperature is taken at the door.

Yrma Batista, 23,chooses buffet items at Terra Gaucha in Tampa. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Even the food we eat — and how we eat it — looks different. The shared, small plates trend seems destined for a hiatus as do buffets, and interactive dining experiences that hinge on close interaction with the waitstaff have been curtailed.

At Terra Gaucha in Tampa, a steakhouse specializing in Brazilian rodizio, interactive dining and buffet service are central to the restaurant’s theme. Diners still come for the tableside presentation of juicy picanha steak and sliced sirloin, only now they’re served by masked gaucho chefs. Face coverings are required at the salad buffet, which is flanked by a hand sanitizer station where gloves are offered.

A sign at the buffet table at Terra Gaucha tells customers to social distance. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

New restaurants

Though opening a new business during a pandemic might seem counterintuitive, restaurant openings in the area have picked up recently.

Business owners who delayed launching a restaurant because of the pandemic were anxious to open and recoup those lost months. Sitting on commercial leases with high rents and no income can only last so long.

For Rob Reinsfeld, the longtime executive chef of Noble Crust, opening a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic came with a novel set of challenges.

“You’ve had all this pressure and the word has been out and you want to go full throttle and you just can’t,” Reinsfeld said.

Sean McBride and JC Wright enjoy dinner at Wild Child in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

In August, he opened Wild Child, a tropical-themed restaurant in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District. The opening was roughly three months behind schedule, something that Reinsfeld said gave him and partner Matt Kaye time to rethink the business.

Opening a restaurant now requires, in many cases, throwing out old plans. Operating at just 50 percent capacity, most owners have had to reconfigure their entire business plans to make up for the lost seating. At Wild Child, a covered patio was imagined as an outdoor garden party with a DJ stage, a second bar and banquettes for lounging. For now, it’s a dining space only.

Patrons sit outside at Wild Child. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Often, the openings take a staggered approach, featuring dinner just a few days a week before venturing into lunch, late nights and weekend brunch. And the owners face unprecedented concerns, Reinsfeld said. What if another COVID-19 wave leads to a second shutdown? What if one of the staff gets sick? And this: What if they’re too busy? Photos of a bustling night could easily get shared on social media and lead to backlash.

The bottom line

Most Tampa Bay restaurants said they’ve taken a large financial hit since March. Operating at half capacity might be enough to keep the lights on and pay a reduced number of staff, but there’s no turning a profit when the margins are based on a full house of customers, night after night.

Many local restaurants received small business loans administered under the federal Payment Protection Program, but most owners said they’ve depleted those funds.

For Ter Mehari, the road ahead feels especially daunting. He opened the Tampa Ethiopian restaurant Mitmita with his wife, Athena, in late 2018. They had been open for just over a year when the pandemic hit.

Customer Ramy Mustafa, 39, gives Mitmita Ethiopian Restaurant owner Athena Dulle an elbow bump after receiving a to-go order. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

In many ways, Mehari said, it feels like they started from scratch again. Despite writing to his landlord for temporary relief, Mehari said he hasn’t received any breaks.

“We’re not making money, but we’re trying to pay our bills,” Mehari said. “Really some days, we come in just because we have hope. The customers are really supportive — they give us the business, and they give us the morale.”

Communal dining is a highlight at their restaurant: spongy injera (a type of bread) paired with platters of hearty vegetarian stews and grilled meats. Before March, groups of people coming in to share meals made up 80 percent of the business — now, it’s about 20 percent, with most of their sales coming from takeout.

Athena Dulle and her husband Ter Mehari, in their Ethiopian restaurant Mitmita in Tampa. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

A steep dip in international travel during Florida’s busiest tourist season also has taken its toll.

In Tarpon Springs, Dimitri Salivaras watched the throngs of tourists disappear overnight. He runs the Greek restaurant Mykonos and the more upscale off-shoot, Dimitri’s on the Water.

“We usually have our sidewalks full,” Salivaras said. “(Now), it’s nothing.”

Salivaras said business from tourism along the busy Dodecanese Boulevard corridor is still down about 60 to 70 percent.

In May, usually one of the restaurant’s busiest months, he saw sales dwindle from $225,000 for the month to half of that. Salivaras said he’s had to lay off 50 percent of his staff and is not sure when he’ll be hiring again.

“We’re still nowhere near where we need to be,” he said.

In downtown Tampa, the loss of corporate and business travel has gutted upscale restaurants. Luxe lunches and expense-account dinners are a thing of the past, said Maryann Ferenc, whose Tampa fine dining restaurant, Mise en Place, has taken a big hit.

Mise en Place in Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Customers who were once regulars for client lunches and group office dinners haven’t returned, Ferenc said.

“It’s the piece that we are struggling the most to figure out,” she said. “For a business like ours, that does not go on volume, our margin is what’s hurting us the most, because we can’t get the margin to really function. My current philosophy is that our diner is willing to pay a little bit more, and frankly, I need them to, because there are so many less of them.”

The future of restaurants

Despite the hardships of this year and early doomsday predictions, Florida restaurants have fared better than expected — and better than many national counterparts, said Carol Dover, the president of Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

“I can remember thinking it wouldn’t have surprised me if 50 percent or so didn’t make it,” Dover said. “But that was before the (Payment Protection Program) money.”

Most restaurant owners say a larger federal relief package is needed.

Independent restaurant owners across the state have voiced support for a $120-billion federal relief bill that has received bipartisan support and aims to help restaurants and bars with a focus on small business. A June report commissioned by the Independent Restaurant Coalition predicted that 85 percent of independent restaurants could permanently close by the end of 2020.

While some criticized Gov. Ron DeSantis for the state’s early reopening, and a subsequent spike in COVID-19 cases, Dover and other business owners credit the governor for helping Florida restaurants fare better than in some other states.

The industry may be poised for change in other ways. There is growing support for a systemic overhaul, in light of criticism for the industry’s reliance on low-wage labor. The Black Lives Matter movement forced a reckoning for restaurant owners who are increasingly being called out on social media for a lack of diversity in their hiring.

On Nov. 3, Florida voters will vote on Amendment 2, a referendum that would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2026. Some have argued that raising the minimum wage would further gut the industry, while others say the pandemic has highlighted the shortcomings of an antiquated model.

What will the future of Tampa Bay’s restaurant scene look like?

Some predict that fine dining restaurants might have to make way for fast-casual concepts, which have a much lower overhead and are generally easier to operate and more profitable. Others, like Ferenc, fear a mass exodus of independent restaurants and a return to chain monopolies. And nobody knows what could happen if there is a spike in COVID-19 cases this fall. That could shatter consumer confidence, which has mostly returned.

“Every day, I ask, should we open, is it safe for our staff?” Ferenc said. “And then every week, I ask myself, can I keep doing this?”

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